In today’s Japan Times there is a feature about the comedy duo Woman Rush Hour, who were all over the media in December because they won the grand prize in a high-profile TV comedy competition. I had planned to write about them for my first Media Mix column of the new year but when I learned a staff writer would be covering the group in depth I held off. This is the incomplete first draft of the column I had in mind. It covers a few points that aren’t in the JT feature, which includes exclusive comments from Yusuke Muramoto, the brains behind the act.
As we embark on a new year, Japanese media are still rehashing the last one, and one of the TV personalities who has received special notice is Yusuke Muramoto, the brains behind the hot manzai (standup comedy) duo, Woman Rush Hour.
Muramoto’s ascendance is interesting in many ways, but mainly beause he’s been around for so long. Woman Rush Hour—Muramoto’s partner is Nakagawa Paradise—has been working for at least a decade and has been considered a promising comedy act for many years. Before he was forced to retire due to a scandal some years ago, the influential comedian and TV host Shinsuke Shimada sung their praises repeatedly whenever their paths crossed, and not just because both acts belonged to the same powerful production company, Yoshimoto Kogyo.
As with most manzai konbi (comedy combinations), Woman Rush Hour’s reputation was built on their style, which is furiously fast and glib. On paper, they aren’t necessarily funny, though that’s probably true of most manzai artists, who put more effort into distinctive shticks than in the material in order to make a strong impression.
However, it’s been their material that’s attracted attention. On Dec. 17, they won the grand prize on Fuji TV’s annual comedy contest, “The Manzai,” with a routine that was pointedly political, covering nuclear safety, North Korea, U.S. bases on Okinawa, the Tokyo Olympics and victims of natural disasters. And while the punchlines didn’t always hit the funnybone, the relentlessness of Muramoto’s jabs made an impression. The next day, they were the toast of social media.
Unlike in some other countries, politics is considered taboo for mainstream Japanese comedians, especially on television, but the taboo is self-enforced. Though there’s no indication of cynicism on Muramoto’s part—if anything, he seems to be earnest in his approach to his topics—the idea of injecting political ideas in his comedy is obviously a calculated one.
As the online magazine Litera pointed out in its positive overview of the group posted the day after “The Manzai” broadcast, Muramoto seems to be deadly serious about the effect he wants to have on listeners. He will often conclude routines by pointing at the audience and saying something along the lines of, I’m talking about you; meaning, it’s all well and good to laugh about these matters, but it’s up to you to change them.
This attitude has been central to Muramoto’s public persona for a while, but since he himself wasn’t commanding much attention his remarks didn’t command much either. Litera cites several instances of him appearing on TV and taking decidedly anti-government positions. Last summer, he was on TV Asahi’s marathon debate program, “Asa Made Nama Terebi” (“Live TV Until Morning”), and his comments were so caustic that the show’s moderator, veteran journalist Soichiro Tahara, became visibly annoyed.
Muramoto is by no means the first Japanese comedian to use his status to talk about politics. Hikari Ota, half of the manzai duo Bakusho Mondai, once hosted a TV show where he played at being the prime minister, and occasionally he covered controversial topics. However, Ota didn’t incorporate these opinions into his manzai routines, and for the most part the opinions expressed on the prime minister show were made by guest pundits whose job it is to make such pronouncements. Comedians, even when they are guests on variety shows that cover politics and current affairs, are not expected to provide insight into the topics discussed. They are there to learn about the topics discussed. In effect, they are stand-ins for the viewers at home.
The most repesentative examples of this kind of thing are the occasional specials, usually broadcast on TV Tokyo, where journalist Akira Ikegami explains current events to a panel of comedians who ooh and ahh at the knowledge they’re receiving. What’s frustrating about these shows is that anyone who has even a slight familiarity with the headlines knows the gist of Ikegami’s explanations, but panel members always act as if they know nothing. Surely, these comedians, who make their livings out of being clever, are not as dumb as they appear on this show. Another example, but from the opposite direction, is the ubiquitous veteran TV personality Tamori, who loves to show off his erudition, especially on his NHK series, “Buratamori,” in which he explores various cities and neighborhoods on foot in the presence of local experts who always express shock when Tamori betrays knowedge of the topic at hand. After all these years, even Tamori isn’t expected to know about these things.
It’s not part of a comedian’s job to be informed. That’s somebody else’s job. The comedian is there to lighten the proceedings with witty comments. So while it may look as if Woman Rush Hour is shattering taboos, what they’re mainly shattering is a stereotype. And as Litera pointed out, Muramoto takes what he does seriously. He sees his job a being not just an entertainer, but also an activist in the service of weaker people, who are usually the butt of jokes in Japan. Another reason topical matters aren’t addressed by mainstream comics is that it might necessitate making fun of people in power.