Cultural background: Mikawa Manzai

“Manzai” as it is most commonly used today typically refers to a popular duo style of comedy, similar to a classic double act, originating in Osaka. But manzai as a tradition is far more than just that ? it has a varied and fascinating history, and one of its incarnations can be found in the traditional performances of Anjo’s Mikawa Manzai Preservation Society. A combination of singing, dance, comedy, and good luck ritual, this unusual tradition offers a rare glimpse into what functions manzai has played in Japanese society throughout the country’s history.

Manzai originates from good luck rituals performed at the new year in order to invite blessings and conjure a convivial spirit of celebration, typically in front of the gate of an estate or manor. Historically, manzai performers were religious figures, connected with shrines and temples, and their status in society rose dramatically in the Edo period with the patronage of the Tokugawa family. “Kitoshi,” or shamans, began to travel from what is now Aichi Prefecture to Edo and throughout the country to perform rites for their powerful warrior patrons at New Year’s. Some historical sources attest that these kitoshi even went as far as modern-day Sakhalin Island off Hokkaido (now Russian territory.) As the demand for performers grew, so did the variety of styles, and some kitoshi also began to incorporate legends, dance, and, significantly, humor into their craft. As different regional styles came to be differentiated, manzaishi from the Mikawa region, homeland to many powerful warrior clans, established their prominence.

As in modern manzai, Edo-period Mikawa Manzai was performed by two people, but reflecting the influence of other styles such as Owari Manzai, it is now often performed with a single “taiyu,” who carries a fan and speak-sings the main narration, and a group of 2-6 “saizo,” who beat tsuzumi drums and occasionally join in in chorus. Reflecting the ancient, noble origins of the manzai tradition, the taiyu wears a black eboshi cap and suou robe, clothing associated with the Edo period, and carries a large fan (which has carried over into modern manzai, used as a slapstick for comic effect.) In one of the standard pieces of repertoire, “Goten Manzai,” the taiyu calls the seven lucky gods one by one to bless the pillars of a house that is being built. This is one of the classic stories of manzai, and demonstrates the unique blend of humor and reverence that developed within this unusual Japanese tradition.

In the Meiji Era, as governmental reforms jumbled the strata of Japanese society like an earthquake, manzai performers were forced back into a more traditionally religious role, as the government cracked down on performance arts of all kinds, fearing vulgarity and corruption of popular morals. However, manzai still continued to entertain audiences at celebrations and festivals, and in the Taisho period an entertainment conglomerate from Osaka, Yoshimoto Kogyo, took its name for a new style of duo comedy they premiered. The more traditional forms of manzai, while not as wildly popular as Yoshimoto Kogyo’s, nevertheless continued to entertain and serve as an important art to be protected, and thanks to the efforts of a number of regional preservation societies manzai can still be seen today throughout the Chubu region.