The Ultimate Guide to Manzai: No Laughing Matter

Otherwise known as Boke and Tsukkomi Routine, manzai is the country’s wackier take on Straight Man and Wise Guy duo. It has all the premise of an oft-recurring trope in comedy. There’s the stock character who retorts with deadpanned, stodgy lines against their partner’s insufferable jokes and wacky puns. They don’t get to be the jokester, but it’s precisely their impeccable timing on delivering the punchline that makes their banters thrilling and leaves the audience demanding more. In Hollywood, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker turn Rush Hour into a comedic cult classic with their buddy-cop formula. Tucker’s James Carter would make jabs at Chan’s more serious and authoritative character Jonathan Lee.

See the eccentric, rubber-faced comedic duo in your local Japanese TV programs? That’s manzai. Or the airheaded anime character bantering with their cooler best friend? That’s manzai-inspired.

japanese comedy duo
Comedy duo Wagyu (Shinji Mizuta and Kenshirō Kawanishi)

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So What is Manzai?
With a history that traces back thousands of years ago, manzai is anything but your typical stand-up comedy. To date, it retains a certain traditional feel in its acts and incorporates a few Japanese comedic renditions. Instead of the Straight Man, the Wise Guy (boke) sets up a ground for both comedians, bringing on witty jokes for his partner (tsukkomi) to correct. Speedy dialogues upon loony, mundane topics, puns and borderline cheesy misunderstandings form the backbone of manzai.

It’s not uncommon for you to find comedians speaking in the Kansai dialect. The origin of manzai, after all, can be traced back to Osaka, but even in its infancy, it holds great influence on modern Japanese comedies. The traditional comedy has since branched out to modern Japanese comedies — there’s always one character slightly more prim than the other in anime, dramas and films.

Kanji for Manzai
What is the English meaning of manzai (漫才)?
There were wide interpretations and use of kanji for manzai throughout history. Like the act itself, manzai’s etymology underwent several changes. In the Showa period, manzai consisted of two, slightly more complicated kanji characters, ‘萬歳’, which translates to ‘ten thousand years’ — a direct nudge to the grassroots purpose of the routine.

Gradually, the kanji was simplified. ‘才’ (talent, ability) has the same phonetics as ‘歳’ (age), and rather than using ‘萬’ many opted for another form of character, ‘万’.

The manzai that is still so widespread now uses a different set of kanji. When Yoshimoto Kogyo officially announced its manzai program in 1933, it abruptly changed the first character to ‘漫’ (comic). There were debates around who had nailed the decision and coined the kanji: Shonosuke Hayashi or Tetsuhiko Hashimoto. Hashimoto, who was managing the company’s advertisement at that time, was widely believed to be the one pitching the kanji ‘漫才’.

Regardless, the manzai trails down to the form we know of today, more befitting to its new interpretation and essence.

Boke and Tsukkomi
The name ‘boke’ (ボケ), as mentioned, is derived from ‘bokeru’ (惚ける/呆ける), but the initial term was ‘tobokeru’ (惚ける/恍ける) which means ‘to play dumb’. When introducing both performers, the phrase would often be ‘tsukkomi toboke’ (突っ込み惚け), which in itself was a wordplay — ‘to’ meaning ‘and’ in Japanese. Over time, the phrase turned to ‘tsukkomi to boke’ (突っ込みとボケ), which directly translates to tsukkomi and boke. Now, the public referred to the Funny Man role as only ‘boke’.

How is Manzai Different From Other Comedies?
The Roles of Manzai
Polar-opposite duos — or konbi/kombi, loaned from the word ‘combination — decked in flashy, matching costumes, rapid-fire rhythm in the dialogues and a giant paper fan are the notable elements that define manzai. Japanese comedy also generally steers away from politics, which is a complete turn from Western comedies that tend to incorporate satirical elements and insert political jokes.

The role divisions are crucial elements that make manzai the pinnacle of Japanese comedy. No matter the number, the role can only be divided into two: Boke and tsukkomi. There’s the ‘funny man’, known as boke, derived from its verb form ‘bokeru’, which means ‘to be hazy’ or ‘out of focus’ — and that’s exactly how this person acts. A boke is your typical, overly jubilant jester. They’re expected to deliver the funny lines, all while being forgetful and airheaded. They misunderstand even the most surface-level topics and make silly mistakes.

Manzai Comedians' Dynamic and Interaction
In the show, tsukkomi is the second comedian who’d reprimand — and often berate — the boke’s a forgetful habit. Their immediate response to their partner makes the entire performance quirky and borderline comical. The act when tsukkomi butts in is referred to as ‘tsukkomi wo ireru.’

Timing plays an important part in magnifying humor and inciting laughter among the audience. While it’s true that tsukkomi might make brisk reactions, they might not always react to the boke’s joke immediately just to break the tedious cycle. Known as ‘nori-tsukkomi’, they might help mount the boke’s jokes by acting star-struck and convincing with the flow of conversation before striking their iconic no-nonsense punchline.

