Taking jokes too far

Park Shin Hye and Kim Rae Won (both left) in Doctors. Kazuki Namioka (far left) and Kento Hayashi are comedians in Hibana: Spark.
Kazuki Namioka (left) and Kento Hayashi are comedians in Hibana: Spark.PHOTO: NETFLIX
Park Shin Hye and Kim Rae Won (both left) in Doctors. Kazuki Namioka (far left) and Kento Hayashi are comedians in Hibana: Spark.
Park Shin Hye and Kim Rae Won (both above) in Doctors. PHOTO: ONE

A stand-up comedian in Japanese drama Hibana: Spark is just not funny because he is trying too hard

When is a joke not a joke?

When it's your job to come up with it. When it's how you start and end conversations and relationships. When it's a way of life.

And that is how Hibana: Spark goes. The low-key Japanese drama that shadows a stand-up comedian (Kento Hayashi) through a decade in the recent past is anything but a comedy. It is, among other things, a fly-on-the-wall portrait of an artist and non-conformist in a social order that might not reward either endeavour.

When you first see Tokunaga (Hayashi) and his friend Yamashita (Masao Yoshii) in the show, they are two guys walking to a pier on a summer day, getting strangely worked up about buying a pet parrot.

It becomes apparent soon that they are a fledgling comic duo on the way to a gig at an outdoor festival and that their parrot- buying routine desperately needs more jokes. In the course of the episode, the routine grows before your very eyes as Tokunaga, the brains in the duo, immerses himself in the hard work that is comedy: muttering lines to himself or writing them down everywhere, in a bathhouse, a park or a laundromat.

His new jokes - about a lonely man going home to a naggy parrot and all its announcements of bad news - are not much funnier, however. A better laugh comes when his fellow bather, a wrinkled and tattooed guy, joins in his improvisation exercise, having apparently learnt his lines by osmosis.


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No, the funnymen aren't that funny in the show, which may be the point. Dewy-eyed as he seems, Tokunaga is a disrupter at heart. He favours crafting jokes like Jacks-in-the-boxes, which look cute yet hold dark surprises.

He also hero-worships Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), an ad-libbing troublemaker who is basically a stand-up bulldozer.

The two first meet at the festival, where Kamiya turns his routine into an act of revenge on spectators for their inattention to Tokunaga's segment. He proclaims that he is a psychic, before cheerfully predicting that each and every passer-by - even a little girl being led away by her mother - is going to hell.

Some sort of philosophy emerges from his encounters with other performers, though. When he tells off a busker for beating a hand drum half-heartedly - "Why are you being so mean? Play it from your soul!" - even his biggest fan, Tokunaga, thinks he is being funny.

But Kamiya is being serious. After all, he not only does his utmost, but also frequently goes too far on and off stage because that is how seriously he takes his vocation.

The drama is directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, director of Vibrator (2003) and It's Only Talk (2005), a pair of films about individuals who feel a disconnect with life. Hibana: Spark is adapted from a novel by Naoki Matayoshi, a comedian who has become an award-winning author, which might be why the imagery in the show can be literal and too obvious.

Tokunaga and Yamashita go by the name of Sparks professionally, so is it any wonder they are upstaged by a fireworks display and their careers don't burn as brightly as they would like?

But the show is often more subtle than that, sliding in moments which are between funny and sad, which are allowed to sneak up on you. And it tells a worthy tale about the artists' fight not to be snuffed out.

When is Park Shin Hye not Park Shin Hye? When the K-drama sweetheart doesn't have stars in her eyes, but gives death stares instead, playing a bad girl gone good in Doctors.

Don't worry, though. The drama doesn't mean to cause any heart attacks, so Park's badly behaved, kickboxing character soon softens and smiles.

But it does throw her and her teacher (Kim Rae Won) into a will-they-won't-they romance that is surprising and sexy enough to give you palpitations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Taking jokes too far '. Print Edition | Subscribe