The events in this story happened in November/December 2005. I never got around to writing about them, but I kept a diary at the time, which I used as the basis for this piece.
I was at home when the phone rang. On the slightly crackly line was a delightful young lady who introduced herself as Erika. She was calling, she explained, from Tokyo. She was working on a Japanese TV show, and, after watching my stuff
on youtube, her producers wanted to know if I'd like to fly over to work on it. I'd spent time in Japan before, and adore the place, so yes, I would. I asked her to tell me more.
It was an annual show – a new years day tradition that had been running for 25 years. Three hours long, packed with some of Japan’s biggest celebrities. The format was simple – each celeb would show off a talent that the general public had no idea that they possessed. In reality, of course, these were not so much “hidden talents”, as they were things that all the participants worked desperately hard to learn in the weeks leading up to the show. And that was to be my role. The biggest star on the show wanted to recreate an old act – a tribute to one of his favourite performers, and then use one of my tricks for the finale. I told Erika that I was in, and then I asked – just out of curiosity – who the celebrity that I'd be working with was. I'm a bit of a nerd for Japanese culture, so I might know them. Sure, she said, it's a gentleman called Masaaki Sakai. I giggled out loud. I did know who that was, and if you're from the same part of the world as me, and roughly my age, so do you.
So, two days later I found myself sitting on a very comfortable plane on my way to Tokyo. The last time I flew to Japan, I'd paid for it myself, so the in-flight entertainment consisted of – and I swear this is true - one episode of “The Streets Of San Francisco” showing on a loop every two hours. This time it was a little nicer. I arrived in Tokyo, was met by Erika, who would be my handler and translator for the duration of my stay, and we drove to my hotel. Rehearsals would start tomorrow, but for now I was left in my room to de-pressurise. Thanks to the jetlag and the whirlwindedness of this gig, I was a little discombobulated. I laid on my bed, reflecting on what scary fun adventure seemed to be in my immediate future, then I pulled myself together, ordered a shedload of room service food, ate, and went to sleep.
The next morning, after a typically Japanese nearly-western style hotel breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs on pancakes with sauté potatoes, hash browns, pasta and a fruit salad with little cubes of peppermint jelly, it was time for my first day at work.
I was taken to have a coffee with one of the producers of the show, who explained the format to me, and told me that almost everyone in Japan watches it on New Years Day. No pressure, then. I got to know Erika a little better too, she was born in Japan but raised in the USA, which, obviously, improves her cool rating in either country. Then off we went across the road to the mental-looking Fuji-TV building, and to the rehearsal room that would be my workplace for the foreseeable future.
The first couple of hours was filled with person after person arriving, being introduced to me, and then finding a place to sit. Runners, prop boys, massage therapists, producers, directors, stage managers, studio bosses – all of whom got greeted with a cheerful group “Ohayo Gozaimas” and the correct depth and duration of bow. And then Mr. Sakai arrived.
He was wearing a Nike track suit, a kangol cap back to front, wraparound sunglasses, a scarf and a trenchcoat. Not young, but he moved well, and once he took off the shades you could see a face full of life. Eyes positively brimming with glints.
He sat down right in front of me, and immediately started asking me lots of questions about my life and my work. Most of this stuff went through Erika's translation, but I slowly realised that he could speak way more English that he was letting on. Sneaky. I dropped in the occasional little bit of Japanese where I could and before long we were getting on like a house on fire. Things only got better when he started discussing the act that he wanted to recreate. He fired up a video to show me it, and a very familiar little old clown
spluttered onto the screen. “GeorgeCarl!”
, I almost yelled. Mr. Sakai was stunned that I knew him, and said something in Japanese to Erika. “He is Mr.Sakai's hero”, Erika told me. “Mine too!”, I said, and we grinned at each other. We were similar.
We spent the rest of the night getting to know each other, Mr.Sakai hypnotizing me with stories – oh I do have a weakness for an old pro with stories. In the west, of course, he's known just for being Monkey, but in Japan he was a star before that and continues to be a star after. In the 60's he was in The Spiders – Japan's answer to The Beatles, he then went on to have a solo career as a pop star, hosted dozens of TV shows, he even played the title role in the Japanese version of Columbo!
