There was no need to speculate upon Issey Ogata's reputation in his native Japan; fully half the audience in Hammersmith were Nihonjin, with a television crew on hand to record the reception given him on his first performances in London.
They were not disappointed. Ogata's solo comedy sketches gently lampoon character types which are at once recognisably Japanese and universal. In his first routine, "Subway", the white-collar salaryman swaying and writhing in the overcrowded carriage of a stalled train could easily have his grey suit augmented by a bowler hat and rolled-up umbrella; juggling claustrophobically to keep a grip on his leather satchel, he is inevitably accused by an invisible neighbour of groping.
Ogata has been called the Japanese Mr Bean; his facial and bodily contortions do bear a similarity to some of Rowan Atkinson's work, but where Atkinson's current character is largely wordless, Ogata's figures are all verbally eloquent in their own ways, as a deft simultaneous headphone translation affirms. Only in his final sketch, "The Politician's Speech", does he go into grunting, rumbling vocalese, reminiscent not so much of Atkinson as of Ronnie Barker's early 1970s short films in which the "dialogue" was entirely wordless. Ogata's politico runs through the entire familiar gamut of podium gestures and vocal inflections, ending with a gleeful variation on "wrapping himself in the flag" as he imperceptibly slides into a fan-dance.
The most palpable difference from the work of home-grown character comedians is one of perspective. Too often, comics make obvious butts of their figures, founding their routines upon ridicule. Ogata's material is constantly informed by a sympathy, even an affection, for peculiarities of character. The 42-year-old mummy's boy who visits "The Marriage Introduction Service" could easily be turned into a grotesque caricature but, as he defiantly declares, "Yes, of course I've dated before" and recounts what was obviously the only date of his life, Ogata elicits pity as well as laughter. His broadest portrayal is of "The Folk Singer", whose 16 r.p.m. rambling confirms that he has been out to lunch for a decade or more.
The figure which most fascinates Ogata is that of the salaryman, whose work shapes his entire life; even on holiday, his fun must be regimented and follow prescribed rituals of propriety. In "Car Park", an over-eager young salaryman feels so much pressure to succeed that he forgets who he is meeting, where they are to go and eventually even his own name, resorting to searching through the business cards in his pocket and trying identities on for size before remembering that he works for a printer of business cards.
The cliché of laughter as a universal language is confirmed by Issey Ogata's work. Bypassing traditional forms of Japanese comedy, he and his director Yuzo Morita have hit upon an approach which allows them wryly to question the national character whilst transcending political and cultural boundaries.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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