Starting this month this web site will intermittently feature profiles of and interviews with manzai comedians, rakugoka, and other performers and insiders of the Japanese comedy world. Our first interview subjects are the manzai duo of Harukaze Fukuta Kōta. Veterans of the Tokyo comedy scene, the duo can be seen regularly at the Asakusa Tōyōkan in downtown Tokyo. On a personal note, when I first started researching the manzai world as part of my Masters degree Kōta helped me immensely in gaining access to various comedians that would become sources for my thesis. It was great to finally sit down and talk to the duo about their own start and the highs and lows of their long career.
During the interview Fukuta briefly went into how the duo made their debut on television. However a much more detailed account can be found in Tomizawa Keishu's book "Tokyo Manzai Retsuden." In the book Tomizawa described how, at the time, manzai duos often toured around the country with cabaret shows when first starting out, sometimes spending as much as 20 days a month on the road. In 1968, during one of those tours in Koriyama, Fukushima disaster struck the night before they were to return to Tokyo. Around 9 pm, in the middle of a show a fire started in the dressing room and quickly spread through hotel. With the electricity out and smoke filling the hallways Fukuta and Kōta desperately searched for a way out. The building was poorly designed and had ignored several safety features (as many buildings during the economic boom had) leaving the duo and many others trapped in the bath area with no clear way out. Using some wood the duo smashed the windows of the bath and helped save around 20 people. The fire would go on to claim 30 lives. The next morning the duo were interviewed on NHK and introduced as the manzai duo that experienced the disastrous fire. Thus Harukaze Kōta Fukuta made their first television appearance more as witnesses to a disaster than a comedic duo.
Shawn: Thank you once again. What was the reason for you becoming manzai comedians?
Fukuta: Well, there was a “manzai daigaku” (manzai university) run by Fuji TV and we went there and passed so we became professional manzai comedians.
Kōta: Actually there was a manzai major at Horikoshi Gakuen. There were singing classes, manzai classes, etc. I was a student of their first class and Fukuta was a student of their second class. It was in Nerima and Fukuta was a postal worker and I was just working at some place and everyday we ran into each other.
S: It was a plastic factory wasn’t it?
K: Yes, yes. A plastic factory.
S: I was able to read this book (Tokyo Manzai Retsuden) and…
K: Yes, everything in that book is true. So, we were thinking of becoming manzaishi so we went to that school.
F: We were just half a year apart.
K: And with manzai you need a partner and I didn’t have one and so I asked him, “Do you want to do manzai?” And so we went to the first and second term of the school.
F: And after the second term that school closed. They opened that school but they couldn’t find enough students so they had to shut it down.
K: They were too ahead of their time.
S: Yes, now there is NSC and Jinrikusha, etc.
K: Yes, they were too early.
F: Yes, at that time there was a Horikoshi Entertainment School
S: At that time manzai probably was not looked upon as a desirable job.
K: No, not at that time.
S: And how long have you been together?
K: Well, technically we started working together in the fall of Showa 42 (1967)
F: January of ’43 (1968)
K: Yes, so around 50 years together.
S: 50 years this year?
S: 50 years is a long time so during that time there were a lot of ups and downs weren’t there? Was there ever a time when you were close to breaking up?
K: Yes, there were.
F: Because we did break up once.
S: You broke up once?
F: Yes, for one year. And, it’s strange for me to say this but in 1974 we won the NHK Manzai competitionand the year before that we were regulars on a program called 11 pm
S: As a duo?
F: Yes, before we broke up. And so in 1974 we won the NHK competition and left that TV show (11 pm) and we starred in an NHK quiz program for children as regulars. We were also regulars on a program called Tower Carnival and appeared on Engei Taisho
K: So that’s what we were doing around that time.
F: With Haruno Chikku Takku, Konto 55, Utsumi Keiko, etc. there was a manzai boom. But at that time we weren’t regulars on any program. But that boom later disappeared. Then the next boom came along a while later with B&B, Obon Kobon, Two Beat, etc. It was 13 years between those two booms though. In between those two booms we were doing that kids program, the NTV program, being regulars on other programs, but because we were between those two boom periods no one noticed us.
S: Usually these booms occur every ten years.
F: Yes, but this time when 10 years came and passed there wasn’t a boom so we couldn’t really endure that anymore. People did recognize us on the street from our regular programs but that didn’t lead to us becoming stars.
S: It didn’t change your situation in the end.
F: Yes, nothing changed. And we were with Ota Pro at the time
K: Everyone was at Ota Pro then.
F: So then we came to the conclusion to quit for a year. And so we broke up.
S: How old were you around that time?
K: Probably around 30 at that time.
S: So you switched to different jobs?
K: No, we kept working. And this was one of the things with that generation. We quit being a duo but we still had other jobs as hosts of singing programs, as MCs, and other show biz related jobs. And that is what is completely different with the business today. We didn’t have to work part-time jobs to support ourselves at that time. And we were also busy because we still had work lined up as a duo even though we had broken up. Even if we say to each other, “Let’s break up.” We still had commitments to work as a duo left. Like once every three months or two months and such. So at those times we get back together and perform manzai. As we got together for those performances the people around us tried to change our mind about the break up. “It’ll be fine.” “Get back together” etc. So it’s not actually exactly one year
F: Yes, and around that time Yokoyama Yasushi said, “Why don’t you get back again with Fukuta and try it again? And around that time there was another boom period with Two Beat and St. Louis and so we thought, “Let’s try it again.” and we started to perform together again but it was already too late to ride that boom. Ha ha ha.
K: Yeah, we were too late again.
S: Nice timing.
F: We were what would call “in-between comedians”.
S: So you didn’t break-up because of personality conflicts or anything?
