TV Review: ‘Hibana’

'Hibana' Review: Netflix Original Series Tracks

Five Japanese film directors bring an exquisitely cinematic eye to this Netflix adaptation of comedian Naoki Matayoshi's Akutagawa Prize-winning novel.

Making people laugh is no joke in “Hibana,” a profoundly reflective and achingly tender look at Japan’s vibrant, cutthroat comedy scene. Adapted from Matayoshi Naoki’s bestseller and helmed by five filmmakers, the 10-episode Netflix Original Series chronicles the decade-long trajectories of two manzai artists, whose careers are strewn with more tears than laughter. Made with an exquisitely cinematic eye “Hibana” is a polished product that targets a discerning audience from among the 190 territories where it aired.

The series was shot in chronological order, covering one year per episode, with festival regular Ryuichi Hiroki (“Kabukicho Love Hotel”) as supervising director and contributor on three episodes, while the remaining duties are split between helmers Kazuya Shiraishi, Shuichi Okita, Yasunori Mouri, and Shinji Kuma. Despite the directors’ diverse styles, the work boasts remarkable continuity, giving the Netflix-Yoshimoto Kogyo collaboration greater artistic cache than Netflix’s previous popcorn co-productions with Fuji TV: “Atelier” and “Terrace.”

Dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185), manzai is a stand-up comic art form based on the interaction of boke (the fool) and tsukommi (the heckler). In light of its systematic popularization since 1912 by Osaka entertainment giant Yoshimoto Kogyo, a new style evolved and contemporary manzai is often performed in Kansai dialect. The 36-year-old member of manzai duo Peace, Matayoshi made waves when his novel won the Akutagawa Prize, a prestigious award for serious literary works. Encapsulating the bittersweet tone of its source, “Hibana” makes everything about manzai absorbing, even when few of the jokes are actually funny. In so doing, it raises a serious questions about the function of art, and whether it should please or provoke.

Sparks (pronounced “Su-paa-kuzu”) is the fictional manzai duo formed by childhood buddies Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi, “Lesson of the Evil”) and Yamashita (Masao Yoshii). In the premiere episode of “Hibana,” as Tokunaga and Yamashita wait their turn at a summer festival in Atami, Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), a comedian from the duo Ahonandra, grabs the mic and curses spectators with jaw-dropping bile. Dazzled and awed, Tokunaga begs Kamiya to be his mentor. Kamiya agrees, on the condition that Tokunaga write his biography, which becomes the story’s framing device for the younger artist to thrash out his own ideas about comedy and life.

After the first episode, the scene shifts to Tokyo, where Sparks has ventured for the big game. The young comedians sign up with Hyugo, a small agency whose efforts to promote them are lukewarm to say the least, packing them off to don cow costumes for supermarket campaigns. Ahonandra, meanwhile, has also relocated to Tokyo, so the first four episodes are largely devoted to Tokunaga’s hero worship of Kamiya, who never stops expounding on esoteric theories of mirth in boozy rapture.

When Kamiya introduces his protégé to his roommate, Maki (Mugi Kadokawa), an atypical triangle is formed, revolving around the hot-pot dinners Maki rustles up. Rippling beneath these convivial, unguarded moments is a queer undercurrent of love Tokunaga seems to be harboring for his guru.

As Sparks’ career picks up, each time they perform live or enter a tournament is orchestrated with hand-wringing tension, as well as mordant observations on how wannabe comedians ingratiate themselves to succeed. The focus gradually shifts to Tokunaga’s bumpy collaboration with Yamashita, whose selfish impulses add a bitter but realistic edge to the film’s unsentimental portrayal of professional partnerships. Manzai artist Yoshii plays his role dead straight, with a nasty edge, yet his committed performance elicits understanding, if not sympathy, over time. The last few episodes pop some surprises that illustrate the fickleness of the manzai world as well as the transience of human connections.

TV Review: 'Hibana'

Reviewed at Nippon Connection, Frankfurt, May 28, 29, 2016. Running time: 530 MIN.