Both roles can develop the ‘plot’, although a tsukkomi is primarily expected to steer the topics — keeping it consistent with the characters, a boke should be slow-witted, after all. Depending on the comedians’ interpretations — and there is big space for that in the contemporary stage — a boke might expand the topics. The comedians can even switch both roles during certain scenes, and this unexpected twist might bring a fresh performance to the audience.

It's All About Getting Physical in Manzai
The most notable difference that draws the line between manzai and other comedic acts is in how physical the tsukkomi can get. Tsukkomi reacts to boke’s ridiculous jokes and clueless remarks by slapping their hand, chest or hitting the boke’s head. One of the icon props used is a giant pleated paper fan called the harisen. There are often similar types of this comedy around the globe, including the US, Korea and China, but none of them incorporate the hitting-your-partner segment like manzai performers. Most Western acts ​​do not have something with proximity to nori-tsukkomi, as most Wise Guy riffs on the banter straight away.

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History of Manzai
The Beginning of Manzai
Manzai is indeed as rich in history as the next Japanese culture does, but its birth is a humble and unassuming one. Starting in the Heian period, a pair of performers would visit houses in their district as a congratulatory speech for the New Year. One of them would play the drum, while the other delivered “messages from the gods.”  By the Edo period, manzai had evolved into something of a standup routine and grown into several unique styles: Owari manzai, Mikawa manzai, Yamato manzai — and the most influential one, Osaka manzai. With these arrivals, manzai performers began to add more riddles and quirkier jests to their utamai (traditional performing arts).

Despite its rising popularity, manzai would have faded out by the end of World War II if not for deliberate attempts by Japanese conglomerate Yoshimoto Kogyo to preserve and reintroduce them. In the Taisho period, the Osaka-based entertainment business saw the potential in Osaka manzai and introduced them to Tokyo audiences. The new style, stripped of the festive elements of its former, turned into a successful hit. In 1933, the advertising department of Yoshimoto Kogyo coined the term “manzai” and shaped it to its present form.

The Manzai Boom
Achako and Entatsu were the figures to form modern manzai. Under Yoshimoto’s call, the duo pioneered the iconic manzai costume: suit and tie, round glasses and a mustache. Compared to the stiffer, ritualized talk of rakugo (Japanese comic monologue storytelling )  artists, their quick-paced back and forth dialogue appealed to the working-class.

Entering a new era of the industrial revolution, manzai achieved nationwide popularity through talk shows, radios, televised entertainment and even video games. The 1950–60s saw the boom of manzai popularity. Manzai comedians dominated televisions and radio shows in the Kansai region. Emerging manzai-shi (performers), including duo comedian-turned-politician Kiyoshi Nishikawa and Yasushi Yokoyama; Two-Beat; Sento and Ruisu Hoshi, rose to fame and became leaders of the manzai boom. In 1970, Fuji television channel paved the road to popular TV shows, “Kao Meijin Gekijo” and “The Manzai”, both that welcomed professional and young manzai comedians.

Staging a Manzai Show
Adapting to the modern settings, many manzai comedians have begun to settle on modern and street outfits rather than the matching, flashy suits or costumes used by older comedians. Traditionally, however, these costumes always aim to represent their characters, and performers often wear matching suits.

In older manzai shows, you might only notice one mic shared between the manzai duo (or trios). Aside from the very obvious — that there weren’t small-enough mics for a hands-free operation — this device soon became an archetypical device in manzai. Manzai-shi would stand near each other and among a large crowd.

You can also expect comedians to bring their instruments to non-traditional manzai shows. The boke usually carries a small drum with them to create background music. Other common props include a Japanese bamboo and a paper umbrella, although they’re usually ditched in a  storyteller theater.

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Types of Manzai
While there are many types of manzai, the one mainly perceived by the public is Osaka manzai. This specific variation is based upon the older Sankyoku manzai. More exuberant than other traditional styles, the Sankyoku Manzai uses Chinese oriental fiddle, drum and shamisen (three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument).

Then there is the Tokyo manzai, another well-known — although still less comparable — manzai. In general, traditional manzai uses musical instruments to accompany the comedians and incorporates dodoitsu (often-comical Japanese poetry).

Traditionally, manzai is performed by a duo, although it’s not uncommon to have three members squeezed into the talk show.

Well-known Manzai Comedians
Yoshimoto Kogyo established itself as a brimming hub for comedians. Headquartered in Osaka, famous manzai-shi have formed exclusive contracts with the company and began to expand globally. Almost all front liners in Japanese comedic scenes had their start in the notoriously coveted manzai.

Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada are regarded as the most influential manzai duos due to their dramatic comedic interpretations and unorthodox style. Formed in 1981 in Hyogo with the name Downtown, they veered away from the rapid, snappy style of manzai that was prominent in the 80s then, and instead strategically used a slow, muted tone. This was a daring move against other older, more experienced comedians who’d perform in a more brash and explosive manner. Whereas they would perform facing the audience, both men faced each other as if having a conversation.

