Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Japan's Got (Sight Gag) Talent

[post 186]

Last post's Japanese photo prank reminded me of some other funny videos from the land of kyogen and kabuki that I wanted to share with you. I thought this would be a quick post, but as I started to follow links, instead of hitting a dead end, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of Japanese visual humor. Eventually I realized that I wasn't looking at isolated performers but at a broader cultural phenomenon: contestants on Japanase television talent shows concocting elaborate sight gags. The work is quite creative and the results often hilarious.

I don't know if it necessrily originated here, but the most well known technique usually comes with the adjective "matrix" attached to it because it started as a parody of this "bullet time" effect made famous in the movie The Matrix (1999):


[Click here if you want to learn how this was done.]

Someone had the clever idea of recreating this visual effect live on stage using semi-hidden puppeteers clad in black, just like those in the traditional Japanese bunraku puppet theatre. (Comparisons with the work of Mummenscahanz are also appropriate.) The idea in bunraku is that it doesn't matter if we see the puppet handlers; after a while we're so caught up in the action that we phase them out. Here the joke is that the performers are pretending they're pulling off all these amazing moves but of course we can see how it's being done.

I'm betting most of you have probably already seen this extreme ping-pong match, since it went viral with over 15 million YouTube hits, but just in case....




As you'll see below, this brand of comedy took off in a big way. Much of it consists of parodies of special effects from films, which if you think about it isn't all that different from the circus clown's parody of a highly skilled act. But it has gone beyond that to encompass a fairly rich visual imagination. Curious as to where it all came from, I asked my born-in-Tokyo Bloomfield College colleague, Yuichiro Nishizawa, what if anything he knew about it. He knew a lot. Here's an excerpt from his response:

 I think all these clips are from one talent show, called
Kinchan No Kasou Taishou. The wiki in english doesn't cover the full extent of the show; here's the wiki in Japanese. The show has been on since 1975 and it's still going! The live competition is held twice per year and this is probably one of the first talent shows. Amateurs compete to win 1 million yen; the first prize, when the economy was good, had gone up to 2 million. There are 2nd and 3rd prize and there was a special prize for each category, Best Idea, Best Humor, Best Technique, etc. People from all over the country compete, the top 30–50 go on live. I have a personal connection to this Kasou Taishou. The main host for this show as well as the first host for Star Tanjo was Hagimoto Kinichi, the comedian who started the sit-com I was in; he played the father and was the one who hired me. He is a very influential figure in Japanese comedy. The English wiki on him is decent.

This 
sort of physical comedy has been around forever; some professional comedians even have a single expression for it: ippatsu gei. On Japanese tv, you see a lot of amateurs; if they become popular, they may become "entertainer" or as we call them, "talent." Many of the talents are from Kansai (Osaka), home of the Yoshimoto entertainment agency. Dave Spector is a funny American guy; he didn't come out of a talent show, but somehow became a celebrity in Japan. There are a lot of foreign amateurs who get into the industry.


Some more links from Yuichiro below, but first let's go to the videotape so you can see what the helleck I'm talking about here...

That ping-pong piece is already being referred to as "the classic matrix ping-pong." Here's a high-def remake. In this one, there's less of an attempt to make the puppeteers disappear into the shadows.



There's even a so-called "improved" version of this routine on YouTube performed by Canadian high school students, which you can find here. Not necessarily better, but not bad; unfortunately, the video was shot from the back of the audience.

No need to limit it to ping-pong, eh? Karate Matrix is pretty funny,




And here's a wild dinner scene featuring a quarreling couple and a nice rewind effect.




On YouTube you'll also find Matrix Olympics, Shaolin Soccer, Base Stealing, the Orangutan Conductor, the Ninja Thief, etc., but this one, which I first saw on the comedy for animators blog is my favorite, even if I'm not totally sure what it's about!




In a similar vein, the massage chair from hell.



Yuichiro tells me that what he's saying at the end translates as “Ohhhh, that felt great!"

Any physical comedian worth their salt sees a flight of stairs and wants to fall down it. If you know what I'm talking about, then this one is for you. Quite an elaborate set-up for a talent show!




Two more nice sight gags; neither is a matrix effect, but sorta-kinda related.






And for our finale, a rather suggestive Rocket Launch act using the theme song for Gatsby personal care products. In the end he says “Landed!”






Links:
The New Wave of Japanese Comedy
Japanftw.com
• A famous Japanese impersonator.
Japanese beatboxing
ChappieTV's YouTube channel

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