Changes in the “King of Contrast” felt this season
GAG Fukui Shuntaro is known for his unique “Hikuneto” (low, mousy voice) style of comedy, and has made it to the King of Conte finals four times. He is also currently a member of the unit “Omiya Seven”, which performs mainly at the Omiya Raccoon Yoshimoto Theater in Saitama.
What did he think of this year’s King of Comedy? We talked to him about various aspects of comedy, including the turning point that changed his attitude toward the competition, his impressions of the younger generation of comedy units, and the differences in the way comedy is presented in the East and West.
We’re satisfied with the result… but it won’t pass unless it’s more popular than last year.
–Unfortunately, you didn’t make it to the finals of this year’s King of Comedy. Can you tell us how you feel about that?
Fukui: Of the two days of the semi-finals that we usually have, I didn’t feel much of a response on the first day this year. I think the people who did well on both days made it to the finals, so I’m totally satisfied with the result. Up until last year, I felt like I didn’t make any mistakes and that I had done my best, but not this year. On the first day, I had the impression that things weren’t going well, and once again, I realized that this is a tournament where such reactions have a real impact.
–In the YouTube channel “GAG Fukui’s Hikunetto Channel,” the writer Onoue-san said, “The pressure of laughter reached all the way to the back of the hall,” didn’t he?
Fukui: The second day, when Onouye did the sound design, wasn’t too bad, but the first day was a bit weak. I think there’s a pattern of one of the two days being explosively popular and going on to the finals, but I don’t think that’s the case for us. We’ve been a part of this event many times, and I think we’d have to be even more popular than last year to make it through.
The color of the competition has changed completely.
–I have the impression that this year’s King of Comedy was even more exciting than last year. What do you think are the reasons for that?
Fukui: I think the biggest factor is that the judges have changed. I found out on Twitter that this year there were about 100 cabs driving around Tokyo with the finalists’ pictures in the windows. It seemed to me that the contestants were putting in a lot of effort, and that this was the year to win (laughs).
(laughs) One of the biggest changes in the competition is that the judges are now the ones who write the stories. Up until last year, the judges were not judging the script, but rather the silliness of the story, or simply how funny it was to the judges. That’s how I thought of the competition myself.
However, this year, I thought that there was another criterion that was taken into consideration, such as the fun of the script or the fact that it was the person who wrote the story. For example, something like, “This setting is amazing because I never thought of it. In addition to the ridiculousness, I feel that the strength of the script and the quality of the work were included in the judging criteria. I think there were a few comedies, including the male trapeze act, that really fit the competition this year.
I think the scores would have been different if they had performed the exact same material last year or this year. I don’t know if I can say it’s from this year, but I think the color of the competition has changed a bit.
–The average age of the finalists has also become much younger. Maybe it’s because of the generational influence, but I felt that many of the performances were a good blend of character comedy and composition.
Fukui: I also got the impression that there was a generational change. The quality of the material is simply high in all 10 groups this year. Of course, the quality is high every year, but this year it was especially high.
However, I thought that the year of The Geese, us, and other people of the older generation would come again. I don’t know when that will be, but until we see the first signs of it, the generation around us may suffer. I don’t know much about it, but I hear it’s the same in the fashion world (laughs).
(laughs) It’s no longer possible to win just by being silly. It’s sharpened and it’s a little scary…
–You’ve been entering the King of Comedy since 2008, and have made it to the finals four times. Is there any difference in the trend of comedy between the first time of the competition and now?
Fukui: It’s only recently that comedy, which is something between theater and comedy, has become mainstream. 2008 was when the King of Comedies had just been launched, and I have the impression that the colors of the competition were not yet clearly defined. At that time, there were many more types of competitions than there are now, such as ridiculous ones and conversations with people who are just plain funny.
Over time, the color of the event began to emerge, and the image became more and more refined. It became more difficult to compete if you didn’t have a high level of skill, and you couldn’t win just by being silly. It’s becoming more “serious,” like a sword that can cut a person. So it’s a little scary (laughs).
–Where do you think the direction of the tournament was decided?
Fukui: The moment I felt that the competition had become so refined was when Kamomen-taru won in 2013. It was still during the time of the comedian judging (from 2008 to 2014, the judges were the comedians who were eliminated in the semifinals), and I think most of the comedians sitting at the judges’ table must have thought.