Appearing in a local television show called Yoji Desu Yoda, the duo rose to prominent fame and gained a young fan base. Since then, they would make other big breaks with long-running variety shows, including Downtown no Gottsu Ee Kanji, and Downtown DX. It is said that it was due to their domination in the media that contributed to Yoshimoto Kogyo’s (their employer) strong association with manzai. Downtown has stopped performing manzai, but the duo still holds the title as the most prominent figure who shaped Japanese comedy as it is now.

Ninety-nine, otherwise called Nainai  (ナイナイ), is another Osaka-born Japanese duo working under Yoshimoto Kogyo. The kombi consisted of Takashi Okamura as boke and Hiroyuki Yabe as tsukkomi. Unlike Downtown’s radical take on manzai, Ninety-nine’s comedic acts are more typical and subdued. They were formed in 1990 and have been active since then, taking on TV segments set in Hongkong and Italy. They had their break in the notorious TV comedy battle where manzai-shi competed to stay on the show. Like other members under the Yoshimoto mantle, the duos speak in a thick Kansai dialect, prominent in their successful hit show Metcha Metcha Ikiteru.

Bakusho Mondai
Includes Bakusho Mondai (‘burst into laughter’), known for their vigorous rambling monologues from the boke Ohta Hikari whose partner Tanaka Yuji tries so hard to keep up. The manzai duo gained attention following Tanaka’s. They currently host many variety and quiz shows, as well as commenting on the occasional radio broadcast.

Other big names include Taka and Toshi (with their iconic line, “​​“Are you Western?"), Impulse, Garage Sales, Lover Girl — where one person talks in diplomatic (or otherwise evasive) Japanese and the other taking the literal meaning — and Drunk Dragon.

Where Can You Watch Manzai?
Manzai shows are primarily held in theatres called yose, all scattered throughout Japan, but the biggest and most famous ones are located in Osaka and Tokyo. Comedy programs are also broadcasted nationwide. Once a year, a manzai contest is held for performers to compete, with the winner receiving prize money and gaining the title of the next leading manzai duos.

The hit from COVID-19 is particularly brutal to Japan’s art sector, and the manzai industry is no different. Performers — many of whom are freelancers and whose income primarily relies on gigs — are facing struggles following the closure of many theatres and show cancellations. Many theatres saw their sales plunge about 70 percent from the previous year due to preventive measures. Earlier this year, two rakugo associations launched a crowdfunding campaign for donations to sustain the traditional Japanese performances. After reports came that many yose theatres are hanging by a thread from financial collapse, the group aims to raise ¥50 million by mid-summer for five yose in Tokyo.

The phrase, “as one door closes, another one opens,” couldn’t ring a truer bell. With physical venues shutting down, many companies have started to encourage comedians to start their own Youtube channels. This, of course, is quite a far-fetched pursuit, and even most comedians are uncertain of what the move entails. For all its sardonic twists and puns, manzai is still a traditional stand-up comedy. Standing among an audience and sharing one big mic accounts for a big part of its original charm. Now, more and more manzai shows are held remotely, abandoning Japanese preference for a physical location for remote live shows and plastic shields.

Shaking Up Conventions in Manzai
There’s a shift in the sphere, particularly in the agencies’ attempt to revitalize manzai’s old-school image. In 2017, Yoshimoto Kogyo formed a partnership with Netflix to publish its first international series ‘What’s Manzai?!!!’ The goal is simple: to introduce the world to Japanese comedy in the twenty-first century. The showbiz documentary starred Stephen Tetsu, a Californian-native manzai performer, in his quest to dive into the craft of Japanese comedy. From his training in manzai school as mundane as voice control and scriptwriting to something as bizarre as dance classes and sword fighting, the episodes trace Tetsu and his partner Leo Togawa’s narrative in becoming foreign manzai performers. After signing with Yoshimoto Creative Agency, they formed ‘Iruka Punch’, with Tetsu taking on the role of boke.

To say that manzai has grown to be more inclusive and diverse, or to even assume that it’s going in the right direction (and not to a path of self-destruction) is still arguable. There’s Tetsu and his partner, the first  — and very few — foreign manzai comedians trying to make it big. For him, this means hopping over several stumbling blocks: mastering the Japanese language, overcoming cultural differences and navigating his way among the highly hierarchical and coveted manzai community. And then there is Utsumi Keiko from the manzai duo Keiko, who made a milestone breakthrough on becoming one of the first women to enter manzai. She was highly respected among her colleagues in the early 90s before her passing.  Starting her career at the age of sixteen, Keiko shapes a woman’s place in this comedy realm.

The future of manzai is rather ambiguous. It’s still male-centered, long-established humor. Much like other time-honored traditions, manzai appeals to the older demographic and sees the limited need to expand. Yet is an art nevertheless — and art bends and calls to societal changes. It is never sure and steady. Still, we can always agree on one thing: what is funny is funny.

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