His naked tray act may not be to everyone’s liking, but Akira Ohashi is too focused on the positives to worry about that. The Saitama-born, 44-year-old comedian, who is better known by his stage name Akira 100%, clearly loves being in the public eye, and after more than two decades struggling to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry, who can blame him?
“I’ve been doing the nude show for about four years and really appreciate the support that people have shown me,” he tells The Japan Times. “I’m aware there’s criticism and that’s fine. Some people see this naked guy on stage and feel it’s inappropriate, which I completely understand. Those who watch the whole act, however, realize there’s nothing dirty about it. It’s just a middle-aged guy with a tray, a bow tie and no other clothes.
“That said, I did accidentally expose myself to audience members on the side of the stage one time, but I’m much more careful now.”
Naked comedy wasn’t exactly the kind of career Ohashi envisaged as a youngster. Inspired by Charlie Chaplin films and the performances of Kiyoshi Atsumi as Tora-san in the long-running film series “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo” (“It’s Tough Being a Man”), he had his heart set on being an actor as a teen. Unconvinced, his parents persuaded him to assess the situation once he’d finished university. After attaining a qualification to teach social studies, he then signed with a talent agency.
“I’m sure my mom and dad thought the acting thing was just a phase and I would end up as a teacher,” says the comedian. “I was pretty determined, though, and really wanted to give it a go. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. The contract was for an actor and staff member.
“During my time there, I was basically the latter helping where I could, and for a few months was the driver for actor Kippei Shiina (‘Rain Fall,’ ‘Outrage’). I didn’t have time for auditions and wasn’t particularly proficient with any of the tasks they gave me. I felt more like a hindrance and eventually handed in my resignation, apologizing for letting them down.”
Ohashi tried to hone his skills at a drama academy but still couldn’t secure any significant roles. Tired and frustrated with how things were going, he decided to give up on his acting dream in his late 20s and became a NEET — a person who is not active in education, employment or training. It was a dark time for the entertainer as his life appeared to be drifting by without any real purpose.
“I’d reached my lowest ebb,” says Ohashi. “There were part-time jobs such as helping people move and making binders for books, but nothing lasted long. I was living with my parents and our relationship wasn’t great because I had no real prospects. Looking back at that time it felt like such a waste. Luckily, I managed to get out of that slump when I hit 30.”
While his acting dream may not have taken off, Ohashi wasn’t done with the world of show biz. Deciding to try his hand at comedy, he persuaded an old university friend, Hiroki Nitta, to take a break from his career as a web designer and join him in forming a comedy duo. They formed their act, Tambourine, in 2005 and a few months later signed with Sony Music Artists. TV appearances soon followed, and things went well for the pair. However, after six years together Ohashi felt it was time to fly solo and took on the moniker of Akira 100%.
“I think Nitta saw it as a bit of fun whereas I was serious about taking us to the next level,” he says. “That was probably due to my acting background and, on reflection, maybe I pushed him too much. Backstage there are often comedy duos with strict leaders. Seeing that, I sometimes feel things could have been handled differently.
“Anyway, I made my decision and it proved tough in the first few years. Things didn’t go well, and I was constantly thinking of ways to make an impact.”
His big break came in January 2015 when he appeared on the new year edition of the popular show “Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!” A year earlier, Ohashi had unsuccessfully auditioned for the same program with a “themed cafe” skit that led to him taking his clothes off. This time around he was planning to keep them on, but changed his mind following some encouraging words from a judge who’d recognized him from the previous audition and asked whether he had an updated version of the act. It was time to show the world what he was really made of.
“Booking ‘Gaki no Tsukai’ was huge for my career,” says Ohashi, beaming. “The reaction was amazing and there were no comments about the act being tasteless or anything like that. I was especially pleased with what fellow comedians had to say about it. Getting that support from people within the industry was so important and gave me lots of confidence.”
After “Gaki no Tsukai” the work kept coming. Ohashi appeared regularly on TV and even performed overseas, getting a standing ovation in Montreal for a naked detective skit done in English. Yet Ohashi was aware that the adulation wouldn’t last forever. Comedy acts that rely on a shock value often have a short shelf life and in 2016 things started to cool down. It left him with an important decision to make as to whether it was time to put the trays away and try something new or persevere with a concept that had brought him success.
“A senior member from my company suggested I do the former and it was something I seriously considered,” says Ohashi. “At the same time though, I was just about getting enough work to justify sticking with it and felt there were still more avenues to explore with the act. Therefore, I chose to continue (with the naked tray shows) and I’m glad I did because I won the 2017 R-1 Grand Prix.”
The biggest competition for solo comedians in Japan, the R-1 Grand Prix is an annual event that attracts thousands of performers, both amateur and professional. The winner receives a ¥5 million prize, but for Ohashi the triumph meant more than just money as it significantly boosted his profile at a crucial time. A congratulatory note from Shiina reminded him of how far he’d come.
“I was gobsmacked every time I got through a round and certainly didn’t expect to win (the competition),” says Ohashi. “Afterward, I received a letter from Kippei Shiina. The first line went something like, ‘It’s been too long so I don’t remember you at all.’ After that he praised me for not giving up after I’d left the agency. I got emotional reading it as I thought back to those difficult early times.”
Things look very different these days. This year Akira 100% will be making his debut on the big screen in the film “Kohaku” by Hatsuki Yokoo and is hoping to bring his naked tray act to more audiences outside of Japan.
“I’ve done a few gigs abroad and the reception has always been great,” says Ohashi. “I would love to travel around the world, performing in as many countries as possible.”
For more information on Akira 100%, visit lineblog.me/akira100p.