Stop the Misuse of Definite Articles!

I saw a traffic sign that read:

ストップ

死亡事故

This translates to:

Stop
the
traffic fatalities

Here is the Japanese pronunciation:

Sutoppu
za
shibou jiko

Come on, guys. Cut it out.

It is hilarious, though, to replace "traffic fatalities" with other Japanese words. I am just as bad as they are.

Originally posted May 6th, 2006

Cool Kanji – 罰

 
I have an article about ガキの使いやあらへんで’s annual 罰ゲーム and 世界のナベアツ over at Neojaponisme for their 2008 in review series. Other than Murakami and beer, Japanese comedy is probably one of the few other topics I’m relatively qualified to talk about.

Downtown is a manzai group that I’ve known from the very first time I came to Japan. It’s hard to watch any Japanese TV at all and not realize who they are. Hitoshi Matsumoto is the boke, and Masatoshi Hamada is the tsukkomi. Matsumoto occasionally goes by Hitoshi, but generally they are both referred to by surname or their nicknames: Ma-chan and Hama-chan. They’ve been on television since 1989, and since 1990 they’ve been playing different 対決 (たいけつ), which  decides who will participate in a 罰 (ばつ)ゲーム.

罰 means punishment and is often used in the compound 罰金 (ばっきん, fine/penalty fee).  A 罰ゲーム is any “game” where someone has to go through an embarrassing or painful task as punishment for losing the 対決. For the first decade or so, it was always Matsumoto versus Hamada, and the 罰ゲーム was an embarrassing appearance on television or being forced to go skydiving or ride a rollercoaster:

 

Matsumoto had a long losing streak, so when he finally won a 対決, he sent Hamada to France to fill up a bottle of Evian water from the original source. He later sent Hamada all the way to New York City to retrieve a mechanical pencil.

 
For a long time the games had a real gonzo feel, but in recent years, their 絶対に笑っては行けない (ぜったいにわらってはいけない, “You absolutely must not laugh”) version has gotten so popular, that the production level has skyrocketed. They began playing this version annually in 2003, and since 2006 it’s been broadcast in ゴールデンタイム, the Japanese version of primetime, on New Year’s Eve.

These shows all include ココリコ, another manzai group made up of Shōzō Endō and Naoki Tanaka, and fifth man Hōsei Yamazaki. (I always felt bad for Yamazaki since he doesn’t have a partner, but then I realized he gets to play the ultimate role – the boke to the group as a whole: two manzai groups!) These three have been included from as far back as 1999 when they played the surreal 24時間鬼ごっこ.

The shows all follow a fairly set pattern. 3-5 of the Gaki no tsukai members are led on to a themed set by Hiroshi Fujiwara (a producer at Yoshimoto and Matsumoto’s 担当). There they encounter a huge number of up and coming (read: soon defunct) comedians, recurring characters, and members of the production staff, all of whom are trying to make them laugh, which gets them punished. The punishment began as blowdarts in the ass, then moved to an S&M whipping, but for the last four years it has just been a caning.

I was fortunate enough to catch the 2006 show by chance, last year’s on purpose, and past shows through the miracle of the Internets. Here are five of my favorite clips.

 
The first is the 対決 from the 2003 onsen game . Focus on what Hamada says; he has one of the most recognizable voices and laughs on Japanese TV, and I’m certain that’s part of the reason he’s so successful. “というわけで、松本チーム、罰ゲーーーム!”:

This clip shows how high the production level was last year. It also shows how ridiculous the shows have become. One interesting side note is that more of the guys laughed at the comedian who stutters his line than at the actual 勇気の実:

One of my favorite clips from the police show in 2006, the first one that I saw. ゆうたろう, I believe, is a (now-defunct?) comedian who imitates the late Yūjirō Ishihara, Japanese Elvis-type rock star and actor in police dramas (also brother to Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara):

This clip is from the 鬼ごっこ show and it has one of the greatest 罰 buildups ever. Matsumoto sent out oni dressed up in black to chase the rest of the guys around and deliver blows from ひしゃく (those water things at the entrance to shrines), はりせん (accordion-style fan things) and other random things. Then he sent out thai kick guys and head butt guys. After a few hours, he sent out the 紙芝居 (かみしばい) man. Make sure you watch all the way until the end:

