I saw a third—I heard his voice:
It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns
That he makes in the wood.
He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away
The Albatross’s blood.
It may be Coleridge who initially springs to mind for the literature graduate when they first hear the bizarre name Crack Iron Albatrossket.
Led by a handful of dynamic personalities, including novelist Akihito Inui, Crack Iron Albatross is a fringe comedy theatre troupe with a large cult following. Large enough, perhaps, that it’s about time it got some exposure on this modest blog that professes to cover Tokyo contemporary theatre.
Imagine a cross between Monty Python, The Fast Show and Rakugo, with the Japanese penchant for unashamedly physical gags and the downright scatological thrown in for good measure… and you might have something of an idea of the take-no-prisoners concoction Crack Iron serves up on an average night.
One moment the performers may be acting out a fist fight, the next trying to kiss each other or suddenly segueing into an Awa-odori dance. Many of the references and in-jokes are contemporary but the skits also reverberate with shitamachi flavours. Even the name, Crack Iron (inverted from the Japanese, Tetsuwari — tetsu means iron, wari means to separate), seems to derive from an Edo-era circus group, paired with a neologism of “albatross” by way of Fleetwood Mac.
The ‘show’, for want of a better word, is composed of many short sketches, some of which have loud music and songs, and all of which are incongruous and surreal, played by the cast at a zany pitch. If it sounds derivative then you should be aware that, though it is visual, the dialogue is packed with cultural motifs and riffs, from the blind masseur-cum-samurai Zatoichi to Japanese foods.
And if the anarchic content of the sketches may seem juvenile — and it is, in a knowing way — then the framing of the performance is more austere, though also in a meta-theatre style. The stage is typically like a kind of Rakugo or other traditional play, a slightly raised set with a room full of junk, noren curtains and tatami mats. Skit titles are shown on a large handwritten scroll/notepad, the pages of which are changed with each scene. Many of the sketches are often reworked in different shows, so audiences enjoy new versions of familiar scenarios.
One such scene (‘A Corner of the World’) involved two men arguing over whether one of their t-shirts was a Paul Smith or a Patti Smith, before the other rips the shirt open, massages his shoulders and extracts lots of grime from the skin. This is then placed in a cigarette and smoked, getting them both very high.
Here’s a version of the sketch:
Another sketch is essentially a monologue of a man who eats liver yakitori and gets horny, and proceeds then to inject himself with the meat skewer like it is heroin. It shouldn’t be funny but it is.
Breaking taboos about, say, drugs is typically a big no-no for mainstream Japan, even for the halls of comedy. Most cultures allow comedians at least to get away with the risque, the challenging and the offensive. But even the most gross or in-your-face mainstream comics in Japan stay clear of taboos (the imperial family, the war, much of politics). When the British light comedy panel show QI mentioned in passing the case of a man who had survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs as an amazing (amusing?) story of bad luck, as part of a section discussing strange but funny ironies, people in Japan were outraged, not so much by the content of what the guests said on the show — the vast majority could not understand that, and in fact the ‘jokes’ that were made were all about the, ahem, quality of British rail transport — but simply by the idea of a comedy show bringing up such a sacred subject matter. This kind of dangerous cultural self-censorship is challenged, certainly inadvertently, by the likes of Crack Iron Albatrossket.
Though revolving around the same key members, and especially Inui, Misao Ushijima and Yoichi Murakami, the group has innovated over its ten-plus years of existence by collaborating with outsiders, such as the dancer Masako Yasumoto and more recently, the manga artist Toyo Kataoka.
It reads like an arresting thought but Japan suffers from a dearth of fools. Shakespeare is replete with clowns and their ilk to play the soothsayers of society. You will find none in Kabuki and even the Japanese imperial court, which, unlike the Shogun’s world, actually had nothing to do for centuries except enjoy the refinery of the arts, had no jester to liven up the stakes, let alone deliver licensed anarchy in the form of jokes and mockery.
It is left to comedians to do this, even in modern Japan. However, o-wari, or mainstream comedy on TV, is composed of celebrity comics who start off in poorly paid Manzai stand-up and work their way up to advertisement endorsements, presenting cooking shows and marrying busty female models typically many years younger. Comedy is safe and physical for the most part, either playing on reoccurring gags and punchlines, or in-jokes about other celebrities (a nickname, a forte, a scandal and so on). It is, however, often loud. Volume, in a culture that stereotypically at least, places great emphasis on harmony and the quiet that should accompany this — consider the trains, which attempt to curb unnecessary noise, such as talking on mobile phones — thus becomes a key tool for changing things up. Being raucous, though not as edgy or clever as a sardonic fool or a witty satirist, is nonetheless a form of anarchy.
Crack Iron fall into that category, singing loud their un-godly hymns. Despite being relative veterans of the fringe scenes, their audiences are still young, in their twenties for the most part, though they seem to have retained their original fans as well. Crack Iron performances become a process of catharsis for a young entertainment-seeking generation. To call it irreverent is perhaps going a bridge too far; there is no direct targeting of social mores. We cannot find a voice of specific dissent here. Rather, licensed chaos and incoherence gives way to shared exploration and communal ties through laughter.