Yoshimoto and the Business of Comedy in Japan

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

The 3rd Annual Okinawa International Movie Festival is going on in Japan right now. From March 18th through the 27th, screenings and events are taking place as planned. What has changed is seemingly everything else in the country. But, instead of canceling the film festival in light of the recent tragedy, its organizers decided to forge ahead in hopes to bring even a moment of light to a devastated nation. The original theme of “Laugh & Peace” has been supplanted with “Yell, Laugh and Peace.” According to a recent article on Nippon Cinema, the organizers explained the addition to the theme as a “a yell from the people of Okinawa and entertainers from all over the world to the victims.” They acknowledge proceeding with the festival could be perceived as offensive, but the hope is the healing power of laughter will prevail.

The major organizer and sponsor of the event is none other than comedy behemoth Yoshimoto Kogyo. In America, celebrities have studio execs, agents, producers, lawyers, publicists, etc. carefully culling and maintaining their careers. In Osaka, they have Yoshimoto. Specifically, comedians have Yoshimoto. Described in a recent Variety article as a “99-year-old indie TV production and talent management shingle,” Yoshimoto is more like a one-stop-shop for content creation in its native country and making moves to become a global presence. Indie seems like a misnomer, but maybe it means something different in Variety’s cryptic industry lingo.

Some call it a talent management agency, Wikipedia calls it a conglomerate and according to the Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. LTD Corporate & Financial Strategy report from 2009, the company aims to be “the leading content producing company through a foundation on talent management.” Currently, Yoshimoto has nearly 800 entertainers in its family and media partnerships that would make Rupert Murdoch’s heart stop. Not saying that’s a bad thing. The company owns multiple theatres in Osaka, has deals with Faith for mobile content, partnerships with nearly every broadcast station, and deals with Yahoo for internet publicity. From inception to delivery, Yoshimoto has you covered every step of the way when it comes to creating new content. Or as they call it: the “full value chain.”

The house of Yoshimoto is fundamentally built on talent. Multiplatform content is great, but not without great content to fill it. Luckily, Yoshimoto happens to represent some of the most popular comedians in Japan and has for nearly 30 years now. Founded in 1912 by Yoshibe Yoshimoto and his wife Sei, Yoshimoto Kogyo began with the acquisition of one theater. Now, the company owns many theaters, many television franchises, houses the Osaka Prefectural Museum of Kamigata Comedy and Performing Arts, and even has a comedy theme park in Okura Hokkaido.

Part of the continuing success of Yoshimoto Kogyo probably comes from its partnerships with multiplatform media groups. In fact, it recently announced a partnership with US company Shine Intl. and IAC’s Notional — moves suggesting their sights are no longer set on just the land of the rising sun.

However, the talent pool plays the biggest role in their success and boys, they are swimming in it! A sea change came with the opening of the New Star Creation School in 1982. Unlike in the US where most aspiring comedians have to tough it out on unforgiving open-mic nights or making YouTube videos they hope will go “the viral,” hopeful Japanese comedians head for Osaka and try to get accepted into a comedy agency school. There are many other agencies and schools in town — called “jimushos”, but Yoshimoto is the biggest and the brightest. And kind of like the mafia, once you’re in a jimusho, you’re in it for life.

The industry is purported to be highly secretive, and information on how the system works is not readily available on the Internet. I found an article written last year entitled “The Jimusho System: Part One,” that attempts to break down the labor/manufacturer structure within these agencies. The author postulates that these artist management companies are almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of pop culture in Japan. With each media merger in the US, it feels like every song, quote, movie and app we consume comes from the same faucet — but in Japan, that might be true.

As the article points out, an agency like Yoshimoto does not operate like CAA where your agent works to find you work and then takes 10%. You join Yoshimoto as an employee of Yoshimoto. While many struggling comedians I know would probably love a salaried job where they could list their position as “professional comedian,” it’s not quite as cushy a set-up as it sounds. Comedians join as employees and earn a very low monthly salary, but in accepting the salary they surrender 100% of their media appearance fees, copyright royalties, publishing payments and any other income. Talent can renegotiate their salary each year, but for all intents and purposes Yoshimoto owns you.

