Manzai usually involves two performers (manzaishi)—a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke)—trading jokes at great speed. Most of the jokes revolve around mutual misunderstandings, double-talk, puns and other verbal gags.
Yoshimoto Kogyo, a large entertainment conglomerate based in Osaka, introduced Osaka-style manzai to Tokyo audiences, and coined the term "漫才" (one of several ways of writing the word manzai in Japanese; see "etymology" below) in 1933.
Originally based around a festival to welcome the New Year, manzai traces its origins back to the Heian period. The two manzai performers came with messages from the gods and this was worked into a standup routine, with one performer showing some sort of opposition to the word of the other. This pattern still exists in the roles of the boke and the tsukkomi.
Continuing into the Edo period, the style focused increasingly on the humor aspects of stand-up, and various regions of Japan developed their own unique styles of manzai, such as Owari manzai (尾張万歳), Mikawa manzai (三河万歳), and Yamato manzai (大和万歳). With the arrival of the Meiji Period, Osaka manzai (大阪万才) began changes that would see it surpass in popularity the styles of the former period, although at the time rakugo was still considered the more popular form of entertainment.
The spread of manzai was largely put to a halt after the conclusion of World War II.
With the end of the Taishō period, Yoshimoto Kōgyō—which itself was founded at the beginning of the era, in 1912—introduced a new style of manzai lacking much of the celebration that had accompanied it in the past. This new style proved successful and spread all over Japan, including Tokyo. Riding on the waves of new communication technology, manzai quickly spread through the mediums of stage, radio, and eventually, television, and video games.
The kanji for manzai have been written in various ways throughout the ages. It was originally written as (萬歳, lit. ten thousand years or banzai, meaning something like "long life"), using 萬 rather than the alternative form of the character, 万, and the simpler form 才 for 歳 (which also an be used to write a word meaning 'talent, ability'). The arrival of Osaka manzai brought another character change, this time changing the first character to 漫.
Boke and tsukkomi
Similar in execution to the concepts of "funny man" and "straight man" in double act comedy (e.g. Abbott and Costello), these roles are a very important characteristic of manzai. Boke (ボケ) comes from the verb bokeru (惚ける or 呆ける) which carries the meaning of "senility" or "air headed-ness" and is reflected in the boke's tendency for misinterpretation and forgetfulness. The word tsukkomi (突っ込み) refers to the role the second comedian plays in "butting in" and correcting the boke's errors. In performances it is common for the tsukkomi to berate the boke and hit them on the head with a swift smack; one traditional manzai prop often used for this purpose is a pleated paper fan called a harisen (張り扇). Another traditional manzai prop is a small drum, usually carried (and used) by the boke. A Japanese bamboo and paper umbrella is another common prop.
The tradition of tsukkomi and boke is often used in other Japanese comedy, although it may not be as obviously portrayed as it usually is in manzai.
Notable manzai acts
- Downtown (owarai)
- Takeshi Kitano; Japanese film director, television host, and former manzai performer in the group "Two Beat". Manzai is mentioned and referenced in a number of his other works.
- The Manzai Comics - manga series about a young manzai duo
- Double Act
- Xiangsheng – the Chinese analogue to manzai.
- Jamoora – traditional Indian performing folkart that resembles manzai
- Hibana (Spark) – a 2016 Netflix series about two manzai artists
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric. (2005). "Manzai" in Japan Encyclopedia, p. 608.
- Hiragana lesson through Japanese culture – manzai
- Manzai (Double-act comedy)
- Japanese yose theater – Japanese comedy shows
- Corkill, Edan, "Yoshimoto Kogyo play reveals manzai's U.S. roots", Japan Times, 25 May 2012, p. 13
- Ashcraft, Brian, "Ni no Kuni’s Funny Bone Has Quite the History", Kotaku, 5 October 2011
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- "Commodified Comedians and Mediatized Manzai: Osakan Comic Duos and Their Audience" by Xavier Benjamin Bensky. A study in the cultural effects of manzai.