‘Manzai Gyangu (Manzai Gang)’

Life is a comedy for ex-cons who team up as funnymen

by Mark Schilling

Manzai acts — comedy duos consisting of a boke (goofball) and tsukkomi (straight man) — are ubiquitous on Japanese television, but the form has relatively few foreign fans.

One big problem is the language barrier: Manzai-shi (manzai comics) typically spritz a mile a minute, while much of the humor revolves around wordplay. It’s Japanese language as extreme sport.

Another barrier, at least for those whose tastes in standup comedy run to the observational and confessional, is that a lot of manzai routines, stripped of the speed, timing and personality used to put them across, range from the silly to the lame-brained (insert your exceptions here). More like Martin and Lewis, in other words, than Steve Carell or Bill Hicks.

Hiroshi Shinagawa’s action comedy “Manzai Gyangu (Manzai Gang)” may not make you a manzai fan, but it goes deep inside the creative process of an up-and-coming manzai comic, while showing how closely manzai connects with the verbal culture here, from lovers’ spats to gangsters’ quarrels that end in not punch lines but punches.

And, just as in Shinagawa’s debut feature “Drop” (2009), a teen gang comedy based on his own experiences at a tough high school, the story and characters seem to come from life as it’s lived, not just other movies. Shinagawa was once a manzai-shi himself and knows the business of comedy inside out.

The humor, which is fueled by everything from petty annoyance to smash-mouth violence, is on the rough side. Not black, but rather black and blue. This movie gives the term “physical comedy” new meaning. I didn’t laugh until it hurt; I laughed — and then someone got hurt.

The hero, Tobio (Ryuta Sato), is the boke in and the creative brain behind a manzai duo still trying to make it after 10 years. Then his partner (Yuji Ayabe), under pressure from loan sharks, quits the act to take more remunerative employment as a construction worker. An enraged and frustrated Tobio gets drunk and into trouble — and wakes up the next morning in a jail cell. His cellmate, the dreadlocked Ryuhei (Yusuke Kamiji), had been arrested after taking on an entire gang and nearly winning.

But this street fighter, as Tobio discovers in the course of a testy but funny exchange, is a natural tsukkomi. Tobio persuades a doubting Ryuhei to team with him and, practicing together in a park after their release from custody, they discover they click comically. Now they have to find out if the world agrees with them.

Meanwhile, Tobio has to deal with real life, including the pregnancy of his former girlfriend, Yumiko (Satomi Ishihara), and his own pile of debt — which a thuggish collector, Kanai (Daisuke Miyagawa), is pressing him to pay back.

As luck would have it, Kanai’s laid-back boss is none other than Kawahara (Seiki Nagahara), a former manzai-shi who was once Tobio’s idol — and is supportive of his dreams. Also, Yumiko agrees to not only take Tobio back, but to marry him. Finally, Tobio and Ryuhei, as the newly coined manzai duo Dragonfly, wow the audience at a comedy contest. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course, and the ensuing, familiar complications generate more back-and-forth between not only the two principals but also between a saturnine gang boss (Hirofumi Arai) and his cheeky underling (Daigo), a gruff veteran cop (Takashi Sasano) and a bumbling rookie (Kiminobu Kanenari), and a caustic Ryuhei and a motor-mouthed otaku (obsessive) (Ryuji Akiyama).

The film’s life-as-manzai concept leads to a certain one-act-after-another repetitiveness. Also, the never-ending jibber-jabber can be wearing (at one point, Yumiko tells Tobio to “talk normally” — and I mentally breathed a sigh of relief). But asking the professional jokesters in the cast to slow down or shut up would be like asking racing cyclist Lance Armstrong to pedal a mamachari (clunky shopping bike). That is, asking them to be less than what they are.

Sato’s Tobio is the latest in a procession of hyper good-guy types he has played, in everything from the unjustly ignored 2008 wrestling comedy “Gachi Boi (Wrestling with a Memory)” to the dire hit baseball dramady “Rookies Sotsugyo (Rookies the Movie: Graduation)” in 2009. But Sato also illuminates Tobio’s darker, more desperate side with a tough knowingness new to his work.

As Ryuhei, TV and film veteran Kamiji impresses as a natural-born brawler who somehow got roped into doing a movie.

In fact, most of the cast seems to be playing variations of their off-screen selves, which is a testimony to Shinagawa’s talent for extracting lifelike performances, even in situations bordering on the bizarre.

The ending thankfully creates order out of chaos, with a simple message: We all do manzai shtick in our dealings with the world, as boke or tsukkomi, like it or not. So why not get good at it?