And my favorite clip is the simple Shōhei clip, partially because it was the first 罰ゲーム I saw, but it’s also just really funny. I used this at elementary school with any kids named Yōhei or Kōhei, and it never failed to get a laugh:

My only complaint about the show is that every year without fail there is a scene where they laugh at foreigners, often of darker complexion, basically for being foreigners – looking different and speaking Japanese in a funny accent. This year they are airing another 罰ゲーム on New Year’s Eve. It’s six hours long and starts at 6:30pm. Madness. 

笑われていいとも!

One of the elementary schools I taught at for three years was deep in the mountains. Every Thursday I’d drive the beat-up red town car from the junior high school west along the river and then turn right, head into the mountains. The school only had about 30 kids total from 1st to 6th grade, so I taught sets of two grade years: 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th.

I thought it would be difficult at first, and it was a little when the kids rose a year and got matched with a different set of students, but the older kids always helped the younger ones along. I found that I could get the older kids to provide examples of different patterns and games.

Once I was teaching the 5th and 6th graders vowels. In Japanese the word for vowel is 母音 (ぼいん). [On an interesting side note, the word for consonant is 子音 (しいん)]. 母音 has an unusual pronunciation, so I wrote it on the board for the kids, but for some reason when I said it, the kids started laughing hysterically. I said it again, and they laughed even harder! One kid added, ダニエル先生、すごい! At one point the assistant principal, who was overseeing the class, had to tell kids to stop laughing. I still had no idea what was so funny. I could tell something I said was strange, but I just moved on with the lesson.

A couple weeks later I was teaching the same material to 3rd and 4th graders, and 母音 elicited the same response. This time, however, one of the little boys mimed a giant set of breasts. Ah ha! I thought, ボイン is the noise that boobs make when they move up and down! No wonder they were laughing so much. I had been standing up in front of the class saying, "Okay, guys, there are two types of boobs – long boobs and short boobs, and they make different sounds for each letter."

Laughter is an amazing warning sign. I love it when people laugh at my Japanese. It lets me know that my joke has worked or that I’ve said something incredibly incorrect and strange. Either way, it’s an easy way for people to reinforce better speaking without having to say, “Hey asshole, you messed up.”

If I get laughed at for a mistake, I don’t usually make that mistake again. On the internship I wrote about previously, I once brought omiyage for the group, announcing them by saying このお土産を京都から連れてきました。They all laughed, and the division head let me know that 連れる is only used for people; basically, I had just said, “I have accompanied this omiyage from Kyoto. Please enjoy.” 持ってきた is the correct pattern. Needless to say, I haven’t made that mistake again.

The point? Try not to take it personally if someone laughs at your Japanese, and feel free to laugh at strange English. You’re doing them a favor.

This isn’t really a puzzle, but I will beer the first person to explain the pun from and relevance of the title.

(I also wrote about laughter when I nearly killed a tanuki.)

Cool Kanji – 壷

 

More Irotori Ninja (色取り忍者) goodness! 1, 2.

Today’s kanji is つぼ (pot), basically an excuse to talk about Irotori Ninja some more.

I think I saw this episode when it aired but didn’t realize how funny the intro part is. The two guests were starring in some movie about 渋い-looking high school kids, which instantly gets associated with the old 数取団 (which I wrote about here). They give Koji Katō a hard time, asking why they don’t play the counting game anymore. (Keiichi Yamamoto, the other member of Katō’s manzai group Gokuraku Tombo, got kicked off the show and blacklisted.) Pretty bold to press a sensitive issue like that.

Another critical vocab word for Japanese comedy is ビンタ – a slap. Slapping and hitting is, for whatever reason, extremely funny in Japan. Watch the 1:45 and the 3:55 mark of the second video to see Shinji Takeda get slapped.

The Road to Meme-dom

Learned a cool word on Mecha-ike a few weeks ago – キレた. You can see the video for yourself here. Watch for a minute or so from the 6:30 mark.

