Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I Am Hiroshi

Is it possible to judge a culture by its comedy?

I remember the Reagan 80s very well. Never mind that I spent that entire decade in high school and college (mainly the latter). We saw a lot of the same sort of trends then that we are seeing in the W. Bush 00s now. Jingoism was in. Flags were everywhere. You were either with “us” (i.e. America) or with “them” (i.e. the U.S.S.R.). Free enterprise was the rallying cry for a whole, new class of young, up-and-coming professionals that considered greed a virtue and insisted that unrestrained consumption was an inalienable right. These “yuppies”, together with the suburban aristocrat (wanna-be) “preppies” and cultural revolutionary (wanna-be) “wavos” made artificial beauty and feigned refinement the name of the day. Pretty, plastic faces surrounded by immaculate hairstyles voiced intolerance and suspicion of the outsider. Meanwhile, despite the spread of the so-called “new age” movement, there was a rise in Christian fundamentalism. Large, fancy “community churches” began popping up all over and drawing people in with their new and modern face and then giving them a very, very old message of fire and brimstone. Soon their members were picketing “adult” stores and Toys R Us, harassing (albeit in a very low-key way) certain members of society, and moving to take over civil committees and school boards so as to force their views on the rest of the “misguided” public. One thing was certain in the 80s: even though it was the age of Madonna, ugliness and indecency were not to be tolerated in general society.

So, what sort of comedy was popular in 80s America? Comedians such as Eddie Murphy and Sam Kennison, who worked very hard to take “offensive” to a whole new level. In an age of beauty and decency, they were gross and tasteless, and people loved them for it.

Opposites attract, I suppose.

I came to Japan in 1990. When I did, society here still generally valued politeness, moderation, public decency, education, status, and cuteness. On the other hand, most of the comedy I saw then was groups consisting of an obnoxious, loud-mouthed jerk with a gravelly voice accompanied by one or more sidekicks that were total morons. The routine invariably involved the jerk yelling a lot and hitting his companion(s) over the head with something. The only notable exception was one widely-popular comedian (whose name I don’t recall at the moment) whose TV program reminded me a lot of Benny Hill. His sketches were either dirty or just plain silly, but usually in a rather cute, dry way. Even so, his most famous regular routine was an act known as “Hen-na Ojisan” (“weird guy”) which involved him dressing up as an ugly, dirty man and suddenly popping out of strange places (a girl’s P.E. locker, a laundry basket, a pillowcase in a girl’s bed, etc., always accompanied by a diminished 7th chord) whereupon he would grab an apparently underage girl and haul her off.

In the age of refinement and status, obnoxious and vulgar made for a good laugh.

Things changed in the mid to late 90s. Suddenly politeness and moderation started to give way to a more in-your-face attitude. Young people were becoming more self-centered and assertive. Dress fashions started becoming louder and more individualistic. Even so, there was still a certain level of public decency. Even if boys and girls alike were wearing clothes that exposed their underwear on purpose, they usually wore a second pair over them to defend their sense of modesty.

What kind of comedy was popular then? Well, strangely, an awful lot of it involved relatively polite, mild-mannered guys that kept taking their clothes off. Many if not most comedy programs on TV had to have at least one scene where a soft-spoken guy came in wearing nothing but a superimposed black dot over his privates (if he wasn’t very obviously playing with them). One such “comedian” even had to be rushed off the stage by the police at his first and last performance in an Islamic country (Turkey) because the crowd went rabid and charged the stage when he dropped his drawers and did a little dance. Strangely, people here didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Then came the turn of the century. There were sweeping changes in the government that somehow left the bureaucrats even more entrenched and corrupt than before. A new sort of snobbishness seemed to pop up among young people as they asserted their right to choose their own path in life, which often included such wonderful things as telephone date clubs and websites (read “teen prostitution”). The indie punk groups that were becoming popular in the late 90s gave way to big-label pop artists once again, and both the new idols and the recycled old ones were suddenly being a lot more blatantly sexual…but still pretending to be classy. It was clear that the establishment was back with a vengeance, only without the pretense of morality.

Interestingly, the most popular comedy acts during this period made fun of said establishment, either by parodying established media figures or singing catchy songs about the absurdities of modern life. (Nan de darou…nan de darou…na-na-na-nan de darou…)

Now we are in the mid 00s, and slacker culture has definitely taken hold here. Young people are losing their direction in life. There are increasing numbers of kids dropping out of school and/or becoming “freeters”, i.e. people who hop from one part-time job to another because they’re too lazy and/or spoiled to get a real job. Even the kids that stay in school seem eerily lacking in any kind of interest. A lot of the time they just kind of sit there waiting for someone to come and take care of them. They don’t know who they are, and they don’t really care.

That brings us to our current comédien du jour, Hiroshi. He is extremely popular right now, to the point that even politicians are quoting him. He is also most definitely unique.

Every time I’ve seen him on TV, he has always stood on a dark, cheerless stage, his face frozen in a sad look under his shock of dyed-blond hair, his voice low, quick, and whiny. His entire routine consists of him introducing himself. It is a string of one-liners, every one of which starts with “Hiroshi desu” (“I am Hiroshi”) followed by a short claim or anecdote, usually a testament of bad luck. Sometimes it’s not clear whether he’s really bragging or feeling sorry for himself. Sometimes it’s just plain bizarre:

“I am Hiroshi. I just spent 10,000 yen ($100) at a 100 yen ($1) a bowl noodle shop.”
“I am Hiroshi. No matter how much chocolate I eat, my nose just won’t bleed.”
“I am Hiroshi. I said hello to my mother yesterday, and she called the police.”
“I am Hiroshi. I went to the doctor, and, unfortunately, he cured me.”
“I am Hiroshi. I tried to clean my apartment, but the cat got away.”

If prevailing comedy trends tend to be a sort of upside-down reflection of current social trends, what does Hiroshi say about Japan right now? I’ll leave it to you to decide.


4 Comments:

  • Sounds like a Steven Wright knockoff.

    By Blogger DewKid, at 6:49 AM  

  • "For my birthday I got a humidifier and a de-humidifier... I put them in the same room and let them fight it out. Then I filled my humidifier with wax, and now my room is all shiny."

    By Anonymous Steven Wright, at 6:51 AM  

  • It is the daunting task of teachers, such as yourself, to mold the minds of our youth.

    Obviously, you and your peers are doing a great job.

    Just look at all the moldy-minded kids. :P

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:40 AM  

  • I really liked Steven Wright. he was one of very few 80s comedians that was actually interesting instead of just trying to impress people with how tasteless he could be.

    "Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of the song? Whoever wrote that song wrote every song. Think of the royalties he could get."

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home