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Two Drink Minimum: ‘What’s Manzai?!!’

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Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.

Americans know Japan for some of its more over-the-top cultural proclivities. The country’s intense, bizarre game shows and its taboo-pushing cartoons help make Japanese culture a niche, almost festishistic, interest for Americans. Nobody says “Japanophile” — they say “otaku” (a Japanese word used to look down on those obsessed with anime or manga) or “weeaboo” (effectively an American otaku whose Japanophilia has taken an upsetting and detrimental turn). The host and star of the documentary What’s Manzai?!!, Stephen, is a half-Japanese American enthralled by Japan’s stand-up culture to the same unfortunate extent. As he attempts to explain and break into Japan’s world of manzai, a proper understanding of the subject itself remains elusive.

Stephen, for someone whose dream involves being goofy on stage, is terrible in front of a camera. Attempting a sort of Food Network “man on the street” style, Stephen provides an appreciation for all the charisma Guy Fieri brings to his greasy voyeurism. The annoying host seems more suited to YouTube’s flashy, vapid editing and flickering attention span, stopping and stalling his browbeating explanations with various one-second green screen gags. It looks like a Bill Nye the Science Guy episode was produced about manzai after they lost Bill, their writers and about ninety percent of their budget. The production is so erratic — sometimes professionally shot on a city street and other times on an early-model webcam — that it overwhelms the already maximalist subject matter.

Manzai, despite the film’s 45-minute runtime, is easily explained. Rather than modern American stand-up comedy with one comic and the audience, manzai takes audiences back to the vaudevillian double act. The goofball (boke) feeds the straight man (tsukkomi) jokes and he reacts with the kind of deadpan sarcasm one might expect the audience to feel. Treating this like a revelatory style of comedy (like the documentary does) is simple ignorance. The far more interesting part of this subject, and the one brushed tantalizingly by the film, is the why.

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Why do aspiring Japanese comedians have to apply to a rigorously competitive manzai school, much more organized than open mics or improv classes? Why must they yell and speak as rapidly as possible in a culture so known for its quiet social decorum? What’s Manzai?!! is happy leaving these questions untouched, but the film is otherwise so uninteresting that the cultural divide inevitably arrives at them regardless. Something Americans leave to the sink or swim of the entertainment industry’s cutthroat free market is strictly trained, regimented and tested in Japan. Vocal training, slapstick dancing and swordplay come from a competitive institute and address the key components of stagecraft with more similarity to clown college than the trials of a burgeoning road comic. I can only speculate that, while deriving humor from the absurd dichotomy between manzai’s outrageous showmanship and flashy fashion (and the typically etiquette-heavy society it caters to), manzai still adheres to traditions of mastery and stringent meritocracy. These points may be worth learning but definitely not through this movie.

A documentary about a man trying to make it as a comic is interesting. A documentary about a specific style of comedy is interesting. Haphazardly combining the two (in spite of a subject’s utter lack of charm, talent or even ambition) slowly bastardizes the film’s intended subject. Rather than a doc about Japanese comedy, viewers get a depressingly un-self aware realization of one man’s inability to succeed at his dream, filtered through a superficial perspective that’s unique enough for the film to get made.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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3 replies »

  1. Excellent review for a disappointing documentary I could barely finish. Your review is spot on.

    His whole attitude to the subject stinks. He attends the acclaimed school and then questions why he has to do certain classes rather than giving it his all. You can see the shock and horror from fellow students regarding his behaviour during the restaurant scenes.

    It’s always someone else’s fault with this guy.

    Production wise, sometimes he’s narrating to the camera and then in the next he’s speaking about the subject in an oddly shot interview segments –and then it cuts to some weird green screen stuff. It’s all a mess.

    I watched this to learn more about Manzai after watch HIBANA Spark (great show on Netflix if you haven’t seen it).

    Where as I may have learnt a *bit* it’s nothing that 3 minutes on Wikipedia couldn’t have achieved.

    Like

  2. Man, what a great review of this…yeah, underwhelming documentary.
    I have so many unanswered questions about the style too. I mean, he seemed to misunderstand even stand up comedy in the states, how can I trust him on Japan. Stop mentioning the chicks you weirdo.
    I don’t have anything to add that you didn’t cover. But I remain intrested in the subject, that’s impressive. And I suppose the translations did the comedy justice (as far as I could tell?)

    Like

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