K: No, no. It’s work so it just depends on how you handle it. Manzai duos are all like that.
S: Like a small company or business.
K: Yes. It’s the same these days. Both people in a duo are trying to make something funny but sometimes the way they do it or what they think is funny is different. A manzai duo is really an interesting business. It's a bit mysterious.
S: Yes, duos are not married to each other but they are not friends either. They are some different and some thing more.
K: Yes, that’s it.
S: Yes, that dynamic always interests me. In the US, about 50 years ago, there were comedy duos that were something like manzai but now comedians perform alone usually.
K: What is that called? “Stand-comedy?” “Stand-up something?
S: The old style was called vaudeville. Abbott and Costello and other performers like them. They had certain routines that were popular that they could perform all over on stage, in movies, TV and radio kind of like Entatsu and Chaco’s “Sokei-sen” routine. But now that style seems out of date.
F: There’s no manzai in the West.
S: No, not now.
F: It may be hard for you to understand but there were “Kayō” shows where comedians would go along on tour with popular singers performing in different towns all over the country. So we would go on these tours all over the country and the money wasn’t great but we could make a living.
S: Yes, actually touring like that was more stable and more lucrative than appearing on TV right?
F: Yes, we would receive a guaranteed salary for it.
S: Yes, like Tetsu and Tomo with their “Nande Darou” routine. You don’t see them on TV now but right now going all over and performing live they are probably making more money now (this practice is commonly called “eigyo” in the comedy business).
K: Yes, and also there were cabaret shows. This also may be hard for you to imagine but there were a ton of them to perform in.
F: Yes, and at that time you go do a show at a “health center” or “kenkō land” (a kind of hot springs amusement park) or at local festivals.
K: There were all sorts of work then.
S: And now?
K: There’s nothing like that now. All the young comedians I see have part time jobs now.
S: And you were able to make a living just doing comedy?
K: Yes. But now it’s very tough for us now. Actually the last ten to fifteen years it’s been very hard to find work.
F: For the last 20 years.
K: Well 15 years ago it wasn’t this bad.
S: Around the time of Lehman Shock? The comedy duo Nicks said the same thing.
F: Even before that actually.
S: It was a trickle down effect when the economy started getting bad for the companies and then they couldn’t hire you for events.
K: Yes, yes, to put it simply.
S: So now you are only performing at the Tōyōkan?
K: No, no. Well this is the only yose we are performing at. Although we were in the Rakugo Geijutsu Kyōkai before and performed at Engei Hall and other yose. We were in that organization for about ten years. So even now, we do go out an do eigyo from time to time but the amount of work has really gone down.
In the past, no matter what happened you could always find at least one eigyo job lasting for a week to ten days, touring with a singer but now those jobs are decreasing. Now there may be one job a month that we can do to make money. This is our reality now.
F: Not just in Tokyo but they are experiencing this in Osaka too.
With a career spanning five decades Harukaze Fukuta Kōta have a few trademark comedic routines or bits that often show up in their performance. In one of their popular routines the two try to sing a famous song together but of course comedically fail to get on the same page. Later in the interview I asked the two about their material.
S: Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (to the melody of one of the duo’s famous singing comedy routines). That melody really sticks with me.
F: Ah, the Ringo no Uta (Apple song) routine?
S: Yes, even as I’m going to the restroom I’ve got that stuck in my head.
F: Yes, everyone’s like that. Even when we opened for a famous singer and did our Ringo no Uta routine when she took the stage later she opened by humming that tune humorously.
S: Who writes the comedy routines by the way?
K: A long time ago we bought that routine from a manzai writer. Comedians of my generation mostly did that at the beginning. Even now there are some comedians that do that. But because we have been doing it for 50 years now we can take the scripts of the old routines and think of some new ideas together, rearranging it to suit the times. We’ve been using the Ringo no Uta routine for a long time. So long that we don’t know who wrote it, at least that part of the comedy routine.
S: That’s too bad.
F: A long time ago, there was a trio called Gag Messengers, around the time that there was the Nonsense Trio (now a duo)
S: Yes, during the trio boom of comedy.
K: Trio Skyline, etc. There was a time when trios were popular.
F: And the Gag Messengers did that routine for a while.
K: So the person that wrote that routine is unknown now.
S: That’s surprising.
K: There are lots of cases of that, not knowing who wrote a certain routine. And the routine would just stop being performed to be brought back at a later time.
S: Also, we did you start biting his jacket in the routine? (See top picture) After how many years as a duo?
K: After 10 or 15 years.
S: So you planned when to take that bite during the routine and such?
F: As I said earlier we won that NHK comedy contest in 1974 and we did that with having the bite in the routine.
S: From such an early time?
K: Yes, yes. However it didn’t catch on.
S: And who’s idea was it?
F: Who was it again?
S: So you have that trademark for everyone to remember you by.
F: Even now when people see me on the street they say, “You’re the one who bites!” even though that was on TV in 1974. People still remember that.
K: Yes, so we’ve been doing that for over 30 years.
F: People still remember that today. That's the power of television.
S: Well, I guess that's all we have time for today. Thank you so much for your time .
Harukaze Kōta Fukuta can be seen regularly at the Asakusa Toyokan.
 NSC (New Star Creation) and other schools for upcoming comedians are now a major force in the industry and have a much more respectable image overall.
 Two Beat was the comedy start for Beat Takeshi
 Commonly referred to as “Lehman Shock” in Japanese, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 sent shockwaves through the economy that even affected comedians and other performers who lost jobs due to companies having to tighten spending.
Tomizawa, Keishū, and Keiko Utsumi. "Tōkyō Manzai" Retsuden. Tōkyō: Tōkyō Shinbun Shuppankyoku, 2002. Print.