Best-Selling Novel About Japanese Manzai Comedy Gets Adapted into a Movie

  • “Laughter is the best medicine.” It may be a cliché, but apparently, many people believe in this philosophy as we put our TV sets in our homes and tune into entertainment shows to relieve ourselves from the stress we have been feeling that day.

    Japan is known for its unique sense of humor. The country has a long tradition of comedy that goes as far back as the Heian era (平安時代). One of the popular types of traditional Japanese comedy is called manzai (漫才).

    However, making people laugh is no joke. The reality behind the cheerful smiles of a fictional manzai duo is tackled in the heartwarming story of Naoki Matayoshi’s (又吉直樹) Hibana (火花).

    What is Manzai?

    基本 RGB

    Manzai is a form of stand-up comedy that has its origins in the Heian Period (794-1185). It usually involves two performers (although sometimes, some groups have more than two) who exchange jokes at a great speed.

    The routine features a “normal” man known as a tsukkomi (ツッコミ), and a “funny” man known as boke (ボケ). They usually do some straightforward slapstick. Whenever the boke says something stupid, the tsukkomi either reprimands or slaps him. Its appeal mainly depends on delivery rather than content.

    Manzai thrives in the Kansai region (関西地方), particularly in Osaka (大阪). It is a challenge for Japanese language learners since it is full of puns, slang, word plays, and cultural references spoken very fast and often rich in Kansai dialect.

    For many years, the Japanese entertainment conglomerate, Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd. (吉本興業株式会社), has been developing, promoting, and producing most of the country’s well-known owarai (お笑い – comedy) talents. Their more than 650 talents include the most influential owarai kombi (comedy duo), Downtown (ダウンタウン).

    Naoki Matayoshi

    Naoki Matayoshi, a writer and comedian from Neyagawa (寝屋川), Osaka (大阪), is the boke of the comedy duo, Peace (ピース), with his partner Yuji Ayabe (綾部祐二). From writing comedy sketches, essays, and short stories, he finally decided to write a full-length novel and became the first active comedian to receive the Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞) for his debut work, Hibana. The Akutagawa Prize is a prestigious literary award that gets a lot of media attention.


    Hibana is the story of two talented but struggling comedians with opposite personalities. Tokunaga (徳永) is the boke of the comedy duo called Sparks (スパークス). One night, at a fireworks festival where he and his partner Yamashita (山下) performed, he meets a senior comedian named Kamiya (神谷). He is mesmerized by the latter’s strong stage presence and unconventional, albeit uncomfortable comedy, so he asks to be taken up as his apprentice.

    Kamiya agrees under the condition that Tokunaga writes his biography. During their frequent meetings, Kamiya imparts his strong passion and philosophy of comedy.

    The story focuses on two arcs: one is about Sparks’ slow and steady rise to the world of comedy and the other is about Tokunaga’s friendship with Kamiya, whose pride and aggressiveness hinders himself from gaining his own success.

    This compelling tale that presents the gritty world of comedy is a commercial hit, making it the bestselling book in Japan in 2015. The book is available for purchase on Amazon and CDJapan.

    The Series

    The 10-episode Netflix original series, Hibana: Spark, was aired in June 2016 and on NHK in February 2017. Starring Hayashi Kento (林遣都) as Tokunaga and Kazuki Namioka (波岡一喜) as Kamiya, Hibana: Spark is shot in chronological order with each episode covering a year in the lives of the characters.

    Directors Kazuya Shiraishi (白石和彌), Shuichi Okita (沖田修一), Shinji Kuma (久万真路), Yasutaka Mori (毛利安孝), and Kabukicho Love Hotel’s Ryuichi Hiroki (廣木隆一) as supervising director all worked together for this show. Despite arguably having too many directors, the series possesses both diversity and impressive continuity.

    The Movie

    Reports about a film adaptation directed by Itao Itsuji (板尾創路) have just been released. The main duo will be played by Masaki Suda (菅田将暉) as Tokunaga and Kiritani Kenta (桐谷健太) as Kamiya. Due to the success of the Netflix series and the riveting performances of its lead actors, the expectations are high and the pressure is on for the movie and its new cast.

    Masaki Suda and Hayashi Kento are equally daring when it comes to accepting a variety of challenging roles to showcase their wide range of acting skills in both comedy and drama. Kiritani Kenta and Kazuki Namioka are charismatic bad boys who both appeared in the famous Takashi Miike (三池崇史) yankii movie, Crows Zero.

    Hibana the Movie Website *Japanese only

    Personal Thoughts on the Netflix Series

    I have seen Hibana: Spark and was amazed at how the actors realistically portrayed their characters. The show made me an even bigger fan of Hayashi Kento. I was expecting to laugh out loud, but I got something more instead – a touching drama that depicts the ups and downs in the life of the comedians that we admire on stage and on television. It has a low-key, very slice of life atmosphere with an endearing story that proves that comedy is indeed an art.

    Compared to the series, the movie has a shorter running time but hopefully, it will be able to successfully flesh out its characters without being too downbeat. I am looking forward to Masaki Suda and Kiritani Kenta’s own take on their roles.

    Have you seen Hibana? What are your thoughts about its upcoming adaptation?

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