Violence in comedy
My sister, who was a manga connoisseur, often introduced me to her new favorite manga when I lived in London. Among her favorite was a manga called “Nodame Cantabile,” which I read when I went home to visit my family. The story was set in a music college. The protagonist, Nodame, is a pianist, and she falls in love with Chiaki, a conductor a year older than her.
The tone of the narrative was comedic, and Nodame’s awkwardness was often silly. Chiaki was initially repulsed by Nodame, but was gradually drawn to her talent and innocence.
What shocked me, however, was Chiaki’s temperament. When Nodame acted unpredictably, he snapped and threw music books at her head. In one scene, he shouted, “go to hell!” Nodame took the blows with little distress and kept pursuing him. It was also disturbing that he was sometimes incredibly sweet to her, giving the readers the illusion of the two desperately in love.
I asked my sister what she thought of the violence. She sounded perplexed and said she found nothing upsetting, and Chiaki’s actions were supposed to be funny.
Over the years, I asked the same questions to several women who had also read the manga. They all gave me the same answers as my sister.
That comedy sometimes involves violence is not particular to Japanese comedy. I have seen in Fawlty Towers, in which Mr. Fawlty repeatedly assaulted Manuel, hotel staff from Barcelona. But there is a style of comedy in Japan called Manzai, which is done by a duo, one Boke and the other Tsukkomi.
Etymologically, Boke is short for Tobokeru, meaning, acting like one doesn’t know about a matter. Tsukkomi means to point out. So Boke says things that don’t make sense, and Tsukkomi reprimands the Boke for being ignorant or silly, thus enhancing the hilarity of Boke’s joke. When Tsukkomi does this, they may lightly pat the Boke’s shoulder with the back of their hand, or slap the Boke’s heads. Boke’s joke is sometimes subtle, so without the pointer of Tsukkomi, the audience may miss the joke. So the whole joke is only complete when Tsukkomi points out the silliness of it. For example, suppose it’s raining, and you take out your umbrella and hold it upside down. Tsukkomi has to point out that you are holding it wrong. Without Tsukkomi, you are insane. With Tsukkomi, you are funny. Tsukkomi saves your face, so in the comedy, getting the pointer is highly welcome.
Boke and Tsukkomi combo often applies to daily humor in Japanese culture. Since childhood, we are exposed to a humorous slap in the media. It does sometimes goes beyond a light shove. If it happens in real life, and if they insist they are being funny, it’s harder to tell them to stop. It can become violence disguised as a comedy, and the threshold is very vague.