“I’ve been drawing pictures for as long as I can remember,” Kentaro Kobayashi said when I asked him how he came to be such a versatile and popular entertainer.
Sporting a smart white shirt, the good-looking Yokohama native went on to explain that he wasn’t very good at school, but he “always worked hard in art lessons and loved writing stories.”
“And now,” the 41-year-old continued with a beaming smile, “I’m doing as my job exactly what I was doing to make my family and friends happy when I was 4 — creating stories and performing them with my art works.”
When we met in a studio in Tokyo this month, Kobayashi was putting the final touches to the latest performance work in his solo “Potsunen” series — “Potsunen shi no Kimyo de Heibonna Hibi” (“Mr. Potsunen’s Peculiar Slice of Life”), which has just opened at the prestigious Honda Theatre in arty Shimokitazawa — from where it will move to Paris and London from next month.
Back in 1996, soon after Kobayashi and Jin Katagiri, a fellow student at the capital’s Tama Art University, formed a comedy-skit duo they named Rahmens, they became popular nationwide after appearing in an NHK TV comedy show. But unlike many who get a break as small-screen funnymen, the pair decided to concentrate on performing live on stage, and to this day they only very rarely appear on television.
As to why they opted for that course, Kobayashi is on record saying that celebrity didn’t appeal to him as he didn’t want people buying tickets for his shows just because he was famous. So, even as he began picking up awards and tickets for the pair’s tours became some of the hottest around, they started to branch out separately.
For his part, Kobayshi embarked on his solo series of “Mr. Potsunen” shows as well as staging comedy plays with his company K.K.P. — and also making short films, music albums and artworks.
Then he decided to reset his compass, in more ways than one.
As he explained, “When I was about 37, I realized I was making too many demands of myself and my creation processes had become a bit manic. So I decided to live in New York to take a breather.
“I was there for about six months, going to the theater almost every day and seeing everything from amateur housewives’ shows to big Broadway productions,” he said.
“That gave me a fresh outlook through seeing how people there enjoy theater, the arts and entertainment as part of their daily lives and not just on special occasions as is mostly the case in Japan. For instance, I was so surprised when I heard a little boy and his grandfather talking about an avant-garde dance program after the performance.”
As a result of that experience, Kobayashi said he became more confident in himself. “It made me realize that I already had a solid foundation, unlike some people for whom it may make sense to imitate a certain artist and follow their lifestyle,” he said.
“In my case, I could see clearly that because all my work stemmed from my own experience, I could and should keep the same approach for audiences of any nationality and just create things that I myself believe are funny and aesthetic and amazing.
“And besides, I’d always believed my career would only start peaking in my forties, so I traveled a lot and spent lots of money in my 30s.” (laughs)
Consequently, after returning from America, Kobayashi spread his wings to debut outside Japan with a solo nonverbal sketch show titled “P” that was a huge hit in Paris and Monaco in 2012.
“I was so surprised because the audiences there laughed more than the ones in Japan — probably because I was a foreigner so they characterized me as unusual,” he said. “But also I think it was because audiences there react very openly, and I heard people shout ‘Bravo!’ for the first time in my life.”
In addition, he said he attributed much of that tour’s success to his strict adherence to using no spoken language at all. Instead, drawing on visual tricks from manga, with which many French people are familiar, he had audiences by turns sighing in wonder and bursting out laughing as his silent storylines unfolded with one surprise after another.
In light of that experience, Kobayashi said that whereas before he’d consciously tried so hard to create a program for non-Japanese speakers, “Now I don’t worry about that at all and I just do what I’ve wanted to do all along — which is present universal slapstick comedy that’s really funny for anyone.
“But with my slapstick comedy, I want to make people laugh when I don’t slip on the banana peel — and instead create unanticipated laughter from new angles on slapstick.”
“Potsunen shi no Kimyo de Heibonna Hibi” runs till Dec. 28 at the Honda Theatre, Tokyo. It then plays Jan. 29-31 at Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris and Feb. 3 & 4 at London’s Leicester SquareTheatre. For details, call 03-5570-5151 or visit kentarokobayashi. net.