Stand-up — one comic in front of a microphone — is the default setting for live comedy in the United States. In Japan the equivalent has long been rakugo, a traditional form in which a single performer tells comic stories. Today, however, aspiring comics usually opt for manzai, a style of duo comedy featuring a straight man (tsukkomi) and a fool (boke).
Based on comedian Naoki Matayoshi’s award-winning 2015 novel that inspired a 10-part Netflix series, “Spark” tells the story of two no-name manzai comics over a 10-year period. Directed by comic Itsuji Itao and produced by Yoshimoto Kogyo — an Osaka-based talent agency that specializes in manzai — the film is not the usual zero-to-hero heart-warmer, one of the many the local industry churns out like clockwork.
Instead it’s an instructive, if discursive, object lesson on the harsh realities of the comics’ trade, in which only a handful of manzai acts ever make it to show-biz heaven: Lucrative regular gigs on prime-time television. So “Spark” is something of an anti-manzai-recruiting film, not that it’s likely to discourage the thousands, from amateurs to seasoned pros, trying to break into the big time. But it’s also insightful into why they keep at it, against all odds.
Tokunaga (Masaki Suda) and Kamiya (Kenta Kiritani) meet while performing at a sort of street fair in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture. The younger Tokunaga, a member of the manzai duo Sparks, is impressed by the way the rough-edged Kamiya, whose unit is called Ahondara (which loosely translates as “Idiots”), faces down a gang of heckling bikers. “I want to be your disciple,” he says. Kamiya agrees on one condition: “I want you to write my biography.”
In 2002 Kamiya departs for Tokyo, where opportunities are more numerous than in his native Kansai. Tokunaga follows suit and he is soon dragging a drunken Kamiya back to the small apartment he shares with the free-spirited Maki (Fumino Kimura), who behaves more like a roommate than a girlfriend. Thus begins a friendship that ripens over years of drinking at cheap izakaya (pubs), with Kamiya expounding on the practice and philosophy of manzai. But in a contest for up-and-coming acts, Sparks and Ahondara are beaten by a goofball comic who gets laughs with cute, obvious gags.
Kamiya, we see, talks a good game, but is the kind of comic who works for other comics and himself while disdaining Tokunaga’s dream of mainstream success. Or is he just afraid to pursue it? Then Tokunaga and his tsukkomi partner (who is not his pal) slowly move up the professional ladder, leaving Kamiya behind — but for how long?
Following the fortunes of its two heroes throughout the 2000s and beyond, the film becomes something of a slog once it become obvious their scuffling lifestyle is getting them nowhere. But as played by the non-comic Suda (whose own career is soaring), Tokunaga is a fiery type with a survivor’s grit that suggests if not quite hope, something beyond despair.
Meanwhile, Kiritani’s Kamiya may be an overbearing loudmouth, but he also offers a stirring defense of his struggling manzai brethren. The message: Comedy is really a collective art, with the losers contributing to the success of the winners. Not that it helps when you’re reeling back to your six-mat room, drunk and alone and pushing 40, at 5 in the morning.