Perhaps there comes a day in many a man’s life when he squints and says to himself something like this: 「まずいなぁ、もう少し度の強いメガネがあったら良かった。この距離だと、あの方が女装している北野武さんなのか、ミス・インターナショナルなのか、分からないや」(“Mazui nā, mō sukoshi do no tsuyoi megane ga attara yokatta. Kono kyori da to, ano kata ga jyosō shiteiru Kitano Takeshi-san nanoka, Misu Intānashonaru nanoka, wakaranai ya,” “Yikes, if only I had stronger eyeglasses. At this distance I can’t tell whether that’s Takeshi Kitano in drag or a Miss International beauty queen”).
I’m nestled in the corner of a Nippon Television studio next to the sort of 自販機 (jihanki, vending machines) you see clustered throughout Tokyo. It’s early in the afternoon before a variety program’s 収録 (shūroku, filming), so I’m reviewing a stack of Japanese カンペ (kanpe, cue cards) and trying to find additional 突っ込み所 (tsukkomidokoro, places for zingers).
But that’s beside the point.
I look back again toward the studio entrance and wonder: Is that Miss International Ikumi Yoshimatsu in the distance or Kitano?
Not being able to tell one of Japan’s most celebrated sexagenarians from a young member of the glitterati is less silly than it sounds (but only slightly). What makes the task ややこしい (yayakoshī, troublingly complicated) is that for laughs on today’s show, Yoshimatsu will appear alongside Kitano, who’ll be disguised as a look-alike beauty queen. In drag, auteur Kitano will then, before our studio audience and 15 or so million Japanese TV viewers, perform his best しゃなりしゃなりと歩くこと (shanarishanari to arukukoto, sashay).
Although less internationally revered for his sashay than for his films, since 1990 Kitano has co-hosted — along with fellow comedian George Tokoro — Nippon Television’s flagship ゴールデンアワー (gōruden awā, primetime) variety show, “Sekai Maru Mie! Terebi Tokusōbu.”
The program has become a conduit through which Japanese families learn about foreign culture while also enjoying moments of 爆笑 (bakushō, side-splitting laughter). Varying in length from one to two hours, each episode contains within it nearly-complete television programs imported from other countries: Shows aggregated from wealthy nations (like Norway and Canada) as well as volatile states (such as Tibet, Iraq and Egypt).
Given the international scope of “Sekai Maru Mie! Terebi Tokusōbu,” some overseas-born media personalities, including myself, regularly come on the show and help develop its content. Each week we welcome such miscellaneous ゲスト (guests) as お笑い芸人 (owaraigeinin, comedians), 学者 (gakusha, scholars), 映画スター (eiga sutā, movies stars), アイドル (aidoru, idols), アーチスト (āchisuto, artists), 政治家 (seijika, politicians) and 作家 (sakka, writers).
A curious thing about being on a TV set in Japan is that the golden standard of greetings within the 放送業界 (hōsō gyōkai, broadcast industry) is「おはようございま〜す」 (“Ohayō gozaimaasu,” “Goood morning”) — even in the afternoon or evening.
Now, while it’s conceivable that Miss International might 合わせる (awaseru, go along with) the television studio’s culture and greet others with “Ohayō gozaimasu,” the fact that the person I was looking at did it in a ハスキーな声 (hasukī na koe, husky voice) gave Takeshi away.
The origin of why people in showbiz greet each other with ohayō gozaimasu is something not everyone agrees on. The best explanation I’ve heard is that it’s a creative solution for showing deference toward all colleagues, since many start work on the 遅番 (osoban, late shift) or 夜勤 (yakin, night shift). The logic being that hard workers who try to keep up with the media cycle’s irregular hours ought to receive the same greeting everyone else does when they arrive at the studio.
Other language at the studio also differs from what one might expect. Hardly anyone will use the word ダメ (dame, no way) — they’ll say things like 「たぶんNGじゃないかな」 (“tabun enujī janai kana,” “I wonder if maybe that is no good [NG]”). And instruction from directors can sometimes be more implicit than explicit. If time runs low a director may say「巻きでお願いします」 (“Maki de onagaishimasu,” “Please speak faster”) or 「収録が押しています」(“Shūroku ga oshiteimasu,” “The shoot is running behind”).
Today’s shoot is not running behind, but rather is about to begin. A green 放送中 (hōsōchū, recording) light turns on and a director announces that the 本番 (honban, performance) will start.
I rush to my anchor desk. Moments later Miss International struts out before the studio audience, gracefully whirling to and fro as if she were on a fashion catwalk. Her poise and light-footedness contrast wonderfully with Kitano, who, in 金髪のかつら (kinpatsu no katsura, blonde wig) and パンスト (pansuto, stockings), stumbles out on stage and collides with a strategically placed trashcan. Our studio audience applauds wildly as the director then begins to actually sashay. The 66-year-old propels his hips forward and shimmies his お尻 (oshiri, rear end). He then adds a couple of comedic knee lifts, which remind me of Charlie Chaplin’s hallmark gait.
Kitano’s attention to ironic detail astounds me, and not only with his gestures: draped over his left shoulder is a thin banner that reads ミス・北千住 (Misu Kita-Senju, Miss Kita-Senju) (Kita-Senju is a neighborhood in Tokyo’s notoriously tough Adachi Ward where Kitano grew up).
I’m too busy laughing to speak, but soon I’ll try some tsukkomi and introduce the first television show of the afternoon, err, morning, err, evening.
Matthew Chozick is a writer and translator who teaches at Temple University Japan and often appears on television and radio.