THE SATURDAY PROFILE
With a Poison Tongue, Putting a Smile on a Nation’s Aging Faces
|"They laugh because they are afraid. I soften the blow of aging by talking to them not individually, |
but as an audience," said Yoshihiro Kariya. Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times
By Martin Fackler
AT 61 years old, Yoshihiro Kariya displays the energy and flamboyance of someone half his age, delivering rapid-fire jokes as he paces the stage in a red tailcoat, his hair pulled back in a ponytail. Mr. Kariya’s hourlong stand-up routine is a relentless barrage of humorous, often off-color barbs aimed at his audience, mostly women in their 60s and 70s.
“Forty years ago, when you were first married, your husband swept you up in his arms and carried you into the bedroom,” he said during a recent show.
“When was the last time that happened? 1962?” he continued, pointing at individual audience members. “For you, 1960? 1956? And over there, 1910?
“Now it is you who takes him by the hand into the bedroom. And what for? To change his adult diapers!”
The women, who have paid more than $300 a seat for this dinner show, wince at the punch lines, even as they cheer and clap.
Japan is well established as a global center of youth culture, the creator of Uniqlo and Pokémon. But this is also one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies, and there is a growing need for something or someone to entertain its growing ranks of retirees.
No one does it better right now than Mr. Kariya, better known by his stage name, Kimimaro Ayanokoji, or just Kimimaro. His books and CDs have sold a million copies, and he routinely fills places like this 500-seat theater at the stylish Hotel Okura in the western city of Kobe.
To hear his fans tell it, Mr. Kariya is that rare breed of entertainer who fully understands the anxieties of growing old, and is able to find the humor in it. Despite their large numbers, older Japanese say they often feel ignored by mainstream popular culture, with its girlish idols and slick boy bands whose members are young enough to be their grandchildren.
“Kimimaro-san is a comedian for an aging society,” said Fukako Shimamura, 63, a homemaker, who watched the Kobe show. “He is from our generation, so he understands our problems. He knows how to make us laugh, but he also gives us insight into our problems, and teaches us something.”
Mr. Kariya says he is one of the few comedians who can accomplish a difficult task: cracking a smile on the faces of tough, wizened customers who have seen it all, and don’t have a lot to laugh about anymore. He says he does it with what he calls “poison-tongued comedy,” biting, often dark humor that bluntly exposes the aches and pains, and also the fears, of growing old.
In one slapstick routine, he tells his audience that doctors have predicted that one in four Japanese will soon be senile.
“Ladies, take a look around you,” he said, before starting to count members of the first row. “One, two, three, senile! One, two, three, Alzheimer’s! One, two, three, dementia!”
“They laugh because they are afraid,” Mr. Kariya said in an interview before the show. “I soften the blow of aging by talking to them not individually, but as an audience. That way, everyone can think that I am not really talking about them, but the person next to them. But they also know in their hearts that it is only a matter of time before their teeth and hair fall out.”
MR. KARIYA says he understands aging’s toll from experience. The ponytail, he admits, is a hairpiece he started using after his hairline began receding a decade ago.
While his routine can at times seem crass, it draws from Japan’s long tradition of “rakugo” comic monologue, with a few modern twists like the cutesy cartoon-character drawing of himself that he uses as a logo. He is also very modern in his efforts to capitalize on his success: he markets his own brand of wine, and has an online shop selling children’s clothing, so his fans can share the good cheer with their grandchildren.
He says part of his appeal lies in the fact that he has shared many experiences with his core audience, Japanese born in the years after World War II. The son of a horse breeder in a rural southern area, he says he caught the show business bug when he saw his first entertainment revues on a black-and-white television that his family bought to watch the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
Plodding through a lackluster career emceeing for sleazy cabarets and doing stand-up comedy routines as an opening act for music concerts, he found himself balding and feeling over the hill at 50. Then he hit on an idea: his postwar generation, Japan’s largest demographic group, was aging along with him. Why not tell jokes about that reality?
So 10 years ago, he restarted his career by handing out cassette tapes of his senior-focused humor to the drivers of tour buses, whose riders are mostly retirees. Within two years, he was getting swamped with offers to buy his cassettes and to do live shows.
“I have become an idol for the elderly,” he said with a laugh.
He says he offers older Japanese a chance to escape the feelings of isolation in what he calls an Americanized society in which elderly parents, who traditionally lived with their children and grandchildren, are now increasingly residing alone.
He attributes his special appeal to women not to his looks — “If I were handsome, I would have been an actor,” he said — but to their willingness to laugh. After a lifetime spent sacrificing for their husbands and children, they are now determined to spend their later years enjoying themselves, he said.
ONE of his richest veins is poking fun at aging couples whose romantic spark has long vanished, replaced by the crankiness of growing old. To suit his typical audience, he usually tells his jokes from the standpoint of the woman.
“Ladies, when you were young, you used to pine for your husband to come home from work,” he said. “Forty years later, and now that he is finally retired and at home, all you can think about is when he will go out again.”
Other jokes appeal to both sexes.
“When you get old, everything seems to increase — your wrinkles, skin blemishes, cholesterol, body fat,” he said. “The only things that decrease are the size of your savings and the number of hairs on your head!”
“He says cruel things, but we forgive him because they’re true,” said one member of the audience, Hiromi Mochida, 68.
“I like him because he also reminds us about what we still have,” chimed in her friend, Yoko Hirata, 66. “Sometimes I get tired of my husband. But when I come here, I realize I am lucky to have him. I realize I could come here because of the money that he earned.
“Kimimaro-san makes me thankful for the time that we have had together, and the time that we have left,” she added. “Maybe that is the secret of elderly humor.”© 2012 The New York Times Company
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