During a prolonged recession in Japan, one area that has managed to stay upbeat is the entertainment business. They say laughter is the best medicine and when people are sick and tired of worrying about government reforms and company downsizing, they turn to variety and comedy shows. And these days comedy is synonymous with Yoshimoto Kogyo. With some 800 celebrities, mostly comedians, on the payroll the company is a major player in Japanese showbiz and almost singlehandedly launched the "owarai" (comedy) boom of recent years.
Yoshimoto Kogyo was started in Osaka in 1912 as a yose, a theater that hosts the traditional storytelling known as rakugo. This form of comedy has since largely dropped out of the mainstream and can be seen mainly on NHK public television or in "shitamachi" areas such as Tokyo's Asakusa. In its place, the comic style known as manzai has become the standard in Japanese entertainment. Consisting of two performers, a straight man and a funny man, it is much closer to the western idea of a comedy duo. Just as the US had Abbott & Costello and the UK had Morecombe & Wise, Japan had Yasu-Kiyo. Yokoyama Yasushi and Nishikawa Kiyoshi were the biggest comedy stars of their day (the 1970s and 80s) and one of Yoshimoto's most successful acts. Yokoyama had that rare comic genius that is so often tinged with a self-destructive streak. His impeccable comic timing and stage presence were mixed with unpredictable off-stage behaviour and excessive drinking that led to his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1996 at the age of 51. The duo's manager and thus the man in charge of "cleaning up" after Yokoyama for eight and a half years was Kimura Masao, now the director of Yoshimoto.
Kimura joined Yoshimoto back in 1969, it was already a successful company, having listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange eight years earlier. But it was not a prestigious or glamourous place to work. In the 30 years since, the company has produced some of the biggest names in comedy and grown into an entertainment giant. "We make people happy, that's our business", says Kimura. "We offer happiness as a solution to life." Now young university graduates apply each year in droves to get on the happy - and financially successful - bandwagon at the New Star Creation school in Osaka. The company employs about 650 entertainers, who outnumber the other "regular" staff by almost three to one.
In the 1980s, the baton was passed from Yasu-Kiyo to the young duo who called themselves Downtown. Thanks to the huge popularity they have enjoyed these Kansai natives have made the region's dialect almost the de-facto language of comedy in Japan. And following in their successful footsteps is a whole troupe of other comedians who appear on their shows, make a name for themselves and then move up the ladder. In the entertainment world, as in most areas of Japanese life, the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship is key. It means showing due respect for your sempai and doing anything they tell you to do - no matter how humiliating - in the name of comedy. Downtown's kohai's include such people as Imada Koji, Yamada Hanako, Fujii Takashi, Cocorico, Ninety-Nine and London Boots. While these established names can make big money, especially through commercial endorsements, many of the other hundreds of entertainers earn nothing as they receive their on-the-job training. Others rise suddenly to the top, well, the second tier anyway, on the back of winning a comedy tournament or having a routine or catchphrase that captures the public imagination. Examples of this would be the duos Oriental Radio and Tutorial.
In recent years, the Yoshimoto empire has been expanding. In addition to signing up athletes and musicians such as producer Komuro Tetsuya and singer Suzuki Ami, they have opened their own comedy theme park in Otaru, Hokkaido and a Yoshimoto Shinkigeki (comedy theater) in Shinjuku, Tokyo and have staged productions in Asia and the US. While the company's bottom line must be to make money, Kimura sees his goal as even more basic. "Something is wrong in Japan, I'm afraid. I think it has something to do with our way of life. Japanese life is lacking in humor and laughter." Yoshimoto is trying to redress that balance, while turning a tidy profit. An example was the success of their reworking of the famous Sakamoto Kyu hit song "Ashita ga aru sa" (There's Always Tomorrow). Virtually every major Yoshimoto name sang on the record, which played in a series of TV commercials and even spawned its own TV series, featuring the trials of typical "salarymen". It also became an optimistic anthem for the youth of Japan, who are trying to find some hope at the end of a decade of recession and upheaval. Yoshimoto's humor and optimism is just what the doctor ordered.
In a scene from "Ashita Ga Aru Sa", (L-R) Cocorico's Tanaka and Endo, Fujii Takashi and Downtown's Hamada
Hazama Kanpei, a leader of the comedy troupe in the 1970s
London Boots No.1/No.2