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Sunday, June 21, 2009

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WEEK 3

Comedy with a sting in its tales

The Newspaper stage troupe wows audiences with political and social satire rare in Japan


Staff writer

As a reporter, I don't particularly enjoy being swamped with breaking news to cover. That's when the pressure really becomes intense to get all the quotes and check all the facts in as short a time as possible.

However, for members of the comedy group The Newspaper (TNP), which has satirized political and social events in Japan for 20 years, times of big news are when they thrive the most — because at these points, they never have to worry about running out of jokes or prominent people to poke fun at.

So when the nine-member, all-male cast of TNP appeared in front of a 120-plus audience at a theater in Sengawa, western Tokyo, on May 23, they were on a roll.

Then, it was just two weeks after the controversial resignation of Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and that sure was a major domestic news event to play with. It was also only a few days after the swine-flu outbreak triggered a mask-buying frenzy across Japan — so much so that TV shows were showing viewers how to make their own from paper towels, coffee filter papers and rubber bands.

It also helped that, two days before the show, the groundbreaking lay-judge system had debuted. And as icing on the satirists' cake there was, too, news that the embattled actor-turned-Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita had lied about his kendo rank.

Sure enough, when the curtains rose and the suited comedians emerged on stage from the dark — all wearing white masks — the audience immediately erupted with laughter. From then on, the crowd remained keenly engaged — and hugely amused — throughout the entire 90-minute show, as wave upon wave of jokes drawing on political and social events lapped over them.

Among the highlights of the show was a segment by TNP's star comedians, Hide Fukumoto and Akira Matsushita, who appeared as Prime Minister Taro Aso and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, respectively. With a husky voice issuing from lopsided lips, Fukumoto looked up at the Koizumi character — complete with a chiseled nose and trademark "lion hair" — as the two traded the following lines: Aso: "So what did you think of the sudden resignation of Ozawa?" Koizumi: "I found his press conference (announcing his resignation) unforgivable." Aso: "You thought so, huh?" Koizumi: "Yes. Absolutely no explanation given to the public. He's copying me there!"

Then, as the conversation turned to the hot-button issue of the day — the swine-flu outbreak in Japan — Aso called in "the Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe."

At this point Matsushita (Koizumi) turned his back on the audience, then — magically — moments later faced them again, having in just a few seconds changed into Masuzoe, complete with a hair band to emphasize the minister's receding hairline.

"I'll do my utmost to protect you, so y-y-you need to c-calm down!" he screamed. "Caaaaaalm down!!"

"It's you who should calm down," Aso snapped back, before announcing a "surprise visit" from another VIP. At this, Matsushita again briefly turned away before re-emerging almost instantly as U.S. President Barack Obama.

"Change!" he shouted, before blurting out each and every famous English line he could come up with.

"Yes we can! A government of the people, by the people, for the people! The Earth is blue! I have a dream! Boys be ambitious! We will rock you! . . . I'll be back . . ."

He finally ran out of things to say in English. "Can I switch to Japanese?" he pleaded hopelessly, drawing another big laugh from the audience.

Fukumoto was not to be outdone, either. He went on to morph into former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, conjuring up the nerdy, weird persona of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party politician. Watching that on-stage Ishiba, and even more after seeing a DVD production featuring an even freakier Ishiba portrayed as a military geek drooling over wartime memorabilia at the (very tacky) Nasu Senso Hakubutsukan (Nasu War Museum) in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture, I wondered if their performances ever irked the real-life big shots.

"Not at all," was the reaction of TNP members backstage after the show, including leader Matabee Watabe, who has himself taken off many politicians, including past prime ministers Yasuo Fukuda and Hirofumi Nakasone.

Surprisingly, in fact, the actors all agreed that politicians TNP has parodied over the years — and there have been a lot, from across the political spectrum — have been warm to the group. Some, indeed, have been so inspired by TNP's shows that they have hired the group to perform at their fundraising parties and during campaign tours.

"I was once called to perform at a fundraiser by a politician who belongs to the Aso faction!" Fukumoto, just as talkative as he is on stage, recalled. "After the politician made a speech, I was asked to make a speech as Aso. Then I was followed by the real Kunio Hatoyama! I mean, this is a real fundraising party. People who come to these parties laugh a lot. And this is a gathering of the Aso faction!"

All great sport, it seems — although by the nature of the political beast, could not those luminaries be laughing outwardly while plotting revenge in secret?

Well, the real-life Koizumi, for one, loves TNP so much that he presented the group with an autographed necktie and even penned a message in a book published by TNP in January. It read: "Congratulations on the group's 20th anniversary. The Newspaper version of Koizumi is much cooler and more fun!"

TNP's Koizumi character, played by Matsushita, also deserves a pat on the back over the important role it played for the opposition. At parties hosted by opposition parties that he has been invited to perform at, including Japanese Communist Party events, he has sometimes been fiercely jeered at as if he were the real Koizumi. "We are their stress release," Watabe says.

While the group knows no taboos, sketches on the "one prestigious family" — so called to mitigate the repercussions of making fun of the Imperial Family — have undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers, Watabe said.

In the past, he reported, a few audience members have stood up and left the theater, while others have called in to lodge angry protests. Undeterred, TNP has stood by its pledge to feature the family in every stage show.

In fact, it was Japan's deeply entrenched taboos surrounding the Imperial Family that got the group started.

In 1988, when Watabe and others set up TNP, Emperor Hirohito was terminally ill and in a critical condition. News outlets were increasingly dominated by the news of his illness, and TV stations started self-censoring their content, branding any music, entertainment or comedy as inappropriate to air. Comedians like Watabe saw their gigs being canceled, and people were starting to feel that it was wrong to laugh about anything.

Perhaps out of desperation, Watabe and a few other comedians set up TNP, and began performing a satirical routine based on the very news that had dominated the airwaves. Surprisingly, viewers loved it.

"People do waver for a second when we perform the (Imperial Family) skits," Watabe conceded. "But when they start laughing, they do so loudly."

At the Sengawa show, too, there was a moment of shock and a sense of "Is it OK to laugh?" in the air when two actors appeared on stage, dressed as the Emperor and the Empress. The Empress, played by Watabe, wore way too much makeup and spoke bitterly of the hardship she has endured for more than half a century ever since she met the then Crown Prince at a now-legendary tennis match in the Nagano Prefecture mountain resort of Karuizawa.

Before long, though, sporadic giggles grew into guffaws as actors portraying newspaper and magazine reporters came in and out posing a series of inane, but cutting, questions — including one who, before being dragged off the stage, blatantly asked the couple: "What do you think of your responsibility for the war?"

Now that TNP has established itself as one of a very rare breed of consistent and popular political satire groups in Japan, its members say they will continue turning their spotlight on current events "as long as news exists."

In the process, too, they will continue to be a sound gauge of political sentiments in this country — as well as of the popularity of particular politicians.

"I felt the rising expectations surrounding (Yukio) Hatoyama from the crowd today," said Fukumoto, who portrayed the new DPJ leader as a puppet of Ichiro Ozawa, who he replaced. "The attention I got for the Hatoyama role was much greater than before. And I realized Prime Minister Aso's popularity is really waning now. I could hardly get any response for him."



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