Halfway through the evening, one of his best friends arrived. Mr.Tomei was, I think, a producer on the show – although I was never completely clear on his official role. His unofficial one seemed to be as foil to Mr.Sakai, and he played that perfectly. A similar age to Mr.Sakai, but tall and skinny, in a nice dark blue suit, with a shock of jet black hair in a 50's style, and constantly smoking. Indeed, pretty much all the men were terrifyingly enthusiastic smokers – almost all of them using little black plastic cigarette holders. Mr.Tomei and Mr.Sakai reminisced for me – they'd known each other for a very long time, and they told me stories from their youth, when they were breaking into entertainment by working in some of Tokyo's little music and comedy clubs. They told me about a cheap Tokyo diner called Jonathon's. They always used to go there after shows, as it was open 24 hours a day and you could get endless soda refills for 150 Yen. Mr.Sakai told me how, if you went there at two in the morning, the only people there would be theatricals or tramps, and that sometimes it was hard to tell which was which, and he and Mr.Tomei broke down into giggles, which then broke down into fits of coughing, more giggles and playful punching at each other. They told me that they work together on this show every year, and every year they sit here and have the same conversations they always do, so these days neither of them bothered to listen to what the other was saying, they just recite their half of the conversation like a script, and there they went again, coughing and laughing at each other. I immediately, of course, fell in love with these two wheezing, guffawing geezers, and as we finished our first day of rehearsals, I knew that this would be exactly as much fun as I hoped it would be.
Over the next few weeks, my nights were spent in that rehearsal room slowly helping Mr.Sakai learn my trick, and George Carl's act, but my days were my own, and so into Tokyo I plunged.
I went predictably nutso in Akihabara, the “Electric town” part of Tokyo where all manner of gadgetry can be found. I rode the big wheel in Palette town, a big, odd, shopping centre where I bought nintendo controller business card cases, novelty strawberry flavoured blood bags, and chocolates with photos of cats in uniforms on the box. Japan really is the country of choice if this is your kind of thing, and it is mine.
On a Sunday I went to Harajuku, where, on the bridge next to the station, the freaks and geeks come to peacock it up. It's magnificent. I saw women in full bridal gowns sitting on the floor taking pictures of each other, hard-core goth gangs, super-heroes, retro-punks, gothic-lolitas, people gleefully mixing gender and cultural references to create whatever they felt like they wanted to be, and one solitary Alice in wonderland, wandering around as if she had truly just fallen through a looking glass. I understood how she felt. I even went for lunch at the famed Jonathon's diner and sat, looking around, trying to imagine all the Mr.Sakai's and Mr.Tomei's that had been here over the years.
One night me and Erika went to see some puroresu. That's Japanese for pro-wrestling. Say it quick and it makes sense. As regular readers will know I'm a big fan
of wrestling, and the Japanese do it very well indeed. I'd been to the legendary Korakuen Hall before, so I was excited to be going again. Erika didn't, at first, quite know what to make of it, but by the interval had bought a t-shirt, was carefully translating what the wrestlers were saying (“That man really, really doesn't like that man”), and was “oooh”ing to herself whenever someone caught a beating. Afterwards we went to get some food, and I had what I was reliably informed was the speciality of the house. Half a loaf of bread, stood on it's end, with a dollop of cream and caramel sauce dumped on top. I realise that this does not sound like food in any conventional sense, but it was, truly, delicious. Although the next day, Erika confessed that she had dreamt of it. Food that enters your dreams can't be good.
The rehearsals were going well. Mr.Sakai was struggling with some of the hat manipulation, but was slowly getting there. He is, he told me, a quick learner but takes lots of breaks, so is not so quick sometimes. We usually worked from about 5.30pm to past midnight, and at about 10pm every night, food would arrive on a wagon train of trolleys. They heard that I was vegetarian and had furnished me with pumpkin croquettes, sticky rice, tempura, miso soup and all manner of deliciousness. A couple of days into the job, in passing, someone had asked me what a vegetarian like me ate and drank in Japan, so I mentioned how much I adore Japanese style sweetcorn soup, and how much Coke I drink. From the next day forward, there was permanently a huge cooler of Coke and a table full of instant sweetcorn soup packets at rehearsals. Every so often the costume lady would pop up and slide a fresh cup of sweetcorn soup in front of me with a grin. I think they were trying to see how many I could eat, which was many.
I was still doing the tourist thing in my daytimes. I visited the Tokyo Tower, which struck me as a very Japanese concept. Take the Eiffel tower, make our version 35 meters taller, and paint it in bright red and white stripes, because, why not? In the basement of the tower is, of course, a massive gift shop. I bought some Hello Kitty items from a very informative emporium (Did you know, for instance, that Hello Kitty was born and lives in London, England, or that her height is five apples and her weight is three apples?). I'm more of a Doraemon man myself. What's not to love about a blue robot cat who had his ears bitten off by mice, sent back in time from the far future? Anyway, I also bought a t-shirt that reads “Tokyo Tower. Builded in 1958”, which is a beautiful thing.