I vividly remember thinking to myself, “If I don’t put everything I have into this competition for a year, I’ll never win. That’s when I decided to devote all my time and effort to King of Comedy. I think that’s when we all started to stand up straighter.
–This year, I was also impressed by the use of stage sets and the number of heartfelt skits. What did you think about this?
Fukui: I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to keep up with the times, but rather the younger generation that has been doing heartwarming comedy for a long time is now starting to show it to the world. I feel that the generation around my age is the one that is starting to see more heartfelt comedy. However, about 10 years ago, there was a tendency to say, “That’s not comedy.
Today’s younger generation may have school education and the trends of the times ingrained in their bodies, but I feel like they were originally doing heartfelt comedy and it just came out. In my mind, male swings and air stairs have that image. It’s like there is love in the story. In addition to that, it may be that people of the same generation are growing up in the audience.
Activities that transcend the boundaries of offices: “The theater side of Yoshimoto is also changing.
–Katamari Mizukawa of Air Stairway is a member of “Contrast Dog”, Yohei Hayashida of The Mummy is a member of “Contrast Village”, and the president of Nippon is a member of “Kansai Contrast Security Association”, all of which have been successful in the King of Contrast.
Fukui: The generation of comedians around our age was not allowed to do things like “let’s all rub shoulders together. There was an atmosphere where if you did something like that, your superiors would say, “Don’t do something that’s out of character for you. I wasn’t good at that kind of thing, but I am a comedian who lived in that generation.
If I were to ask myself what I think of Comtomura and Comtodog, I would say, “I’m jealous” (laughs). (laughs) When interesting people get together and watch each other’s skits, they say, “They’re making interesting stuff. I can’t lose to them, too. We’re doing comedy in a very open environment with friendly rivalry, so everyone is improving.
–However, Fukui-san is also a member of “Omiya Seven”. Is there a difference between polishing your material at a certain theater and performing your material and talk at various venues?
Fukui: There may be a difference. If you work only in Yoshimoto, your common sense will be fixed. That’s why I’m currently holding an event called “Tokyo Emotional Contrast” at the Makuhari Theater (Yoshimoto Makuhari Ion Mall Theater) with five or six groups every month, including Kagaya, Sunshine, and Tontskatan. That kind of thing is unheard of for people of my generation. I think that the theater side of Yoshimoto is also changing.
In the past, we didn’t rent out space to people from other offices, and there was a tendency to say, “Don’t do anything that will help them sell. Now it’s allowed, and everyone is encouraged to do their best. Also, comedians have a keen eye for storytelling, so it’s a synergistic effect where interesting people find interesting people and make them friends, which raises their own level.
–I imagine that theatrical comedy units exist in contexts other than Yoshimoto Kogyo. What do you think is the reason for the recent increase in the number of comedy units originating from comedians?
Fukui: I think it’s the influence of the times and the offices. A long time ago, there was a tendency to think it was cool to have a tense relationship. However, Tokyo NSC 9th term members Rice, Shizuru, and the Juicy’s (disbanded in December 2015. I think it was from people like Sargorilla, Shizuru, Juicy’s (disbanded in December 2015, currently working as Shutaro Matsuhashi), Igo Shogi, and others that the trend of “let’s stop doing that for a while” began to emerge.
I think that’s when the vertical relationships within Yoshimoto started to break down, and the atmosphere became, “Let’s all work together on the side. I don’t think he said anything like that directly, but I think he showed it to the people below him through the atmosphere.
Also, Kohei Ueda from ZOFY would gather all kinds of people and get involved in all kinds of places. For example, there was Konto-mura, or “Weak People” (a unit and performance by Zophie Ueda, Naoki Tsukamoto of Love Letters, Satoshi Potential, and Shinya Tamada of the Tamada Kikaku Theater Company), which I was invited to perform in once, though I’m not doing it anymore.
So I think that Ueda is the pioneer of the comedy unit that’s gaining momentum. I think that’s where the “let’s get together and do something interesting with people who like comedy, regardless of their offices” kind of activities started. In that sense, he’s amazing. He even launched a comedy show with the members of Konto-mura.
Kansai is doing comedy that is closer to the audience.
–Like Frogman and Male Trapeze, Kansai comedians move their base to Tokyo at some point, don’t they?
