General

Yoshimoto's talent for comedy

by Kimio Ida

There was a time when parents in Osaka used to scold their kids by threatening, “I will send you to Yoshimoto!” if they were fooling around. Today, though, Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. has become Japan’s largest entertainment agency, and most parents would be happy if their children worked for it. Its tarento are now so popular that it is almost impossible to watch prime-time or late-night television without seeing one of them.

Yoshimoto Kogyo was founded nearly 100 years ago by a woman named Sei Yoshimoto, who opened a theater for rakugo comic storytellers in the precinct of Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka’s Kita Ward for her husband, Kichibei Yoshimoto. The owner of a housewares shop, Kichibei was such a big fan of theater and rakugo that Sei thought it would be good if they had their own theater.

The plan worked well, and Sei opened more theaters, hiring the entertainers as employees. The strategy ensured Yoshimoto’s success as a talent agency. Even after Kichibei’s death, Sei continued running the business with her brother Shonosuke Hayashi, laying the base of today’s Yoshimoto Kogyo.

Among various entertainments Yoshimoto Kogyo presents, a comedy theater called shin-kigeki (new comedy) became enormously popular with people in the Kansai region. Kicked off in 1959, shin-kigeki soon became established as Yoshimoto’s main feature, starring such popular actors as Kyo Hanaki and Hachiro Oka.

Shin-kigeki features slapstick and nonsense jokes, depicting the humor and pathos of ordinary life with such stage sets as a mom-and-pop restaurant or a shrine during a summer festival.

Coming home from school for lunch on Saturdays, many Osaka children ritually turned on the TV to watch the show, laughing and eating okonomiyaki or instant noodles, which debuted on the market around that time. More than four decades later, the show is still on the air at lunchtime Saturdays in Kansai.

One of the four leading actors in shin-kigeki today, Katsunori Uchiba, 41, says he was one of those ordinary Osaka children. What makes him and other actors of his generation different from their predecessors, however, is an entertainment school Yoshimoto Kogyo set up in 1982, significantly changing the agency’s tradition.

In the past, wannabe actors directly came to their stars and begged to be taken on as apprentices. While doing chores for their master, they “stole” skills and techniques.

The school, New Star Creation, changed all that. The younger generation prefers a more rational way of learning the entertainment trade, and Yoshimoto was happy to accept fee-paying students. Uchiba entered the entertainment world without the master-apprentice relationship.

About 10 years ago, Yoshimoto totally restructured the shin-kigeki show, replacing the talents who had been playing for more than 30 years with new entertainers. The old faces were gone and newcomers were recruited to form a new comedy troupe.

Now most of the 60 actors in Yoshimoto’s four shin-kigeki troupes are NSC graduates, and what is required is not just acting but making the audience laugh: that’s Yoshimoto’s policy. If the audience laughs, the play is a success.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5