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.