Fukui: We happened to move to Tokyo in 2014 when the Yoshimoto Manzai Theater was built. The theater before that, “5up Yoshimoto,” was closing and the system was being redesigned, so we said, “Let me go to Tokyo. That’s why I found out about the new manzai theater after I left for Tokyo. As a result, my timing was good.
The conditions for doing comedy are completely different in Tokyo and Osaka. Osaka is the land of manzai. When the audience first comes to the theater, they think that they are going to be treated to manzai. Especially those who come from out of town, they come to see manzai. When we start the comedy, there’s an air of “What are you doing? When we start a comedy show, there is an air of disappointment. It’s a sense of disappointment.
In Tokyo, on the other hand, the denominator of the audience who wants to see a comedy show is really large. In Tokyo, the population of people who want to see comedy is really large. Nowadays, we hear about the special program of the Kansai Contrast Security Association (“Kansai Contrast Security Association” broadcast on ABC TV in July 2021), but until then, there were no contrasting programs in Kansai. But until then, there were no comedy shows in Kansai.
–In the past, there were theatrical comedians in Osaka, such as Shakedown (disbanded in 2000) and Choplin. The reason this trend didn’t continue, for better or worse, is the influence of the manzai brand.
Fukui: The only person still doing comedy in Osaka is Oi! Kuma, right? Goro Buffalo and others have come to Tokyo. It’s an absolute trend for comedy performers to perform in Osaka until the middle of their career and then move to Tokyo. It’s like going to high school after graduating from school.
That’s the impression I got from Mr. Tsugicho-chief, and even our generation was always told that “people who do comedy should go to Tokyo. That’s why the people of the Kansai Contrast Security Association generation are so amazing. In the past, it would have been unthinkable that they were able to make it to the show.
–The soil is really different, isn’t it? What do you think is the biggest difference between Kansai and Kanto comedy?
Fukui: In Kansai, it’s all about making people laugh, and getting people to laugh. I think it’s because the form of comedy is not so fixed like in Tokyo that a unique atmosphere is created.
Personally, I think that in Tokyo, there is a solid wall between the audience and the performers. If the stage is a room, the performers are doing what they are doing in that room. But in Kansai, there is not so much of a wall, and I feel that the comedy is closer to the audience.
–It’s a story similar to the difference in the origins of Rakugo between East and West.
Fukui: That may be true. I always had that image in my mind when I heard the difference between manzai and comedy. In manzai, there is no wall between you and the audience. In that sense, I feel that Kansai is a fusion of manzai and comedy. There is less of a “separate space” feeling.
When Kamomen-taru won, I thought, “What’s going to happen now? But…
–Do you think that comedy has evolved since you started as a comedian?
Fukui: I think it’s evolving. I think it’s evolving. I think it’s probably due to the mainstream of the times and the shifts in the times, and the things that are unique to that time are added. When KamomenTaru won, I thought, “What’s going to happen now? When KamomenTaru won, I wondered what would happen next, but I feel that we will continue to move forward while overcoming these challenges.
–By the way, do you think there will be any changes in GAG in the future?
Fukui: When I turned 40, I really felt that I should do comedy that was appropriate for my age. Even when I wear a single school uniform, I think, “I’m 40 and I’m ……,” and even when I play a college student, I have to rely on makeup artists. So I changed to a suit, and naturally decided to make a comedy show about people in their 30s and 40s that would be comfortable.
My two partners are still in their 30s, so I think they can play younger roles, but I’ve been thinking more and more about graduating from acting for a while. If my partner starts to feel uncomfortable, the comedy will become all about uncles. I think age has a great impact on comedy. Of course, there are people who can do it regardless of age, but the way we are doing it, it’s going to be hard. Compared to manzai, I think we have to think more seriously about that.
Also, we’ve been using keywords like “doraso-bou,” but I think it’s time to start using the word “bou” for “old man. It’s not a word I’d like to use, but I’d like to create a new genre of “dasa-ojisan”. My current goal is to create a new type of comedy that I can do even when I’m an old man.
Interview and text by： Asahi Suzuki
Freelance editor/writer. Former band member and broadcast writer. Likes all kinds of entertainment, especially comedians. His book "Shimura Ken Theory" (Asahi Shimbun Publications) was released on April 20. His personal website, "Immortal Writing Blues," is currently being updated. http://s-akira.jp/