TV changed Kenichi Tada’s life. Well, more like one particular show. The life insurance salesman was on a trip to the States when he caught an episode of improvisational comedy program "Whose Line is it Anyway?" When he returned to Tokyo, he ditched the suit and set about liberating his inner performer.
“In Japanese culture, people are so afraid of making mistakes that the idea of performing without a script terrifies them,” he explains. A “very accepting and supportive” workshop helped him overcome his own fears, and he now regularly performs with the Xpot improv group. Along the way, he quit the day job for a full-time career under the lights.
Was his family worried about such a radical move? “They’re still worried,” he sighs.
Tada is one of a small but growing community of improvisers in the capital, both Japanese and foreign. At the upcoming Tokyo Impro Festival, which he helped organize, 80 local performers will be doing their thing in both English and Japanese, alongside visitors from Los Angeles, Boston and Seoul. The main aim of the event, he says, is to reach out to a Japanese audience unaccustomed to on-the-fly hilarity, showing them that not everything in life must be scripted and prescribed. Simply put, it’s to “encourage people to experience improvisation for the first time.”
According to Tada, “energy, curiosity and the wish to try new things” are the key qualities needed to succeed in an art form that sits halfway between game, sport, and sheer, seat-of-the-pants entertainment. No two shows are the same in improv, though formats might be familiar. As in jazz, standards are played with different arrangements depending on the performers, the audience and the venue—all combined with the capricious whims of the Comedy Gods.
Ask Jun Imai, Japanese director of the bilingual group Tokyo Comedy Store, and he’ll tell you that there’s another key skill: listening. You can’t perform in a team if you aren’t attentive to everyone else’s antics. Someone who’s dominant, loud and funny might make for a great stand-up comedian, but in improvisation that won’t do.
Imai started off as a method actor, and it was famous casting director Yoko Narahashi who enlisted him in 1998 to interpret at classes by visiting improv guru Keith Johnstone. Working with this “inspirational figure” led Imai down the improv route himself, and it’s a path that he’d recommend to any professional actor. But why stop there? He believes it should be required for “all Japanese people, to help them open themselves up for productivity and creativity.”
“Japanese people are creative when they have something to adapt,” he continues. “Improvisation is pure creation from nothing, moment by moment. Every storyline is original.”
Having performed with his group at the Chicago Improv Festival, Tada believes the Japanese style is a little different from what you’ll find in the West. “Japanese improvisation often tells more of a story, bordering on straight theater,” he says. Audiences are also notably quieter here and less eager to participate than the loudmouth crowds in other countries. Creative solutions to this have included getting spectators to write down suggestions, or dividing performers into teams that the audience can vote on.
Still, Imai feels that the homegrown improv scene has a way to go yet. “Many groups have a tendency to stupidity,” he says of his Japanese counterparts. “Real improvisation requires truth, an honesty about what you are performing. People who don’t understand it haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen good ones—like us.”
The Tokyo Comedy Store organizes four different shows a month in Japanese at Shibuya venue Crocodile, including the Grand Prix, a kind of year-long improv premier league whose winner gets a fast-track into Hollywood auditions. Even more intriguing is the monthly “Private Life of a Drag Queen,” where both female and male performers improvise a transvestite’s daily grind.
Come the final Friday of the month, the group’s English-language performers take over. Their most recent show turned out to be quite a night: accents, impersonations, dances, sizzling repartee and an impromptu musical entitled “Plastic Surgery Street” all featured during three hours of entertainment. Musical interludes were provided by the Infinite Happiness Orchestra, a group consisting of clarinet, ukelele and a pretty-boy clown doing percussion in suspenders.
You can expect something entirely different at the next performance, but one constant is drag-queen compère Mitsubishi McQueen, a tall Aussie with astonishing legs, who was festooned with disembodied limbs for Halloween. And, at the center of the action, there’s resident improv troupe Spontaneous Confabulation, a team of seasoned pros directed by Chris Wells.
