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In ‘Hibana’ TV series, sparks fly when the art of comedy collides with ambition

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Several weeks ago, Kyosen Ohashi died at the age of 82. Ohashi was one of the most important figures in the annals of Japanese TV, a critic-cum-emcee-cum-producer who was responsible for “11 PM,” the late-night talk show whose casual nudity and frank discussions of topical matters brought a measure of sophistication to the medium starting in the 1960s. Ohashi featured writers and comedians on the show who could be interesting with or without scripts.

In the past several decades, this model eventually morphed into what is now called the variety show, a genre built around a chosen concept (travel, food, current events, etc.) and populated by comedians. Variety shows have become successful not so much because they are popular, but because they are cost-effective and easy to put together. All you need is a bunch of funny people being themselves.

Television as the career apex for Japanese comedians is the kernel of the plot for the 10-part Netflix series “Hibana,” which is based on the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Naoki Matayoshi, half of the comedy duo Peace. The fact that a comedian won Japan’s most prestigious literary prize was no fluke or publicity stunt. Matayoshi has said his hero is Osamu Dazai, the Japanese representative of the pure writer — hard-drinking and irresponsible in his human relations but a perfectionist in terms of style and form.

Although Matayoshi sets his story in the rarefied world of manzai — the Japanese style of stand-up comedy — his themes are universal: the meaning of friendship and the tortuous pursuit of creative endeavor. He uses his first-hand knowledge of how TV works to give his tale substance. As you learn something about human nature, you also learn how an industry operates.

The protagonist, Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi), is the boke (fool) half of a manzai team from Osaka called Sparks. He writes all the material, and then he and his partner, Yamashita (Masao Yoshii), fine-tune it over months of repetitive practice. They come to Tokyo because that’s where the TV networks are headquartered. The series charts their progress over the course of the first decade of the 21st century.

During this time, Tokunaga harbors an obsession with another manzai comedian, Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), an iconoclast who sees his calling as an art form and goes out of his way to subvert its stylistic conventions.

When Tokunaga first sees Kamiya and his partner, Obayashi (Hideaki Murata), perform at a New Year’s festival, he knows he’s watching a genius, even if the audience doesn’t get it. In fact, Kamiya thrives on rejection, turning it around to create a confrontational kind of comedy that challenges the audience in uncomfortable ways. Tokunaga asks him to be his mentor. Kamiya agrees as long as Tokunaga writes his biography.

The story intertwines two threads: Sparks’ slow ascent in the world of television and Tokunaga’s bumpy relationship with the self-indulgent and increasingly unreliable Kamiya, who, due to pride and his resentment of “safe manzai,” sabotages his own chances at success whenever he can. In a sense, he’s the Dazai of manzai, a selfish, alcoholic seeker of truth who doesn’t care who he hurts along the way, though in the end he is just as vulnerable as the next star-struck striver.

Kamiya’s philosophy stimulates and then reinforces Tokunaga’s own peculiar comic impulses. Manzai’s appeal has more to do with delivery than content —the aggressive give-and-take between boke and tsukomu (straight man), occasionally intensified by eruptions of verbal or physical violence. In the beginning, Sparks doesn’t seem that different from its peers, but under Kamiya’s influence Tokunaga becomes more adventurous with his material. A rote routine about pet parakeets becomes a dissertation on language usage and companionship. The fact that the audience doesn’t recognize it as such but reacts viscerally to the choreographed dialogue is an inside joke.

The industry does recognize it, and while some producers appreciate Sparks’ progressive take on manzai, it doesn’t fit their narrowly conceived needs. Yamashita admires his partner’s talent, but, with a steady girlfriend and a more practical approach to his career, he prods him to write more “gags,” and Tokunaga relents — until the next drunken encounter with Kamiya, who derides his acolyte’s failure of nerve.

Much of the action is set backstage at theaters, in TV studios and at Sparks’ talent agency, a small-scale operation where the duo’s prospects are often overshadowed by other artists who toe the line. The viewer understands that those who make it in this business aren’t the more creative types, but rather those whose gimmicks are easiest to grasp and who always solicit advice from senpai (seniors). Tokunaga reviles gimmicks and feels uncomfortable with showbiz politics. At one point, a big producer invites him to dinner to discuss a project. He panics at the prospect of having to refuse work he doesn’t want to do and begs off, much to the chagrin of his partner.

The best thing about “Hibana” is its workplace verisimilitude. Hayashi and Namioka are actors, but Yoshii and Murata are actual manzai comedians, and they bring a sense of desperation to their roles that feels genuine. More to the point, the series presents the routines in their entirety. In many dramatizations of the creative process, the art itself is left to the imagination, but Matayoshi and the various writers and directors involved in the series present full sketches that bring out the characters’ individuality as performers and thinkers, and which add immeasurably to the story’s dramatic impact.

What’s interesting is that Matayoshi’s work with Peace basically makes fun of everyday life — it’s the usual manzai. The stuff Tokunaga and Kamiya do is weirder and more conceptual, almost like the late Andy Kaufmann, to use a non-Japanese cognate. It’s as if in “Hibana,” Matayoshi is the comic he can’t be in real life, and that’s because of television.