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Breaking stereotypes while getting laughs

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ike Nwala

By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff WriterFor Ike Nwala, it was pure chance. He knew nothing about it until about 15 years ago when he came across a DVD shop in Seattle’s Chinatown where he saw “owarai” Japanese comedy for the first time.

A TV in the shop was showing a skit that went like this: A man carrying a bazooka sneaks into a room where someone is sound asleep. With no hesitation, he fires a blank. The massive bang awakens the sleeper.

“This is so crazy — I’ve never seen anything like this before!” Nwala recalled of the footage, chuckling hard.

The skit was performed by Japanese comedian Junji Takada in his signature fake bazooka series aired on a TV show that ran from the mid 1980s to the mid ’90s in Japan.

Inspired by “really cool” Takada, the then college student asked himself, “Hey, what if I could do that in Japanese?”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ike Nwala passionately talks about Japanese comedy in a recent interview at Watanabe Entertainment Co. in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

  • Photo by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Photographer Ryuzo Suzuki

    Ike Nwala passionately talks about Japanese comedy in a recent interview at Watanabe Entertainment Co. in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ike Nwala

Born in New York, Nwala grew up in Washington State. After graduating early from university in two years, he flew to Japan at age 20 to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian.

“Somebody like me going all the way to Japan, doing Japanese comedy, doing it maybe on stage or on TV or any type of appearance, I didn’t really care,” Nwala said in a recent interview with The Japan News. “But just actually doing it, I thought would be cool.”

His childhood also drove him on.

“Growing up, I was interested in doing things that were not the stereotype,” he said. “I don’t like the fact that because you’re a certain skin color you have to act this way or you have to think this way.”

Knowing nothing about Japan, he learned how to read Japanese through a social networking site and how to pronounce the language by watching TV and listening to Japanese music.

After about five years in Japan, when he was working as a data center engineer for Goldman Sachs, he passed an audition that gave him the chance to step foot in the entertainment industry.

Along with more than 100 groups and individuals, Nwala currently belongs to Watanabe Entertainment Co., one of the largest entertainment agencies in Japan. Only a few people manage to secure the opportunity to appear regularly on TV shows, while many leave the industry after failing to shine.

Now 32, Nwala regularly appears on three TV shows, doing things from narrating to emceeing and hosting a children’s TV program on weekday mornings.

For example, on TV shows, he fluently speaks Japanese, but then suddenly switches to English, getting laughs from the audience. One of his popular skits is mimicking the Tokyo DisneySea announcements.

“Japanese comedy is just very unique,” Nwala said, not just made up of bazooka skits. He mentions the boke and tsukkomi, the two main roles in typical Japanese comedy skits where the boke doesn’t do anything correct and makes a lot of mistakes, while the tsukkomi corrects the boke.

When it comes to discussing the techniques, Nwala treads carefully.

Stressing “I’m still learning Japanese comedy,” Nwala talked about how difficult it is to achieve the best “ma,” the delay to get the perfect timing to deliver the punchline.

“I find that ma is very important,” he said. “Depending on how much it increases or decreases, the amount of laughter will increase or decrease, depending on how good the tsukkomi is.”

The peculiarities of Japanese comedy are not only about the performance. The very strict senior-junior relationship is one comedians must master if they want to survive and be successful in the industry.

“I have to understand the whole situation,” he said. “I have to understand the rank, and I have to understand how much work they [senior comedians] have and their current situation.”

Although he thinks he is doing “really well” thanks to some of his close senior comedians who taught him everything, he still finds it hard.

“You have to use your brain a lot, or else you make somebody mad or very frustrated with you,” he said.

“I am not Japanese, but some senpai [seniors] expect that I know 100 percent how kohai [juniors] speak to senpai or how they act toward senpai because I speak their language and I’m a comedian,” Nwala said. “They feel that if you’re going to be Japanese and do comedy, you should know how to do it correctly.”

Today Japanese comedy shows are easily accessed online and some come with English subtitles, illustrating how popular they are overseas.

Nwala said he receives messages from people in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia who have read about him or seen him perform, saying, “I want to do Japanese comedy, too.”

“But then I’m thinking, you have no idea what you’re getting into because they only see TV and the online videos. They don’t see the joge kankei [senior-junior relationship],” Nwala said with a laugh.

As the world seems to be increasingly sensitive to political correctness, does this make it more difficult for comedians?

“Of course, but this is not just [in] Japan. In the States, we have to make fun of those issues in order to approach the issues,” Nwala said.

Nwala left his homeland wanting to live a life unbound by stereotypes. It’s been a dozen years since then and he might be contributing to changing certain stereotypes held by many Japanese. Especially on the weekday children’s TV show: “If I appear on TV more and more, then the children are going to be normal about foreigners, and not just a certain race, but every race,” he said.

So what does owarai mean to him?

“This sounds kind of fairy-taleish, Disney-like,” he said. “I find comedy as happiness for myself. I find that with the actions that I take or the things that I say, if I can get one laugh or I can make somebody happy, I think that makes me feel happy.”

His dream is to become “the funniest foreign comedian in Japan.”

“I am not funny in English!” he said. “I’m a comedian in Japanese. If I go back to America, I’m just an IT guy.”

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