I spent some time hanging out at Yoyogi Park, which is where I stumbled across, watched, and immediately became a fan of the band “Chocolate Chip Cookies”, who were rocking it hard with battery amps on a street pitch in the park. I bought a CD, songs of which are still on my ipod, and after a little googling, I'm happy to report that they're still going.
At one point, during rehearsals, Mr.Sakai shows me a prop that George Carl used in his act, that Fuji-TV had made a reproduction of. George would stand on stage ready with his harmonica waiting for the band to start. He'd signal them to start, and they wouldn't. Again he'd signal, but they'd ignore him again. Finally, in an effort to communicate with the band, he'd hold his harmonica like a walkie-talkie, pull out an extendable aerial, and blow one note on it like morse code. Trust me – comedy platinum. So Mr.Sakai had a harmonica modified to do the same gag, and when I arrived at rehearsals one night, he took great pleasure in performing the gag for me. I hooted with laughter, and my big western yuk-yuks made everyone else laugh as well. Later that night he showed the gag to someone else, and then spent the next half hour jokingly berating them for not reacting as well as I had. It became this big, beautiful running gag – whenever someone new would come into the room, he would give us a sly look and slowly reach for the special harmonica while myself, Erika and Mr.Tomei would stifle giggles. Then he'd do the gag for them, and then tell them how bad their reaction was compared to mine.
Pretty soon I was approaching the end of my time there. In Japan it's traditional to present gifts at the conclusion of business, and I like to think I did pretty well here. Mr.Sakai is a huge golf fan, so I went to a shopping centre and bought one of those covers for the top of your golf clubs. Then I went to an electronic shop in Akihabara and bought an extending aerial. A little time spent dicking around with a penknife and glue in my hotel room, and presto – a golf club cover with a pull out aerial so Mr.Sakai can do his favourite gag on the golf course.
We did one final long rehearsal, and I got to watch Mr.Sakai do his tribute act one last time. It's was terrific. He nailed all the tricks most of the time and added things, improvising good stuff. By about 11pm, Mr.Sakai announced, through Erika, that the rest of the night would be a little party to say thank you and goodbye to me. Champagne came out, and a really good red wine that Mr.Sakai particularly likes, and sweetcorn soup, of course, and we exchanged gifts. My pull-out aerial golf cover got big laughs from all the right people, and the room of 20 or so people, who I met for the first time less than a month ago, were all joking with me, teasing me, clapping me and shaking my hand. Mr.Tomei, ever the gentleman, sidled up to me toward the end of the night and apologised that he had been a little quiet this evening, but that it was because he was sad that I was going. It was one of the most touching things, I think, I have ever heard.
By about 2am it was just me and Erika in the hotel lobby. We sat outside eating ice creams and looking at the hotel's Christmas lights and resolved to stay in touch, which we have. We got one of the hotel staff to take a picture of us, and then I went back to my room to fail to pack a months worth of impulse purchases into one small suitcase for my early morning flight.
A couple of months later, Erika sent me a DVD of the show. It was such an odd, fizzy feeling to watch Mr.Sakai close the show with the act that we spent those long nights rehearsing. He did it perfectly, of course, and the crowd went nuts. I watched the credits roll, and in amongst all the crazy neon-coloured Japanese text scrolling over a studio full of celebrities waving and grinning there was my name, in English. Hilarious. Proof that it wasn't all some insane dream.
My job is weird. Full of ups and downs. Hard and sometimes heartbreaking work, but at the same time wonderful, joyous work. I've had some great gigs since my time in Tokyo, and I'm sure I'll have some more before I end up in the twilight home for the terminally vaudevillian, but I'm not sure anything would be able to top my time with Mr.Sakai.
Sometimes I get down, and when I do I sit at my desk, pick up the glass of Coke that will invariably be to my left and look underneath it, at the “Monkey” coaster that my wife bought me for Christmas the year I did the gig. “For a few weeks, once, in Tokyo”, I'll think to myself, “He was my friend”.
I'll be performing my latest one man show "Showman"
as part of the London International Mime Festival,
from 21st - 25th of Jan 2014, at the Leicester Square Theatre.
You can find out more about the show, and book tickets, here.
I'd love you to come.