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Jail talk

Takayasu Komiya
Takayasu Komiya
TOKYO (TR) – It is not an unusual chain of events: a few drinks and an argument at a bar escalate into some very regrettable actions requiring legal counsel.

“Mr. Shiokawa, even if you were very drunk,” supposes his solicitor, Jotaro Hinoki, as he questions his charge in his cell, “you would remember something about punching or kicking someone…And you’re wife has clearly stated you would be the last person to have a fight — let alone argue…”

As the interview proceeds, Hinoki, his greasy mop of dark hair slicked back and his eyes peering through round glasses, randomly slaps his face and pops breath mints to sooth sudden bursts of nervousness. A handkerchief is always at the ready for when he starts sneezing uncontrollably.

“Yes, yes, it happens sometimes,” Hinoki assures his client, “but I’m fine. So then…?”

Thus begins “Sekken” (Jail Talk), a 70-minute monologue performed by Takayasu Komiya, who, as the compassionate yet bumbling Hinoki, seeks to find just what led to the arrest of the accused for assault and battery on that drunken night. Staged in Europe and across Japan, the comedic drama is Komiya’s “life’s work,” a project that finds him identifying with the lead more than he may care to admit.

Sporting a wool sweater last month at a Shinjuku coffee shop, the fifty-year-old Komiya explained that Hinoki is very much like himself. “He is very passionate,” he says, his voice tinged with a gravelly drawl. “He has energy.”

“Jail Talk,” written by playwright Ryuji Mizutani, has been performed up and down Japan since 2001 at various theaters, pubs and university halls. Komiya has been the only actor, though in the early stages there was a director. Now he does it all himself. The show’s big break came when Komiya was sent by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs to the U.K., where he performed “Jail Talk” over a dozen times, as a special ambassador between 2003 and 2004.

Supported by only a notebook, desk, and well-worn briefcase, the story builds as Hinoki’s frustration with his non-forthcoming client increases. The humor is largely the result of Hinoki’s exasperation: he presses his palm against the side of his face, he scrunches up one side of his face to demonstrate one of Hinoki’s recurring tics, he stands mouth agape, and he even tumbles to the floor.

This sort of physical comedy is a challenge to convey to U.K. audiences, Komiya says. “In English comedy,” he explains, “there is a lot of speaking with nearly zero breaks. In Japan, we like pauses and a lot of over-reaction. When I don’t speak I think there is more real acting involved.”

Though it was once staged at a gym with a capacity of around 600, he says that these subtleties makes “Jail Talk” more suitable for smaller venues of between 100 and 200 patrons.

Komiya’s start in theater came in his university days, when he entered a club that performed rakugo, a form of Japanese comedy where the audience is entertained by a series of gestures, body moves, and broken speech by the performer.

But given the fact that “Jail Talk” employs many rakugo traits – the falling down, the facial gestures – are there not similarities?

“Jail Talk,” is first a drama, Komiya explains, one in which a fastidious lawyer is jotting his client’s words into a notebook in search of answers.

In an attempt to display the difference between his monologue and a much more complicated rakugo performance, he quickly breaks into the role of Hinoki: “So you’re Mr. Hideo Shiokawa, yes?…I am Jotaro Hinoki — your solicitor. It was your wife who requested one…”

Satisfied with his deadpan performance, he then snaps back to himself.

“Rakugo is too traditional,” he says, “I like it but I didn’t want to be a professional. I like acting more than rakugo.”

Komiya got his start just before Japan’s manzai (comedy) boom, a period in early ’80s that brought fame to such comedians as Sanma and the duo Shinsuke Ryusuke. After a stint between 1976 and 78 at “Theater Echo,” where he learned the basics in being a comic actor, Komiya dabbled in naked theater for two years at Dotonbori Gekijo in Shibuya. It was here that he formed the three-member comedy troupe Kont-Akashingo, which made its television debut on the Kao Meijin Gekijo program.

But sensing his passion was more with straight acting, Komiya altered his career path in 1984. “I love comedy very much,” he explains, “but Japanese TV comedy and variety shows are difficult for me. I’m poor at ad-lib. I like speaking a lot of lines.”

Komiya then bounced around Japan performing various roles. Perhaps his most noted part came in the 2003 comedy “Get Up,” a film inspired by James Brown where Komiya was featured as a home-delivery man.

This spring in the U.S. will see the opening of the karate film “Kuro Obi,” which finds Komiya playing a military policeman. A release in Japan is expected in the fall.

A smattering of various other shows are scheduled at halls between Kyushu and Hokkaido over the course of 2007, but Komiya’s passion rests with the lawyer who is constantly reaching for his handkerchief — a role that is presently on hiatus.

“Hinoki is a fair man,” Komiya says. “Although he always makes a great effort, he is not rewarded. I like such a man. I think even if we are not successful in life we should not give up. Maybe I imagine myself as Hinoki.”

Note: This article originally appeared in January 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.