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Friday, April 8, 2011
Okinawa comic duo show less is more
By EDAN CORKILL
On Dec. 26, as the curtain came down on the 10th and final M-1 Grand Prix — an annual comedy competition aired live on TV Asahi — there was a distinct feeling that something special had been witnessed, that the performance of one duo in particular heralded the beginning of something new.
"I started laughing for real," cracked program host Koji Imada.
"My hand was shaking as I pushed the button (to vote for them)," said one of the judges, Hiroyuki Miyasako.
"They were brave," said another, Hitoshi Matsumoto, from the legendary duo Downtown. "It was new. It was like they didn't want the time allotted to them."
The duo in question were Slim Club. A couple of 30-something no-names from Okinawa, one of them with an unforgettably husky voice, Slim Club were suddenly looking likely to be crowned champions, and thus stand atop a field of entrants that several months previous, in the early rounds, had numbered over 4,000. Their only potential stumbling block was that their laid-back, slow-paced style of comedy might have been too radical for their own sakes. "The judges are having trouble working out if they're funny or not!" joked the head judge, veteran comedian Shinsuke Shimada.
As it turned out, Slim Club lost the championship to the more conventional duo of Waraimeshi, from Nara. But, as critics now acknowledge, the Okinawa pair may have achieved something much greater: The satisfaction of knowing that they have changed the course of Japanese comedy.
'Sometimes there are people who just don't realize they've made a mistake," Slim Club member Ken Maeda said in his gravelly voice as he kicked off their first routine of the night. "The other day, as I was walking down the street, this odd man became convinced I was someone else."
Masanari Uchima, his partner, took the cue to commence a skit. "It's gotten cold outside these days. Winter's begun," he said, assuming the role of the unsuspecting pedestrian.
"Aah . . . excuse me," said Maeda, tapping on Uchima's arm and staring at him, eyes wide open and mouth gaping — not unlike an expectant Labrador.
"I'm very sorry, if I'm mistaken . . . But weren't you, the, ah, person, with whom I once . . . shared my home?"
The chuckles started at that moment, and then morphed into full-throated laughs as the audience took in Uchima's reaction. Instead of snapping back with some quick and witty rebuke — as one would expect given the recent trend of fast-paced, staccato routines — Uchima's eyes and mouth widened into an expression that gloriously combined surprise and pity. He held it for a good five seconds as the crowd's laughter grew.
"No . . .
Actually . . .
It was extraordinarily simple, but it worked, and, with this pattern established, the pair moved their way through several variations, each time raising the bar of absurdity. Maeda's attempts to convince Uchima that they had indeed lived together next involved the recollection of several bizarre tales.
"Did you not stay up at night telling me stories?" he enquired. "Was it not you who told me that the weakest thing in the world is the quail?"
And, as each of these endearingly earnest appeals was patiently corrected by Uchima, the crowd's laughs grew. "Was it not you who once took it upon yourself to construct, in the backyard of my parents' house, a multistory pavilion?"
Uchima's straight man stood staring sympathetically at his partner, drawing out the crowd who by then of course knew exactly what was coming next.
"Actually, no," he said apologetically. "I didn't do that either."
The business of comedy in Japan is shamelessly fickle, particularly where it overlaps with the business of television. Since their now famous M-1 performance at the end of last year, Slim Club have been invited on to almost 90 TV shows — that's an average of around one every day. Yet throughout the previous year, they had been lucky to get a berth once a week.
"We had a really tough time," Maeda told The Japan Times late last month, on the sidelines of the Okinawa International Movie Festival (which is organized by the talent agency to which Slim Club belong, Yoshimoto Kogyo).
"In Japan, if you're a comedian, the first objective is to get work performing live on stage. If you get that, then you might get lucky and be spotted by a TV producer, and if that happens, you might be asked on TV — and if that happens, and you're funny, then you might be asked again," he said. "You have to just keep pulling carefully on the thread, trying not to let it break."
One of the things that was a source of motivation for the duo through those tough times was the vivid and painful memory of having watched, back in early 2009, as the "thread" snapped in their hands.
"In 2008, we got lucky and were invited to be regular guests on the weekly comedy program 'Enta no Kami-sama' ('The God of Entertainment')," Maeda explained. "All of a sudden our monthly income jumped from ¥5,000 to ¥500,000."
"And we were stupid enough to think it would last forever," added Uchima.
It didn't, and soon after that gig finished, Slim Club's income plummeted back to where it started. Nevertheless, Maeda and Uchima remained confident in their talent and hatched a plan to use the M-1 Grand Prix as a launch pad to reestablish their career.
"We knew that if we could make a big impact on M-1 then we'd have another chance," Maeda said.
The M-1 Grand Prix, which started in 2001 and concluded with last December's edition, was a competition for manzai comedy — the style conducted by two people, with one, the boke, saying odd or stupid things and the other, the tsukkomi straight man, trying to keep the boke in line. Over the years, M-1 had become known as a fast track to success, having launched the careers of young comedian duos such as Black Mayonnaise in 2005 and Tutorial in 2006.
"Every time we did a routine at a theater we would come back and analyze what worked and what didn't," Maeda said. "Our M-1 performance was essentially a compendium of all the good bits of many different routines."
Comedy critic Thankyou Tatsuo, who teaches at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and is himself a comedian, explained that Slim Club's work was new for two reasons. "For about a decade, the trend has been to get as many laughs in as short a time as possible," he said. "Slim Club reversed that trend, going for far fewer, better quality laughs." He explained that most of the four-minute performances seen at M-1 include about 40 laughs. Slim Club's had only 16.
The other thing they did is to take aim directly at the absurd. "None of their lines actually stemmed from the given context. They were stringing together episodes — as though they are in their own dream world," Thankyou continued.
And it seems this is what struck a chord with the public. "I think people were getting tired of hard and fast manzai comedy," Thankyou said. "I think Slim Club are the forerunners of a new era in comedy."
Maeda and Uchima credit their upbringing in Okinawa for their laid-back approach. "When I first came to Tokyo I thought I had to be as fast as the Tokyo comedians," remembered Uchima. "I just couldn't do it."
"We realized that we just needed to be our easygoing Okinawan selves," Maeda explained. "If that means speaking slowly, or having a sort of gentle interplay in our routines, instead of the quick aggression you usually see in manzai, then so be it."
As Slim Club were winning fans at M-1 in December, Japan was already going through a distinctly somber time — with unemployment rising and the economy in the doldrums. Now, with the added blows of natural and man-made disasters, it's likely that their palliative style of humor will be in even more demand than before.
Upcoming appearances by Slim Club include two variety programs airing on the Fuji TV Network on Friday night: "Hitoshi Matsumoto no OO na Hanashi," 11 p.m. and "Omobaka 4 Oja Kettei Tournament," 1 a.m.