To date, Japan's contribution to world humour begins and ends with the ritual of self-humiliation: men who volunteer to have their buttocks ripped open by being dragged across burning sand on the masochist gameshow Endurance; the Tokyo Shock Boys, who pop scorpions in their mouths and perform the Tokyo Kiss - sucking fresh droppings from the rear end of a rabbit; and of course, karaoke.
It comes as some surprise then to find that in Issey Ogata Japan has a comic performer prepared to mock his countrymen's seemingly limitless capacity for humiliation. Further, his humour stands up to, peeks over and occasionally vaults the language barrier. In "Subway", his opening monologue, a "salaryman" juggles briefcase and newspaper while crammed into a stop-start rush-hour sardine-train, a sketch of intense contortion work that could just as easily have been workshopped on the Northern Line as the Tokyo subway.
Even some of the more linguistically complex monologues hit home. "Hawaiian Holiday" sees a put-upon man caught in a verbal and emotional tug-of-war between his wife and recently widowed mother on a palm-strewn beach. It may have been a variant on the old mother-in-law routine, and was certainly done no favours by the translator who saddled the character with an iffy Barnsley accent, but Ogata's cringing paranoia delivered his most memorable sketch.
Only a song sequence, with Ogata as a kind of oriental Bob Dylan, left the Western half of the audience nonplussed with lines like, "The other day I was walking down the street / and the wind blew me over / I went to the doctor / and he said I had a genuine case of malnutrition." The substantial Japanese contingent, meanwhile, were picking themselves up off the floor and sewing their sides back together.
Ogata has been variously described as the Japanese Mr Bean, Tokyo's Woody Allen, and Nippon's Robin Williams, but such comparisons are fatuous. He is, pure and simple, a character comedian blessed with rubbery features whose obsequious grovelling best recalls Andrew Sachs's' Manuel in Fawlty Towers. His characters provide an insight into an alien society which, on this evidence, is even more socially uptight than our own - his vignettes conjure up a city of immature, lonely bachelors, men cowed into submission by the all-imposing work ethos or, worse, their all-imposing mothers. It made you glad to be an emotionally stunted Englishman.
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