The world of Japanese comedy hasn’t often been the topic of feature films in Japan but Naoki Matayoshi’s Akutagawa-prize winning novel “Hibana-Spark” has spurred both a 10-part Netflix TV series last year and a feature film this annum. Matayoshi is himself a comedian and the film “Spark” bowed at the Kyoto International Film Festival on October 15. It is on offer at TIFFCOM, the rights market that accompanies the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Yoshimoto Creative Agency oversaw the production. That is fitting as parent company Yoshimoto Kogyo is the leading comedy agency in Japan, and Itsuji Itao, the comedian/actor/director it represents, directed the effort.
The story follows two manzai comedians, the younger Tokunaga (Masaki Suda) and the older Kamiya (Kenta Kiritani), as they struggle to become successful. Tokunaga sees Kamiya’s edgy routines and immediately pledges to be his dedicated student, which is a tad unusual because the manzai form is duo comedy but both have other comedians that they perform with. The piece tracks the relationship of Tokunaga and Kamiya for 10 years, long enough to figure out they will not hit the big time as performers. It outlines their trials and humiliations on minor entertainment circuits, and Kamiya’s mercurial approach to life.
Itao, a quite successful funnyman, made the film in part to offer advice to younger comics. “Through the film I wanted to communicate with young comedians. They know that they are funny, but to actually make people laugh you need to think about how to convey your ideas, you need to think about the setting, the character and the tone. Those things must be considered,” he said.
Perversely, though the film contains several amusing routines, the overall tone is somewhat heavy. “This is a film about comedians, but it’s not a comedy. It’s not a tragedy, but I intended a sad or somewhat depressive atmosphere. I wanted to make an normal coming-of-age drama about comedians.”
Powerhouse Japanese studio, Toho is handling the Japanese release on Nov. 23 and the international sales outside Asia. “’Spark’ deals with manzai, which is a Japanese comedy style, and is probably hard to understand for international buyers. Thus we put an explanation of manzai at the beginning of the movie for sales reference,” said Yusuke Kikuchi, international sales manager, of the strategy to get it to theaters worldwide. “And we put more focus on the movie itself, not the manzai style. Actually this movie has a very universal message that conveys the struggle and growth in youthful days.”
Miyuki Takamatsu of Free Stone Productions, who is handling the Asian sales, says the sales pitch is different within Asia. “(The appeal of the film for Asia) is in the power of the original novel.” She adds: “Asians tend to share a sensitivity toward drama about young guys and poor guys with a sense of comedy.”