Skip to main content

Masahiro Shoda - The Signature Acts of Modern Comedians in Japan

When photographer Masahiro Shoda first heard of the passing of Kei Tani in 2013, a comedian whose "gachon" gag had punctuated Shoda's childhood, he felt a sense of melancholy and an urgent need to capture the essence of comedy in a way that would transcend the ephemeral nature of laughter. This sense of loss drove him to create "The Signature Acts of Modern Comedians in Japan," a photo book that pays tribute to the unusual world of Japanese comedy and preserves a record of its artistry.

Shoda's journey into comedy photography wasn't born from an initial obsession with the genre. It was a desire to immortalize the fleeting brilliance of comedians who, much like Tani, had left an indelible mark on Japanese culture. The project started in 2013 after Shoda returned from a formative three-year stay in New York, where he honed his skill in environmental portraiture. With his trusty large-format 4x5 camera in hand, he spent years roaming the city's streets, capturing the lives of everyday people. This experience sharpened his ability to see beyond the surface, capturing the soul of his subjects—a skill he brought to his new venture into comedy.

Japanese comedy is a world of contrasts. Outwardly lighthearted and entertaining, it masks a raw and brutal competitiveness. Japan boasts over 10,000 comedians, with about 6,000 affiliated with Yoshimoto Kogyo, the country's largest and most influential talent agency. Despite these vast numbers, only a select few can make a living as professional comedians. The road to success is grueling, marked by fierce competitions like the M-1 Grand Prix, specifically for manzai duos. There are also sketch comedy contests offering a more theatrical take on humor. Winning these competitions can catapult comedians to stardom, but it often requires a unique signature skit, gag, or pose—distinctly Japanese elements.

Shoda's technique in capturing these comedic acts is both spontaneous and deliberate. Shooting on a large format 4x5 film is costly - each sheet costs $10, with an additional $5 for development. The expense necessitates a thoughtful approach; Shoda typically takes only seven or eight photos per session, carefully selecting the moment that best captures the comedian's essence. It's a process that demands technical skill and a deep intuition—feeling the right moment when the act's brilliance peaks. A stark contrast to video, where motion and sequence tell the story, Shoda's photographs distill these fleeting moments into a single, powerful image.

The project's genesis was serendipitous. Initially published in the magazine "Kettle" starting in 2013, Shoda's portraits of comedians continued to gain attention even after the magazine ceased publication. He transitioned the project to "Quick Japan," a web magazine, where it continued to thrive. Encouraged by those around him, Shoda compiled these works into a photo book. After gathering 55 acts, he felt it was time to wrap up the project, concluding with portraits of Kenichi Hagimoto, a comedy star he had admired since childhood. This collection spans comedians from the 1980s through the 2010s, creating a cultural journey akin to traversing a mountain range—a metaphor for Japanese comedy's competitive and often treacherous world.

Shoda's dedication to preserving these moments goes beyond the photographs themselves. The book opens 180 degrees, ensuring viewing without distortion. Author Yu Nagashima's commentary enriches the experience, likening the joy of seeing high-resolution comedy to understanding the intricacies of a well-crafted dish.

"The Signature Acts of Modern Comedians in Japan" is available internationally for the first time. Tony Yasumura, a comedian known overseas for his appearance on "Britain's Got Talent," graces the cover of the English version. Yasumura's budding success in English-language comedy competitions highlights the unique appeal of the genre, which often avoids the social satire and stand-up formats prevalent in the West. Japanese comedy thrives on physical gags and playful silliness—an art form that is at once shallow yet profoundly committed to evoking laughter.

This theme of cultural oddity is a thread that runs through Shoda's work. His previous book, "Delicacy," also available for purchase, delves into the peculiar nature of Japanese society. Shoda had men don their favorite women's panties on their heads for portraits, a concept that starkly reveals the playful yet twisted aspects of Japanese culture. It's this very strangeness—this embrace of the grey areas between yes and no—that Shoda seeks to capture and preserve.

Japan is a land of contradictions. Renowned for its severe and high-precision electronics, automotive engineering, and traditional craftsmanship, it also harbors a deep-seated love for humor and playfulness. Shoda's work encapsulates this dichotomy, creating a lasting record of Japan's unique cultural nuances. Through his lens, we see a Japan that is both serious and whimsical, disciplined yet delightfully unpredictable.

"The Signature Acts of Modern Comedians in Japan" is more than a photo book; it's a cultural artifact that bridges past and present, capturing the essence of comedy in a way that transcends time and borders. Masahiro Shoda invites you to explore this world through his eyes, offering a glimpse into the soul of Japanese comedy.

Masahiro Shoda's photo books "The Signature Acts of Modern Comedians in Japan" and "Delicacy" are available at Nepenthes New York, in-store, and online at