Clearly it’s the past tense of the verb キレる. I’m not sure where it comes from (切る comes to mind) or why it’s half katakana half hiragana, but the meaning is totally clear from the video – it means that someone has just fuggin lost it, gone ballistic, bonkers, completely mad, etc. We had a case of that in the office this week, and immediately this phrase came to mind.

I made a sort of visual mnemonic to help you all remember the meaning:

キレた

That is the definitive キレた moment in American cinema.

The Dude Never Dies – The Big Lebowski in Japanese

I wrote for Let’s Go Japan during the summer of 2003. There were five or six of us writing that summer, and we all flew in to Tokyo before heading out in different directions. I went to Kamakura, Yokohama and Nagoya before heading to Shikoku, where I spent most of my two-month itinerary.

At first I was disappointed about being assigned to such a rural place; I’d only been to Japan once before and had only been able to spend a week or so in Tokyo, so I felt like I was missing out. Only later would I know how lucky I was to spend a month traveling around the highly underrated Shikoku, half of that with the refreshing freedom of a car.

While the landscape was breathtaking and the people were friendly, moving from town to town every day or two quickly became lonesome. I called the office a lot, called home a lot, and fortunately a Bulgarian friend in Nagoya hooked me up with some downloads to help me distract myself. He gave me a couple anime series and a movie or two, but I spent most of my time watching The Big Lebowski, which I’d been a fan of since renting it in ’98. Honestly, that summer alone I must’ve watched Lebowski a dozen times at least. I knew all the ins and outs of the film and even felt some 運命ness; there’s a Townes VanZandt version of the song “Dead Flowers” towards the end of the film, and a vinyl record bar I went to in Nagoya played a couple songs from Sticky Fingers.

(Did you know that in the dream sequence when the Dude gets knocked out by Maude’s goons, you can see that Maude was the one who rolled the ball?

)

So, equipped with a Region 2 DVD player, I’ve taken it upon myself to check out the localization of the movie. A couple weekends ago I watched it – twice. Once with the English language track and Japanese subtitles, and then again with the Japanese dubbing. This may not be a surprise to those familiar with Japan’s movie industry, but the dubbed version was notably better.

Not that the translation of the subtitles was poor. Not being a native speaker, I can’t speak for it completely, but in my biased opinion, it was good and caught a lot of the nuances of the film, even getting laughs out of my Japanese roommates.

But the dubbed translation itself was more accurate and creative. For example, when the Big Lebowski grills the Dude for fucking up the bag drop, the Dude says “We (おれたち) did drop the money,” eliciting a “We?” The subtitles are fairly 文字通り, getting close enough to the Dude’s “royal we” excuse, but the dubbed version goes with some creative Japanese: 「おれっち。言うでしょう?地方なんか行くと。」

The dubbed version does have a major advantage – time. As with subtitles in any language, you have to allow time for the viewer to read and comprehend the line, and when you have a movie with quick dialogue, it’s difficult to capture the feel with subtitles alone. Additionally, the fact that much of the dialogue in this movie is simultaneous makes the subtitles especially ineffective. You can hear the Japanese voices trying to speak over each other in the dubbed version, really helping express Walter’s frustration with Donny.

It also helped that the voice acting was absolutely impeccable; the accuracy with which the voice actors arranged their lines over Jeff Bridges’ and John Goodman’s mouthing was nothing short of incredible, and all of the give and take was more accurately portrayed with the dubbing.

But even the dubbed version misses parts of the critical element that really brings the film together – the role of discourse.

In the very first scene at the grocery store, President Bush on the screen drops the line “This aggression will not stand,” which the Dude later recycles when he confronts the Big Lewbowski. (“I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand…ya know. This aggression will not stand, man.”) The dubbed version catches this, reusing 侵攻/侵略 and variations of 許さない, but the subtitled version misses it.

