Real characters, made in Japan

by Eric Johnston

KYOTO — Humor may be, along with art and music, universal, but it often doesn’t travel across borders very well. What has them rolling in the aisles in London may leave them rolling their eyes in Laos. A comedian who brings down the house in Athens, Greece, may receive only polite applause in Athens, Ga.

In the case of Japan, kyogen, rakugo and manzai performers enjoy huge domestic audiences, but have found limited success outside Japan. Even a ubiquitous entertainer such as Beat Takeshi is famous internationally not as a sharp-tongued comedian but as a serious dramatist.

One Japanese comedian who has received critical acclaim abroad as such is Issei Ogata. Offbeat and witty are two adjectives critics have used to describe his one-man comic routines. Unlike the nonsense that spews from the ever-changeable talentless tarento on Japanese television, Ogata’s sharp, satirical works have a depth and reality that make the viewer think about, rather than forget, the state of the world.

That Ogata has some popularity overseas is due in no small measure to Kyoto-based Irish actor Duncan Hamilton. Hamilton, whose portfolio includes work with the Gate Theater in Dublin and a tour of the U.S. with the London Shakespeare Company, has translated many of Ogata’s works into English.

“Ogata’s works are a bit close to the bone,” he says. “They portray the Japanese everyman, showing, through humor, his faults and frustrations.”

Hamilton has been a fan of Ogata’s since 1992, when, through a friend, he did English translations for a tour Ogata was about to do in the U.S. In 1994, Hamilton himself performed reworked versions at the Dublin Theater Festival in 1994 to critical acclaim, and followed with tours of Australia, Japan and Britain.

Hamilton returns July 1-2 with “Men,” a series of one-man shows in Kyoto. The act consists of four separate monologues: an over-the-hill rock star attempting a comeback; a classical musician searching for a woman to replace his departed mother; a salesman struck down by amnesia; and, in a particularly timely and realistic piece, a rightwing politician who says silly things at election time.

“The pieces retain the spirit of the original but have been reworked for Western audiences. For example, the rock-star bit features a character named Johnny Jupiter. In Ogata’s version, it was an enka singer trying to make a comeback, but enka would not be understood by overseas audiences so the premise was changed,” Hamilton said.

What does Ogata think of Hamilton’s work? “He commented that the characters are quite different from the Japanese originals. But he has been very helpful in explaining background, while his director would offer insights as to what the Japanese characters were thinking,” Hamilton said.

Like Ogata, Hamilton keeps it simple. There are no other actors and no sets, and just a few props, forcing the performer to rely solely on his ability to improvise.

“The audience sees me walk out on stage with a suitcase, and all costume and makeup changes are done in full view,” he said.

If the Kyoto shows are successful, Hamilton said more of Ogata’s works will be translated and that tours overseas are a possibility. “Then, we could possibly add some sets or perhaps backup musicians for the Johnny Jupiter routine.

“In the world of Japanese theater, Ogata is something of an anarchist,” Hamilton said. “He shuns television appearances, preferring to concentrate on stage performance. I think that is what makes him unique and what attracted me to his work.”