Yoshimoto seeks laughs and profit beyond Japan

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo, the giant talent agency that celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, has made an enduring business out of that fleeting phenomenon: laughter.

Most of the nearly 700 tarento (TV personalities) on the Yoshimoto roster are comics, including many practitioners of manzai, the comedy duo form that originated in Yoshimoto’s Kansai (Western Japan) heartland and has been a TV staple for more than three decades.

Not all Yoshimoto manzai acts are superstars like Downtown (Masatoshi Hamada and Hitoshi Matsumoto) and Ninety-nine (Takashi Okamura and Hiroyuki Yabe), but a surprisingly large number are nationally known. One barometer is the Okinawa International Movie Festival, held annually in Ginowan, Okinawa with Yoshimoto’s backing, where young local fans squeal and shout at the dozens of Yoshimoto comics walking the red carpet on opening day. The fifth edition of the festival, held March 23-30 this year, attracted 53,000 first day visitors — a festival record — most of whom came to rubberneck the tarento.

Rather than simply continuing to extract laughs from its Japanese audience — who long ago learned to decipher the Kansai dialect many Yoshimoto comics use in their routines — the company has recently embarked on new initiatives aimed at expanding beyond Okinawa (and Japan, for that matter) into the world at large.

The reason, Yoshimoto president Hiroshi Osaki told The Japan Times in an interview at this year’s Okinawa festival, is rather simple: “Like it or not, the Japanese population is going to decline over the next twenty or thirty years. Going abroad is one way of dealing with that problem. That includes America, Europe, India, China and the rest of Asia.”

That last region, understandably, is the first priority. In March, Yoshimoto announced a partnership with Content Land Inc. of Hong Kong to distribute Japanese programming throughout Asia, including not only the usual anime, dramas and movies, but also the sort of variety and other comedy-themed shows that have been so successful for Yoshimoto at home.

“There’s a language barrier so it won’t be easy,” Osaki admits. “I’m hoping that with subtitles and dubbing we can somehow make a go of it.”

Thus the tie-up with Content Land, which has decades of experience in localizing shows for the linguistically and culturally diverse region, and also in clearing copyrights hurdles that so often baffle or defeat Japanese contents sellers.

In addition to marketing shows to foreign broadcasters, in May of last year the company launched Yoshimoto Azio, a Hong-Kong-based satellite entertainment channel that beams both Yoshimoto and regionally produced shows free to viewers in China and, for monthly fees, to subscribers in many other parts of the word, including Europe and North America. The total number of viewing households now stands at about 20 million.

To satisfy its overseas audience, Yoshimoto is rethinking its approach to production, such as going beyond the 13-episode limit for local drama series.

“Japanese TV dramas are well made, but in China and the rest of Asia, dramas are usually 20 or 30 episodes long,” Osaki observes. “That makes (Japanese dramas) hard to air there. Our plan is to produce a 30-episode series. The problem is that no one in Japan can write that sort of script. Well, they could write one if they tried,” he says.

Yoshimoto is also partnering with Second City, the Chicago-based theater group that has been nurturing comic talent for decades with its improv approach, including John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers and Masi Oka, a Japanese-American actor who rose to fame in the U.S. sci-fi series “Heroes” and now serves as a Yoshimoto advisor.

The plan is to train selected Yoshimoto talent in Second City techniques, using a curriculum especially designed for Japanese students by Second City instructors.

“Eventually we plan to open theaters for Second City-style comedy — one in Tokyo and one in Osaka,” Osaki explains.

In addition to Second City’s trademark improv comedy, the theaters will feature stand-up acts. “The goal is to bring this style of comedy to all 47 (Japanese) prefectures,” Osaki says.

Opening the U.S. market to Yoshimoto-produced content, however, will be a tougher challenge, Osaki believes. “When I first met the president of CAA (Creative Artists Agency) four or five years ago, the first thing out of his mouth was ‘You’ll never crack Hollywood.’ I thought that was kind of rude,” he says with a laugh.

Instead of giving up, Yoshimoto has tied up with Los Angeles-based CAA to produce six game show pilots for the world market. “We plan to sell them for the next year or year and a half,” Osaki explains. “We’re looking to generate some smash hits.”

He also hopes that Yoshimoto-style comedy will one day find favor with U.S. viewers, despite his CAA colleague’s pessimism. “America’s a white society, but it also has a lot of immigrants,” Osaki explains. “Though they may not be the mainstream, I’ve heard they’re appearing in entertainment in various ways more and more. So there’s a potential for us to realize our dream.”

Back in Ginowan, Okinawa, Yoshimoto is pursuing a plan to launch what it calls an “Entertainment Village” where young tarento from Okinawa, mainland Japan and Asia can study various disciplines, including Second City-style comedy.

The start will be a three-week open workshop this summer in existing facilities. Yoshimoto, in cooperation with the Ginowan city government plans to build a permanent school on land reclaimed from nearby U.S. military bases that can serve as an educational, performance and exhibition space for students. “The school itself will be a tourist draw,” Osaki explains. “If tourists come to see the school, we can kill two birds with one stone.” That is, students can practice their skills on live audiences, while the local community can profit from the tourists’ presence.

But Osaki, an Osaka native who joined Yoshimoto in 1978 and managed the comedy duo Downtown from their scuffling start in Osaka to national fame, still sees his hometown as the company’s creative fountainhead.

“Osaka’s cultural climate and environment makes for interesting people,” he explains. “It produces people who are strange and bizarre. The city of Osaka is a discovery and development mechanism for us. One of Yoshimoto’s strengths is we know how to perfect and use that mechanism — and then take it to Tokyo and earn from it.”