Japanese Arts(III): Manzai
The prototypes of Japanese comedy are Rakugo and Manzai. Manzai is a comic dialogue performed by a pair of comedians. They will dress in special costumes and gag with each other to amuse audiences. Most jokes are about misunderstandings, puns, and other verbal gags. Manzai was originally written as “萬歳” (ten thousand years old, meaning long life). In 1933, Yoshimoto Kogyo popularized “漫才”, which means involuntary talent. Nowadays, many popular Japanese comedians start their career by performing Manzai
What is Manzai
The content and format of Manzai have evolved throughout its history. Manzai is a kind of talk show performed by a duo, sometimes by a trio. The two manzaishi (Manzai performers) play their own roles, tsukkomi (the straight man) and boke (the funny man), and joke with each other at high speed. Manzai is often associated with Osaka because Manzai comedians often speak in the Kansai dialect in their performances.
Traditionally, Manzai was performed mainly through radio. The two manzaishi had to focus on language, using puns and intonations to make audiences laugh. During this period, the two performers shared a single microphone. With the advent of the television era, the tradition of the duo sharing the same microphone remains and becomes an iconic symbol of Manzai.
Compared with Rakugo, Manzai has more props. The comedians can use background music or play some instruments themselves. Although Manzai should not use any scenery in principle, nowadays some innovative Manzai performances use special scenery and costume to provide audiences with a better viewing experience.
History of Manzai
Manzai originated from the Heian period ( 794-1185 CE) when Japanese people performed Manzai on the first day of the New Year. It was a ritual in which a group of performers went to others’ houses to congratulate them with funny and auspicious words. Performers would also sing and dance with the drum beat to exorcise bad luck and pray for a prosperous year. In the Edo period (1603 - 1867 CE), Manzai became so popular that each part of Japan developed its unique style of Manzai.
In the Meiji era (1868-1912 CE), Manzai was no longer simply a greeting for the New Year. Tamagoya Entatsu, a Manzai performer, combined Manzai with other traditional art forms and introduced Manzai to the theater as a stage art in 1887. The modernization of Manzai began at the end of the Meiji period in the Kansai area. Modern Manzai incorporates ventriloquism, dance, and singing, which makes it more attractive.
In the Heian period, manzai performers wore a traditional gown with their heads covered with a gauze cap. Later, the gown was replaced with suits cut from a lame fabric in loud colors. Young performers began to change traditions during the Manzai boom of the 1970s. Many of them began to wear more fashionable or casual clothing. In addition, some comedy duos would wear unusual costumes to represent their unique characters in their performances.
Characters of Manzai
Manzai has two fixed character types: boke and tsukkomi. There are only two character types even for trio performances. Boke, once known as toboke, comes from the verb tobokeru, which means to act silly in Japanese. Boke is the typical, overly jovial clown. He makes the audience laugh by saying or doing funny things, such as making blunders, misunderstandings, forgetfulness, and empty thinking.
Tsukkomi refers to the character who dovetails and corrects mistakes of boke. His role is to clarify the punch line and convey the fun to the audience. The act of roasting boke is called “tsukkomi wo ireru”. The timing of tsukkomi wo ireru is important. It provides a break in boke’s jokes and therefore produces a brisk structural rhythm.
During the performance, tsukkomi may hit boke on the head or shoulder with a quick slap. A traditional prop used for slapping is a folded paper fan called a harisen. It can make a loud sound when hitting while not hurting people. Other traditional props include a small drum and Japanese bamboo paper umbrellas.