A wry smile from the rising sun

Who says Japanese can't laugh? James Rampton watches Issey Ogata overturn the stereotype

Japanese comedy? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? At the very best, it's all about ritual humiliation, isn't it, with people like the Tokyo Shock Boys putting scorpions down their trousers or those contestants on the TV game-show Endurance sitting for hours on blocks of ice?

One Japanese comedy expert in Osaka appeared to confirm that view when he told me earlier this month, "the rule is that if it doesn't hurt, it won't be funny". Another, meanwhile, vouchsafed the information that "to succeed in Japanese comedy, you have to drop your trousers". Enter Clive James' repeated smirking at the quaint ways of those "funny foreigners" and the cliche is complete.

Issey Ogata is out to overturn those myths. A consummate character comedian, he has been described in the past as "a Japanese Mr Bean, Tokyo's Woody Allen and Nippon's Robin Williams". In fact, he's more like an oriental cross between Steve Coogan and Harry Enfield, pointing up the absurdities of society by putting some of its more ridiculous types on stage. In so doing, he singlehandedly dispels another hoary old piece of hand-me-down knowledge - that the "inscrutable" Japanese are a people incapable of laughing at themselves.

The embodiment of that overworked phrase "big in Japan", Ogata's concerts in his homeland sell out in 20 minutes flat. We witnessed people (mainly trendy, black-clad youngsters) queuing up for returns five hours before his performance at the Kinetsu Theatre in Osaka. He has a 56,000-strong fan club, and his 25 videos sell like hot rice-cakes. This week, as he opens a three-week run at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, aided by simultaneous translation through headphones, we will get a chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Duncan Hamilton, an Irish actor who has lived in Japan for 10 years, has a Japanese wife and is Ogata's sometime interpreter, admits that "everyone has the idea that the Japanese have this crazy sense of humour, but that's not fair. It may be difficult to believe when you watch the excesses of Japanese TV or the Tokyo Shock Boys lighting their own farts, but when you live here you realise Japanese humour is actually very subtle."

Ogata backs that up. He's fighting against that most diffcult foe: received wisdom. Sitting inconspicuously in the foyer while smoking nervously before his performance, the 45-year-old performer asserts that: "A lot of people think the Japanese don't joke very much. Traditionally in Japanese society, you have to march in time with the person beside you, and ask for permission before laughing. I'm doing battle with that mentality. I think people here want to be able to laugh. I want to blow away that expressionless image."

His style is certainly viewed as revolutionary in Japan, because his characters are based in a reality far removed from the highly stylised mask or white-face manifestations of traditional Japanese theatre: noh, kabuki, manzai, rakugo and kyogen. "Most Japanese drama schools teach a strict acting style which has no connection to daily life," Ogata says. "I felt acting should deal with what people are really like. I didn't like the way actors here performed theatre as though it were something strange."

As a result, this former building-site worker and his long-time director, Yuzo Morita, have worked up more than 200 distinctive, "slice-of-life" sketches over the last 25 years. Even so, when he first performed in front of some of Japan's leading actors, Ogata recalls, "one of them got so angry he got up and shouted 'this isn't entertainment. Mind your Ps and Qs.' It was too close to the bone for him."

It's all very well shaking things up over there, but how will he go down over here? Won't his show lose a lot in translation? Will he prove as popular a Japanese export as, say, personal stereos? On the evidence of his show in Osaka, he has every chance of succeeding. Watching him metamorphose before our very eyes into different characters for seven 15-minute vignettes, it was a case of "never mind the language, feel the performance". You might not understand his every word and you may smile rather than belly- laugh, but Ogata's magnetic stage-presence is unmistakable.

As is his universality. Ogata portrays figures who are identifiable in any culture - the stressed-out "salaryman", the middle-aged mummy's boy, the incomprehensible, foaming-at-the-mouth politician, the dodgy pyramid- salesman, the dissatisfied barmaid, the inadequate terrified of foreigners. (Morita reckons that Ogata's range also confounds stereotypes: "In the West there's this image that all Asians look alike and have the same expression. English audiences may be suprised by Issey's versatility.")

In one memorable skit, a middle-aged wage-slave tries to convince his (invisible) rebellious son to follow in his footsteps by slapping him on the back in the most clumsy and inappropriate manner. The lack of understanding between the generations is a theme applicable in any country. As Ogata's tour manager, Elmar Weinmyr, a German based in Japan, whispers to me during the performance: "You could have exactly the same conversation between a suburban commuter and his son in London. These sketches aren't just about Japan." Morita chimes in: "The gap between self-image and reality is a universal phenomenon."

Ogata's currency is the dislocated and the marginalised - particularly relevant in Japan, a country now gripped by a breakdown of its rigid, traditional structure and paralysed by an unaccustomed economic crisis. Morita explains that "Issey tells the stories of the people who would never otherwise have their stories told. They are all hopeless. It's the theatre of the dispossessed."

His fans appear to agree. After Ogata's show in Osaka, a queue of them snaked round the foyer waiting for the man to sign copies of his latest video. As she patiently bided her time - she was obviously in for a long wait - 54-year-old Yamamoto Harume assessed his appeal: "Nowadays, a lot of people have problems in their lives, and he portrays that with great reality. Ogata plays weak people - and every man and woman can recognise and feel compassion for that," she observed, before adding with a laugh: "You should have him on the BBC."

Issey Ogata is at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, London, W1 (0171- 494 5045) from 24 Feb to 14 Mar.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    English Teacher

    £4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

    Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

    Science Teacher

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

    Cover Supervisor

    £55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker