Manzai (漫才) is one of the most popular types of Japanese “owarai“ (“comedy”) and has roots traceable back to 1,000 years ago.
We can describe manzai as similar to American stand-up comedy: a comedy performance where the comedian stands directly in front of the audience to entertain the spectators without the use of any prompts.
But manzai is much more rooted in Japanese culture and history, and we are here exactly to unfold one of the loudest and funniest elements of the – chronically serious – Japanese society.
What Are the Peculiarities of Manzai?
Manzai refers to a specific type of comedy that consists of a ridiculous conversation between two characters (the conventional manzai duo) to make the audience in front of them laugh.
Each member of the couple has a specific role that is kept throughout the whole career as a “manzai-shi” (manzai performer): these are “boke“, the funny role and “tsukkomi“, the serious role.
The “boke” is expected to elicit laughter from the audience by telling jokes, making obvious judgment mistakes, or misunderstanding simple topics, while the role of the more rational “tsukkomi” is to point out these and to present the audience with a point to laugh at, while occasionally also hitting or slapping the boke.
The Origin of Manzai
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Let’s start from the beginning. Manzai originated in the Heian period (794-1185): during the off-season farmers would visit homes to perform prayers and chants with small hand drums and shamisen for which they would receive a small payment. They used to perform in a two-person team consisting of a “tayu” (a person with the right to perform) and a “saizo” (who was a person hired by the tayu, and, therefore, lower in ranking). The roles of the tayu and the saizo correspond to the current “tsukkomi” (comedian) and “boke”, respectively.
Despite having such deep historical and cultural roots, manzai became particularly popular around the 1980s, when there was a manzai boom centered around television. TV helped give visibility to many young manzai-shi, pushing and promoting the rise of national manzai stars such as the duo “Two Beat” and “B&B” who were earning several hundred million yen a year at the time, and inspired many young people to become manzai comedians.
Manzai vs Western Comedy
Contrary to western comedy, which is often centered around dark humor, political and potentially controversial topics and jokes, Japanese manzai is – just like a lot of things in Japanese society – fair and correct.
Let’s take stand-up comedy as an example: the comedian might make fun of someone from the audience or question the public’s dubious political stances, ultimately expressing his or her opinion, which reflects his or her own values and stances. In Japan, manzai-shi do not take sides and only perform to make each and every person in the audience laugh. They usually avoid centering their sketches around controversial subjects or topics that could make some spectators feel judged in their beliefs, as the American Japanese Stephen Tetsu manzai-shi explains in this interview.
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Right now, Japan is experiencing an “owarai boom”. New comedians come and go as they quickly surge but lose popularity just as fast as they gain celebrity.
The style that is now dominant in Japan originated in Osaka and was brought to success by Yoshimoto Kogyo, an Osaka-based Japanese entertainment company. The company has grown to become one of the most influential companies in Japan in the owarai business, employs most of Japan’s popular owarai talent and produces the shows they appear in.
One of the events that most Japanese people know is the “M1 Grand Prix“, the annual manzai competition that has been held since 2001. The Grand Prix, which takes place every December, brings together young manzai duos who compete to determine the best manzai comedian in the country.
If you are based in Japan, you can watch the previous year’s competition on Netflix.
Give Manzai A Chance
In a society that is almost pathologically stressed out, manzai is the perfect occasion to have a laugh and make everything just a little bit better.
Give manzai a chance, and see if Japanese comedy is your cup of tea – it will nonetheless be a useful learning experience to discover more about Japanese comedy culture.
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Already been to manzai show in Osaka? Find more things to do here.