Mime duo jacks Tokyo
By: Dan Grunebaum | Aug 2, 2013
Japanese acts that first find success abroad often then have to convince domestic audiences to reimport them in a bit of legerdemain called gyakuyunyu. Something of a fallacy exists that overseas acclaim immediately translates to success here as well.
“We are originally from Tokyo, but ended up performing overseas a lot,” Ketch! (the red-mohawked one) says about comic mime duo Gamarjobat’s trajectory since their discovery at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival. “We tour Japan every year but we hadn’t done Tokyo much, so this time we decided to devote ourselves to the capital.”
Not that they’ll be pandering to the masses by doing any Tokyo-themed skits in their three-month tour. “It’s going to be more like a greatest hits, and some music-oriented material,” Ketch! explains. “Hiro-pon will play guitar and do a kind of rock show that combines music and movement.”
While much local comedy is of the head-slapping variety, Gamarjobat get audiences laughing with them, not at them. Characters from hapless cooks hoping to please a fearsome yakuza to a lovelorn boxer with dreams of greatness connect with audiences worldwide, thanks not only to Ketch! and Hiro-pon’s expert physical comedy, but to some timeless insights into the human condition.
“There isn’t much in our material that doesn’t come across anywhere,” Hiro-pon observes. “Unlike verbal language, most body language is universal. We are all born the same way, and experience the same pleasures and indignities, so physical comedy translates easily.”
After extensive study in mime, Hiro-pon and Ketch! met at the Asia Mime Festival in Nagano in 1995. They had four years to hone their act to fluid perfection before taking the name Gamarjobat (“Hello” in Georgian) and becoming a full-time duo.
The pair emerged as a staple of performing-arts festivals worldwide after the acclaim of winning a Tap Water Award at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But Gamarjobat remain true to their street performance roots, and are still known to appear in Tokyo’s parks and plazas.
To further explore the potential of mime, Ketch! and Hiro-pon recently formed the Gamarjobat Project. With their cast of mimes, they have created a series of silent plays—some staged last year in Shinjuku—which portray complex human dramas and relationships.
“Tragedy and comedy are all part of mime, so it’s a natural extension of what we do,” says Ketch! “Most Gamarjobat stuff ends happily. With the Project we experiment with different endings, and leave things partly up to people to judge for themselves.”
“Mime is theater without words,” adds Hiro-pon. “People express emotions and perform actions all the time without words, and we don’t give it a second thought. There might be a silent love scene in a movie, or Al Pacino in The Godfather might express terrible things without words. Pantomime is something any good actor can do.”
But few do it with the wrenchingly funny skill that Gamarjobat do. While they cite Japanese manzai standup comedy as an influence, the more apt comparison is to their hero, Charlie Chaplin.
Closing the interview, Gamarjobat have a specific message for their expatriate Tokyo audience. “Foreigners in Japan who don’t speak Japanese can’t share laughter with folks here,” Ketch! says. “But if they come to our show they can share a perfect moment with Japanese.”
“It’s lonely to not be able to laugh with everyone,” he continues. “I had that experience watching Mr. Bean in England. Lonesome foreigners in Tokyo should come to our show—and experience a bit of togetherness.”