The theatre writers in Tokyo’s English newspapers started to call Issey Ogata a Japanese Woody Allen nine months ago, when he began the build-up to his American debut in New York. Ever since his first special show for an English-speaking audience last winter in Kyoto brought down the house, the comparison-makers have been busy trying to find familiar angles that will help Ogata’s New York audiences appreciate the verve and artistry of this beloved “Everyman with a Thousand Faces” who may be Japan’s most versatile and gifted comedian.
He’s not Woody Allen, though some of his 200 characters–like the “salary-man” who can’t remember his name and tries to rediscover his identity by looking through car license numbers in the parking lot and business cards in his pocket–do fit the early Allen mold of stressed-out urbanites disoriented by technology, computers, even simple arithmetic. Another easy comparison is with Garrison Keillor, for Ogata has created enough eccentric but thoroughly believable souls to populate an entire small comic universe.
Other comparisons will surely abound, as Ogata gets ready to brave the Big Apple in three performances of his one-man show A Catalogue of City Life at the Japan Society Sept. 30-Oct. 2, and perhaps (with the aid of a headset translation system, using English texts by Jonah Salz of the NOHO Theater Group, and narrated by Mark Laurence Cole) become the first Japanese solo performer to make it overseas.
The essence of Ogata’s comedy is hard to capture because it belongs to the spirit of a vanishing tradition in which the art of the comedian was to create a variety of characters who were unusual enough to be laughable, yet plain and human enough to draw sympathy and understanding–and thereby give comedy its classic medicinal value, its glimpses of the deep, sad truth under all the jokes.
The rarest kind of actor
There’s no way to define Ogata. Take a liter each of Chaplin, Sellers, Ernie Kovacs, Robin Williams and whoever else cracks you up the most, mix at dizzying speed in a very flexible container, and let it serve itself.
He’s an anomaly in Japan, too. Unlike American actors, who can move freely from one show and cast to the next, actors in group-centered Japan can spend decades, even an entire career, in the same gekidan, and accept (or endure) the guidance (or tyranny) of a powerful artistic director. An unattached actor, like a ronin–a masterless samurai–is rare. An actor who doesn’t try or even wish to fit in, but confidently makes up his own voice as he goes along, is rarer still. And an actor who writes and paints as well as he plays, and passes up countless chances in film and TV to work on stage, is the rarest of all.
Ogata was born in 1952 in the southern city of Fukuoka, went to Tokyo at 19 and soon met director Yuzo Morita, who’s been his main creative partner ever since. This Beckettian pair–the tiger of a former actor, incapacitated in one leg and unable to move as he once did, and the chameleon who needs a longer eye to find the next branch or butterfly–worked on several stage plays, then created their first program of one-character sketches in 1981. A new field of opportunity opened up after Ogata won the gold medal on a TV comedy competition, A Comedian Is Born. He’s been prolific ever since, acting mostly on stage and publishing collections of scripts and short stories.
His usual program consists of half a dozen sketches, each five to thirty minutes long. The best characters in his growing repertoire–the cabaret manager trying to train an inept staff, the fake scout for a modeling agency, the nervous father who tries so hard to make his family enjoy their vacation that he drives them all up the shoji, the cheating husband who wants to break with his mistress, but hasn’t the fiber to do it–are all so cleanly chiseled, so utterly convincing that he’s built a loyal audience, especially among younger Japanese who are bored with the usual electric toyshop of today’s Japanese entertainment.
Earnest souls with heart and humor to spare
Much of the fun is in the sheer simplicity of Ogata’s act. He plays each piece with minimal props and furniture under plain, abstract lighting. At stage right are a coat rack, table and mirror where the actor changes, drawing a new character with a stroke of his comb and a change of his coat. Ogata’s signature characters are the ones who never quite see how much of the quirky truth about themselves they’re giving away, whose honest efforts to solve bizarre problems with little or no help from anyone else reveal more loneliness and confusion than they imagine. These are earnest souls who find the heart and humor to keep going in a world that isn’t really hostile, but does seem to get increasingly complicated and strange.
Issey Ogata’s characters may be typically Japanese, yet audiences in New York, and next spring in France and Germany, are about to discover that ordinary Japanese can be universally recognizable and lovable–and far goofier than anyone imagined.