A Catalog of City Life

Issey Ogata

at the Rubloff Auditorium, Chicago Historical Society, March 17

By Jack Helbig

Robert Frost’s dictum “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” could as easily be applied to comedy. How else can you explain those inexplicably flat cartoons in Paris Match? Man runs out of gas; man takes out gas can; man walks for a long time along the road; man finds gas station closed. (Please, stop, you’re killing me!) Or the annoying broad humor of Japanese comic books, in which no moment is so serious or exciting as to prohibit a fart joke? Or two? Something got lost in translation.

It’s even hard to translate a joke from one idiom of English to another. Hence Minnie Pearl, and all those solemn audiences during Shakespeare’s most comic speeches. And I for one have never gotten what is so funny in Twelfth Night about Malvolio being tricked into wearing “cross-gartered yellow stockings”–despite Marjorie Garber’s assurances in Vested Interests that this was quite a hoot to Elizabethan audiences, who understood that Malvolio was dressing above his rank.

Which is why the work of Japa-nese comedian Issey Ogata is so intriguing. At first glance it wouldn’t seem that Ogata–born in Fukuoka, raised in Tokyo, and not especially fluent in English–is the kind of performer who’d appeal to a non-Japanese audience. In addition, much of his Catalog of City Life is spent caricaturing such figures from Japanese culture as the mortally frantic overworked businessman and the housebound housewife. But even though I was a non-Japanese member of an audience full of people fluent in Japanese, I never had the sense I was missing Ogata’s humor. True, you do need to know a little Japanese–or wear some of those handy little simultaneous-translation headphones like the ones I was given for this show–to understand some of his material. But he tends to use language sparingly, and then mostly to set up the bits.

In the first selection, “Subway,” Ogata imitates a man in a rush-hour crush, the tectonic shifts of the surrounding mob pressing him into odd, uncomfortable shapes. Sometimes the arm grasping his briefcase is splayed out; other times it’s squashed tightly against his body, briefcase modestly protecting his genitals. Every once in a while Ogata mutters a line or two–“It’s hot in here,” or “Why doesn’t the conductor tell us why we’re stopped?”–but nothing that can’t be easily translated into English, like a cartoon caption.

Some of Ogata’s other sketches, however, depend more on language: a steady monologue sometimes accompanies the physical comedy. In “Parking Lot,” for example, we watch a beleaguered businessman slowly lose it as the client he’s supposed to meet for dinner fails to show up. Again, most of the comedy comes from Ogata’s twisting body language, which expresses everything from mild worry to a full-blown anxiety attack. But the monologue lets us know that the businessman has forgotten the name of the client, the restaurant where they were supposed to meet, and even, by the end of the panic attack, his own name. None of this information is difficult to translate into English, however.

The one exception to Ogata’s translatability is the sketch “Folk Singer Forever,” a series of parodic folk songs–not surprising since song lyrics, like poetry, invite a level of wordplay that doesn’t carry easily from one language to another. Judging by the appreciative laughter Ogata inspired, his songs must have been much funnier in the original Japanese than in the rather flat English supplied by simultaneous translator M. Hart Larrabee IV: “Give me some money / Just a little would be fine.” Clearly you had to be there, and to be there you had to know not only Japanese but Japanese culture.

“Folk Singer Forever” points out, however, why the rest of Ogata’s material does translate: it’s physical. Ogata speaks the language of physical comedy, moving with the dancerly precision of a classic silent comedian. Like Chaplin and Keaton, and unlike their later, less graceful imitators–the god-awful Three Stooges and the wildly uneven Jerry Lewis–Ogata strikes just the right balance between realism and exaggeration. This is best seen in his “Hawaiian Holiday,” in which he mimes running across a hot beach but adds just a hint of caricature, lifting his legs just a little too high, saying “ooch! ooch! ooch!” just a little too often, so that his pain seems funny, not serious. The Stooges would have included the smoke from burning human flesh and realistic cries of pain, creating a kind of humor that only closet sadists and 12-year-old boys find funny. Lewis would have turned the moment into an excuse for over-the-top shtick accompanied by his rarely funny nasal bellow (insert tired swipe at French for loving Jerry Lewis here).

The press materials for A Catalog of City Life compare Ogata to Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, and Eric Bogosian, but these comparisons aren’t very apt. Ogata is every bit as funny as any comedian in this company, and twice as funny as Bogosian, but he’s much less tied to language. I can’t imagine Tomlin’s, Allen’s, or Bogosian’s intensely verbal material working as well in Japanese as it does in English. Williams may translate better, but then he easily slips into a Lewis-esque self-indulgence that makes me wish his work were more verbal.

But there is a way in which Ogata is very much like Allen, Williams, et al: he’s a contemporary urbanite, thoroughly steeped in Western culture with an American twist. When Ogata’s Japanese housewife orders a drink, she asks for a manhattan. When Ogata’s shy bachelor is asked to describe his ideal wife, he sings “Ave Maria.” When Ogata’s average Japanese family go on vacation, they go to Hawaii. And is there anything more Western looking than your average Japanese businessman, with his blue pinstripe suit, conservative tie, and leather briefcase?

There’s an unacknowledged set of cultural beliefs, assumptions, and signs we urban Americans–raised on TV, movies, and the work ethic–share with urban Japanese, who are likewise fed a steady diet of cinema, vidiocy, and capitalism. (And for that matter share with urbanites in France, Germany, and England, to name three other countries where Ogata has performed.) Though Ogata is being marketed as “Tokyo’s Woody Allen,” he’s really the late 20th century’s Charlie Chaplin: a funny, disciplined clown who speaks the language of physical comedy to similar audiences around the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Makoto Kemmisaki.