Production

(Japan) A Netflix release of a YD Creation, Yoshimoto Kogyo presentation of a The Fool, Pipeline production in association with Netflix. Produced by Shunsuke Koga. Executive producers, Akihito Okamoto, Keichi Yoshizaki, David Lee, Noriyasu Ueki.

Crew

Supervising director, Ryuichi Hiroki. Directed by Hiroki, Kazuya Shiraishi, Shuichi Okita, Shinji Kuma, Yasunori Mouri. Screenplay, Miyuki Takahashi, Masato Kato, based on the novel by Naoki Matayoshi. Camera (color, HD), Atsuhiro Nabeshima; editor, Junichi Kikuchi, Minoru Nomoto; music, Koji Ueno, Toru Ishizuka; music supervisor, Motoyoshi Tai; production designer, Naoki Soma; set decorator, Masashi Kuwata; costume designer, Sayaka Takahashi.

Cast

Kento Hayashi, Kazuki Namioka, Masao Yoshii, Mugi Kadowaki, Hideaki Murata, Shota Sometani, Tomorowo Taguchi, Kaoru Kobayashi, Nahana, Sayaka Yamamoto, Eri Tokunaga, Maryjun Takahashi, Daichi Watanabe, Tetsu Watanabe, Tamotsu Okubo , Ryo Hashimoto, Shun Tawarayama, Shinji Nishimura, Kyon. (Kansai dialect, Japanese dialogue)

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  1. Reuben says:

    This series is the opposite is of rewarding television. Each hour you put in reduces what glean from it. You start out as wide-eyed by possibilities as its protagonist — but soon you see everything 10 steps ahead of him and every other character. The idea that popular comedians rise at the expense of edgier comics, who risk it all, is not new. The only novelty in its execution here are a few nearly implausible details I’ll omit so as not to spoil it. But even so, the show felt like it was stretching its source novel to fill time. This should be two hours, not 10 (and that’s just to start). Through it all, we see nothing of the main character’s family or love life — he isn’t just inexpressive, he’s given Japanese mumblecore outlets for his expression — like running down the street when he likes a girl minutes after she’s left. The main character does a lot of running — that’s how we know there’s a big emotional moment going down — that and the swelling music. But there’s nothing in the narrative to lend any of these moments the gravitas they demand of the viewer. You keep waiting for some change in the characters — some marker other than hair and cell phone-style to indicate 10 whole years are passing. But there are none. In a series that aspires to realism, these are some of the most stunted individuals you will ever meet. Could comedians or real estate agents or radio repairmen be so stunted? Surely — but why you’d want to watch them for 10 hours with no payoff, I don’t know.

    Save yourself the trouble and watch Satoshi Kon’s “Tokyo Godfathers” on repeat — in its packed 1:30 it tells you more about life, love and art in Tokyo than this thin, repetitive riff.

    • Ron says:

      In a series that aspires to realism, these are some of the most stunted individuals you will ever meet.

      I’ve lived in Japan a good number of years and sadly, the “stunted” quality you’ve noted is is quite normal.

  2. Marja says:

    I just got through the series and am astounded at the quality. I love the long, lingering shots throughout the series, a prime example being the meeting with the”drum man”. It’s going to merit a second watch for sure, but I think might be my favorite TV drama of all time. Or at least very close.

  3. stevenkovacs says:

    I will watch this Netflux-Fuji series just because of how terrific their other shows, ‘Atelier’, and, ‘Terrace House’ are!
    Bring on another series of ‘Atelier’ (a/k/a ‘Underwear’) and more episodes of ‘Terrace House’ too!

    • Maggie Lee says:

      I’m so sorry I actually made a mistake in the review. HIBANA was co-produced by Netflix Japan and Yoshimoto Kyogyo, not with Fuji TV. I’ve corrected this in the review. HIBANA is quite different from ATELIER. It’s much more like a long film but I urge you to watch it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen for a long time, film or TV-wise. Thanks for your comments.

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