Talk improv in Tokyo, and Wells’ name will come up—usually within about four seconds. A resident of Japan for 16 years, he performed at the Tokyo Comedy Store’s first ever show and became co-director soon afterwards. Quite a few years, many performers and a couple of venues later, he’s now director.
Though he speaks fluent Japanese, Wells doesn’t often perform in the language. “Some things are very difficult to translate,” he points out. “For example, ‘Avast ye scurvy lads, hoist the mainsail.’ How can you do pirate in Japanese?”
The audience at the Crocodile shows is largely expat, which he admits “gives us a certain bond from the start. Plus they tend to be starved for live entertainment in English.”
This might slowly be changing, though. Having monopolized the English-language improv scene for yonks, the Tokyo Comedy Store was recently joined by a new face. Five years after founding the successful Pirates of the Dotombori group in Osaka, Minnesota native Mike Staffa recently launched a Kanto troupe, the Pirates of Tokyo Bay. The group, which counts performers from the U.S., Canada, France, Japan, England and Wales among its number, will debut at the Tokyo Impro Festival this month, followed by a show at Shibuya institution The Pink Cow the following night.
Staffa works for the online game company that brought you "World of Warcraft," but he shuns virtual game-playing in favor of the on-stage variety. In Osaka, the Pirates are fully bilingual, alternating games in English and Japanese.
“The bilingual thing started when Nova… went bankrupt in 2007, and 500 expat English teachers left Osaka,” he recounts. “They were our audience base, so we had to change up. We started the bilingual show and soon we were the place for mixed couples to come on dates.” Though the Pirates of Tokyo Bay will perform purely in English at first, the plan is to start bilingual improv in the capital too.
So how do you get involved yourself? The Pirates are auditioning for new members every few months, while Wells organizes a weekly improv workshop at Our Space in Hatagaya, and a monthly session at The Pink Cow. Improv-A-Go-Go doesn’t have the professional sheen of the Tokyo Comedy Store, but if these guys are amateurs, they roll with the punches well. Newcomers are welcome to join in, too—just turn up an hour before showtime.
The crowd changes a little each time, but there are some mainstays. Jeremy Eaton, 41, works as a professional juggler at Disneyland and does a mean robot impersonation. Canadian Cleve Lendon has been taking lessons for three years and found improvisation to be life-changing, leaving him “less inhibited and less afraid of making mistakes.”
Wisconsin native Dan Hegedus agrees. “It’s a good way to be creative,” he says. “Tokyo is not a creative city. There is plenty of conformity despite the color.” And more than anything, improv represents a way to avoid “sliding down the gray gentleman slope.”
In other words: seize the moment.
- Tokyo Impro Festival 2010, through Nov 28 (International Night on Nov 27).
International improvisation summit features English- and Japanese-language performers in a variety of settings. Most performances 2,800 yen (advance)/3,000 yen (door). See website for schedule. Puk Pupa Teatro, Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3379-0234. http://tokyoimpro.jp/english.html
- The Pirates of Dotombori and Pirates of Tokyo Bay also perform at The Pink Cow on Nov 28.
Osaka-based improve comedy troupe clashes with its new Kanto sibling, Pirates of Tokyo Bay. Nov 28, 7 p.m., 1,500 yen. The Pink Cow, Shibuya. www.piratesoftokyobay.com
The TCS Crocodile Show is held on the last Friday of every month at Crocodile: B1F, 6-18-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3499-5205. Nearest stn: Shibuya. www.tokyocomedy.com
The Tokyo Comedy Store Improv Workshop is held 7-9 p.m. every Wednesday at Our Space: Toei Shoppoing Center 101, 2-1-1 Hatagaya, Shibuya-ku. Nearest stn: Hatagaya. See www.meetup.com/tokyo-improv for details.
- Improv A-Go-Go usually takes place every third Thursday of the month at The Pink Cow: B1F, 1-3-18 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3406-5597. Nearest stn: Shibuya. www.thepinkcow.com
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today