Of course, Yoshimoto also invests an incredible amount of time and resources into developing your career. The article goes on to explain the lengths to which an agency will go to groom the talent: stage names, plastic surgery, style and a host of talent lessons from singing to dancing to punch line delivery. You’re nothing if not taken care of.

Seems kind of like a bum deal, but a Yoshimoto success story is one that can last a lifetime. All those “crazy” Japanese videos you’ve passed around on the Internet with your friends? More often than not it probably was a product of Yoshimoto.

Case in point, I remember watching the now infamous Silent Library with a friend and laughing until tears were rolling down our faces. For those of you who aren’t already familiar, you’re welcome:

What I discovered in my research from this article is that Silent Library is a bit from the wildly popular show Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende! It translates to “Downtown’s This Is No Task For Kids!!” and it’s a Japanese variety comedy show hosted by the crazy popular manzai “combi” Downtown. And who manages Downtown? Why, our friends at Yoshimoto!

A combi is the slang name for the comedy duo performing the popular Japanese comedy style of Manzai. Much like Xiangsheng, which I discussed in my first piece on Comedy Tourism, Manzai involves a wacky character and a straight man who can only shake his head or hang it in disbelief. I’m distilling the definition down to the lowest common denominator, I apologize, but for the sake of time I’ll let an example of Manzai in action speak for it. Here’s Downtown’s stage act (don’t worry, w/ English subtitles):

Other popular Manzai duos include Ninety-Nine, Rozan and Tutorial featured in the video below:

Japanese comedy seems to skirt politics and social commentary for observations on daily life and mannerisms. It is this difference that I believe makes Japanese humor more difficult to understand for an American comedy tourist like me. Sometimes it comes across as goofy and frenetic — but per my usual schpiel I think it offers an insight into Japanese culture. For example, it’s telling that one of Downtown’s This Is No Task For Kids show most popular segments is the “Batsu” games. Batsu means punishment, and the punishments they come up with are…unique. For example, a tongue-twister game in which contestants face the punishment of crotch shot if they can’t complete the twister.

Seems a little odd to my Western point of view, but people getting hit in the crotch tends to be universally funny — and the Downtown crew is happy to provide.

Another more perplexing character in the Yoshimoto family is a character called “Hard Gay.” Yoshimoto comedian Masaki Sumatani began his career as a professional wrestler and while the beginnings of the HG character was supposedly born in that world, knowing what I know about the Yoshimoto process I can’t help but wonder if they had a hand in its development.

Hard Gay channels the spirit of Bruno, with an in-your-face sexuality and ridiculous pleather costumes. The language barrier may really prevent satire coming through if it exists within the character — but from what I can glean he’s mostly about over-the-top hijinx and catch phrases like “hooooo.” It’s natural to speculate that Sumatani could offend the LGBT community with his portrayal (I mean, the name is “Hard Gay”) but controversy sells and again I wonder if it’s all part of Yoshimoto’s bigger business plan. Take a look at two videos, the first in which Hard Gay visits the offices of Yahoo (reminder: a partner of Yoshimoto) and one in which he cooks with children. Enjoy:

And if you’re interested in more, check out Yoshimoto’s YouTube channel. You won’t find any English subtitles, but their brand of comedy is so physical and visceral they might not be totally necessary.

Comedy in Japan is both instantly accessible and totally mystifying to me. When I watch a typical “Japan TV is CRAZAYY” video sent to me, I certainly laugh. It’s weird, right? All the people on stage, all the bright colors, the props hitting people in their private parts is easy to write off as shocking silly stuff. But, a company as successful and entrenched as Yoshimoto Kogyo would not survive on goofy faces alone. Practice makes perfect, and companies like YK manufacture that perfection to elevate a joke into a pop culture touchstone. I would argue the industry behind comedy has turned the art of the gag into just plain art.

If you have not done so already, please make a donation for disaster relief in Japan.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

Yoshimoto and the Business of Comedy in Japan