The comedy and drama of Takashi Fujii

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

At age 41, Takashi Fujii has quite the resume. In 2000 and 2001, he appeared on national broadcaster NHK’s annual top-rated New Year’s variety show, “Kohaku Utagassen” (“Red and White Song Battle”); he toured abroad as a pop singer in 2004, including shows in Los Angeles and Shanghai; and in 2009 he starred in the Japanese version of 2005′s smash-hit Broadway musical “Spelling Bee.”

Oh, and in 2011 this performer, whose day job is being a comedian, played the leading role in “Iroaseru” (“Fading Colors”), a sci-fi drama staged by the prestigious New National Theatre, Tokyo.

Despite all that though, Fujii is probably best known to prime-time TV viewers as the emcee of various comedy shows, and in the roles of some amusing characters, such as a highly-strung gay man whose catchphrase “Hot! Hot!” cracks up audiences, or in his half-English onscreen incarnation Matthew Minami.

Now, multi-talented Fujii is set to add another particularly illustrious string to his bow as he takes the lead in a historic production of the late great playwright Hisashi Inoue’s first-ever play, “Ukauka 30, Chorochoro 40″ (“Inadvertent in 30, Helter-skelter in 40″). Though the play scooped a top drama award when it was published in 1958, the work has — astonishingly — never actually been staged.

In this fable-style drama, Fujii plays the role of an unnamed tonosama (feudal lord) who falls in love with Chika (Saki Fukuda), a village girl who spurns his proposals of marriage because she is engaged to a humble carpenter named Gonzu (Hiroki Suzuki). This breaks the tonosama’s heart, and he gradually loses his mind. Harsh fate befalls the love triangle, too, as each of the three struggle to hang on to some hope of a better life.

At a café next to the rehearsal studio in downtown Tokyo, Fujii talked about his career and upcoming role.

How did you become a comedian?

I was born in Osaka, and for generations kids there have dreamed of becoming famous comedians. But I wasn’t really interested in Osaka’s knockabout two-person stand-up comedy style, so after high school I joined the accounts department of a pharmaceutical company.

Then I passed an audition for Yoshimoto Kogyo (Japan’s biggest entertainment talent agency), and so I started performing, while still being a salaryman.

A few years later I quit the pharmaceutical company to concentrate on a show-business career, even though I was actually still not happy doing comedy for a living. That conflict gave me a deep complex about myself for years. My idea of a geinin (entertainer-comedian) was someone who wrote their own scripts and gags, but back then I’d be handed lines written by a writer.

I still think I am really a humdrum person and nobody is interested in the real me.

Yet out of all the newcomers that are launched every year, you quickly became famous and had your own TV shows. That can’t have been just luck.

Umm, well, I listened to the advice of senior comedians and TV directors, and followed it. I did what was asked of me, much in the same way that I was very loyal to my older brother when I was growing up.

If I had any particular skill it was probably being good at getting into some wacky characters — I first became popular through a zany gay character I invented.

In 1999, you were in “Boys Time,” a musical directed by the renowned Amon Miyamoto. How was that as your first experience of live theater?

I had a very hectic schedule in those days, so it was total chaos. I would get to the theater after the audience had started taking their seats, act on stage, and then rush to my next work appointment straight after the curtain came down.

Fortunately the staff and other actors were incredibly helpful. Though I studied how to prepare better for theater work after that, it wasn’t until 10 years later that I got my next stage role — in the musical “Spelling Bee.”

You were widely praised for your performance in “Spelling Bee,” after which you received many other stage offers, and you’ve worked with such top directors as Koki Mitani, Hideki Noda and Hitoshi Uyama. How was that transition?

I am so pleased if a director I’ve worked with before, whether on stage or TV or wherever, wants me back again. So after I was in his 2010 play “Character,” I was delighted when Noda cast me last year for “Egg” — and I am excited now to be working once more with Uyama in his “Ukauka 30, Chorochoro 40.”

Uyama’s sci-fi drama “Iroaseru,” for which you took the lead role, was staged at the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) in 2011. What was it like performing there?

I was utterly amazed by the facilities at the NNTT. I was enthralled to see members of the orchestra and ballet dancers in the spacious lobby, all talking about their instruments and performances. I had never been in such an “arty” setting before.

The play, a new work by a young playwright Yutaka Kuramochi, was not at all simple and we had many discussions during the rehearsals. Uyama would often ask us, the actors, for our ideas and that approach as a director really impressed me. He could have simply told us his understanding of the play and requested that we follow his lead — but he never did that.

I also enjoyed the sudden change of focus the second the curtain rises. I mean, for weeks and weeks, as a creative team we had all been intent on interpreting and presenting the play — but once live on stage, the actors take all that and create something specific to each audience. I think that’s a uniqueness that theater can offer.

“Ukauka 30, Chorochoro 40″ is a short piece, but it has many layers and some quite philosophical themes. What do you make of it?

The story is actually quite frightening, but I think one of the important themes is that even an apparently chance meeting is due to the karma from a previous life. So, even though my deranged tonosama character really upsets the village couple Chika and Gonzu without realizing it, I somehow think it would have happened even without his influence.

In other words, whatever effect one person may try to have on the lives of others, it’s as if the outcome of their efforts is not theirs to control.

It makes me think how brief the human lifespan is. And, though people may think they are plowing their own furrow, they cannot oppose destiny.

“Ukauka 30, Chorochoro 40″ (“Inadvertent in 30, Helter-skelter in 40″) runs till June 2 at the Kinokuniya Southern Theater. For ticket details, call Komatsuza at (03) 3862-5941, or visit www.komatsuza.co.jp.