Both miss the Dude’s final line of the movie, “The Dude abides.” This line the Dude recycles from when he was confronted by the Big Lebowksi – “I will not abide another toe.” The subtitled version uses ご免 and the dubbed 許さん for the first scene. In the final scene, the subtitled version has the cowboy say 「元気でな。気をつけて。」to which the Dude responds,

Whereas in the dubbed version the Dude responds with a less intrusively translated 「それがヂュードだし」 to 「気軽にやるんだよ。言うまでもないか。」 Neither relays the idea that the Dude has borrowed terminology yet again.

So what’s the point? The point is that The Big Lebowski is a subtly political film that shows the infectious role of discourse in society and how that discourse is often misrepresentation that leads to innocent victims. Unfortunately, the Japanese subtitles and dubbing don’t fully express this underlying theme of discourse, although I did learn the awesome curse word くそ食らえ.

Discourse

Well, it’s Election Day back in the States, so I thought we’d look at party names in translation.

The Republican Party – 共和党 (きょうわとう)

Unsure here, but this looks like a direct translation. 共和 is also used in a lot of country names, such as the Republic of Afghanistan (アフガニスタン共和国) and the Republic of Guatemala (グアテマラ共和国). Exciting.

Break it down by kanji and you get the “together-peace party.” Hmm…suspect.

The Democratic Party – 民主党 (みんしゅとう)

Here we have another direct translation. 民主主義 (みんしゅしゅぎ) is democracy, the theory, and looking on ALC for 民主 delivers a horde of political discourse.

Breaking it down by kanji gives us the “people’s-sovereignty party.” (Yes, the 主 is for 主権, sovereignty.) Hmm…suspect.

Honestly, party names themselves have so little meaning, that direct translation is the only way to go. We are so divorced from the moment when they actually meant something that they only seem like rusty, old institutions, starting to creak with age beneath the weight of generations.

Discourse, my friends, is a lie in any language.

Bonus Links – すべらない話

Here are some bonus Youtube links for this wonderful Wednesday – some clips from Hitoshi Matsumoto’s すべらない話. The premise is simple: Matsumoto rolls the die and whoever’s name appears tells a story. It’s probably the closest thing that Japan has to Western stand-up comedy. Very funny: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.

If you’re looking for a particular comedian, here’s a quick reference:

2: Junior Chiharu, Hosshan
3: Ken Yahagi, Matsumoto, Haruna Kondō, Matsumoto, Junior Chiharu
4: Daisuke Miyagawa, Ryūji Akiyama, Atsuhiko Nakata
5: Matsumoto, Kendō Kobayashi, Haruna Kondō, Masaru Hamaguchi
6: Kazutoyo Koyabu, Teppei Arita
7: Onigiri, Hosshan, Junichi Kawamoto
8: Junichi Kawamoto, Sekai no Nabeatsu, Gori
9: Daiki Hyōdō, Masaru Hamaguchi, Atsuhiko Nakata

The other clips are setup and then the selection of the best story.

Cool Link – すべらない名無し

2channel is a Japanese internet forum. You can try browsing it yourself, but it’s massive and seems like it would take a long time to find exactly what you’re looking for. After you click on the main graphic, there is a huge list of topics on the left.

The other day while searching for examples of 差し入れ, I came across a blog that seems to cull the funniest posts from 2channel and post them as blog entries – すべらない名無し. It’s kind of an Overheard in New York for 2channel.

The topics vary but are almost always funny. It proves that Steven Segal provides just as much unintentional comedy in Japan as anywhere else. You can also read about the displeasures of fellatio, the misfortune of setting your 変換, and how to make hilarious manga titles by adding/changing one character. Recommended reading. The comments are generally fun, too.

名無し (ななし) refers to the name, or lack of name, of the posters on 2ch. Almost everyone posts anonymously, and the default anonymous name is 名無し or some funny reworking of 名無し; in the literature section, for example, it is 我輩は名無しである, a pun on a Soseki novel. すべらない you might recognize from Hitoshi Matsumoto’s すべらない話. I’m unsure if it’s related to 滑る, which has the same pronunciation and means “to slip,” but even if it’s not, that’s an easy way to remember what it means – if it slips (すべる), it’s not funny; if it doesn’t slip (すべらない), it’s funny. So basically the title means “Funny No-names.”