Imagine pursuing your goal in life, imagine working towards it relentlessly for years even when your parents oppose your decision and make it a point to nag about it every time they see you.
Imagine that their nagging is not always in the wrong, especially when you have been working towards your goal for ten years and you haven’t achieved 20% of what you set out to be. Quite dreadful and discouraging, isn’t it? But that’s life? Maybe not, but that’s what Life’s Punchline, a 2021 Japanese drama is about.
Life’s Punchline, originally known as コントが始まる (Konto ga Hajimaru) is a straight forward Japanese drama revolving around the theme of youth, friendship, failure and loss. Each episode written so delicately that it paints a realistic picture of the hardships in navigating one’s life. Thanks to Netflix, this drama of ten episodes is available for us in a form of therapy, and even catharsis for some.
More than being realistic and funny, it is life presented to us through the lived experiences of a group of friends in their late 20s. All of them are at a junction in their life where they have to take a life-changing decision with the core plot crafted around the not so successful comedy trio called Macbeth constituted by three friends Haruto Takaiwa, Junpei Minowa and Shunta Asabuki.
The opening scene of the series is a fade into colour with a wide angle shot of the trio Macbeth standing on a stage, ready to perform their sketch called “Roof”. This opening shot serves as a recurring introduction for all the stories in each episode. In a way telling the viewers that their sketches are actually influenced from a part and time of their lives, slowly unfolding the background of each character like a Russian doll.
To look at it objectively, the production could have been better in terms of the shots, lighting, sound, basically the technicalities of film production but the screenplay makes up for it fairly. Each episode is an epilogue to the characters and takes us through how, when, why and where Macbeth was formed (including the name) and what does the future of Macbeth hold. Will it continue to exist or cease to exist? The trio Haruto, Junpei and Shunta (aka Macbeth) who have been performing theatrical comedy have seen not more than 10 people in the audience throughout their ten year long career and it makes them and even us wonder if they will be successful indeed? This is the dilemma and crisis that the trio faces.
Each of the characters including their one true fan Rihoko Nakahama and Tsumugi Nakahama (Rihoko’s younger sister) are at a point where they have to decide what their next big move in life is going to be. Dealing with a lot of uncertainty, insecurity and a struggle to find their own self. All of them (almost) at a point of regret over the decision they made in the past and if it was worth it. A trajectory that we can not help but rethink about our own decisions and after a point one can almost see a little part of themselves in all the characters.
The drama gets as honest as life can get. This is reflected in the last (stage) performance of Macbeth. The idealistic and hopeful part of me expected, rather rooted, for a mass standing ovation from a fully-packed audience accompanied by a reverberating sound of clapping for their last performance. After all that’s what the trio always dreamt of: to perform before a large audience.
But true to their unsuccessful career, only their friends, acquaintances and a countable number of dedicated fans were in the audience. That is why the drama is so relatable and raw, it does not give a happy ending, nor does it glorify failures and rejections. The series instead brings out subtle tear-jerking moments at the cost of Macbeth’s break up.
We see the trio reminiscing about their ten year long journey in the last days of Macbeth. Moments like when they were noticed and appreciated (for their potential) after performing their first play at the school. Moments when the most important decisions were made after a bowl of ramen. Moments when they traveled miles and miles in Shunta’s car to perform for an audience of four to seven and then camped in the same car just to save up on travel and hotel cost making the car the sixth member of Macbeth. There are multiple scenes in the series where the trio makes fun of each other by bringing old memories just to laugh at each other but the tears of laughter often ended up in tears of sadness, knowing that Macbeth was their pillar of support. And with it coming to an end, they knew they were losing a big part of their lives.
Macbeth as an artist may not have been successful in terms of money and fame but the impact of their sketches/existence was very much successful. This we see in the way how people around them, though only a few, were greatly influenced and saved by their comedy. Rihoko, who was on the verge of succumbing to depression after quitting her job, found laughter and strength to become herself again by binge watching their comedy videos. Just like how the series comforted me at a time when I quit my job to pursue my goal but the pandemic hit and now all I do is wonder if I took a wrong decision. At this crossroad of my life, Life’s Punchline gave me comfort and strength to be.
Throughout the series, the trio is constantly presented with juxtaposing realities of their career : one where they see everyone around them building a successful career while Macbeth hasn’t grown any bigger since its inception. Second, the same people telling them that they should not break up because Macbeth gave them hope. Perhaps, that’s what Life’s Punchline is about – it gives and takes away before we even realise. It presents the good and bad sides at the same time making it challenging for one to decide whether to think emotionally or logically. Perhaps, the decision we take is not always going to bring us success on a grandeur level but it certainly gives us something to learn from. In the case of Macbeth and friends, it gave them pure and honest friendship, laughter, courage and memories that one can not weigh with the materialistic definition of success.
And this is exactly why Life’s Punchline is a push to all the youth who are at a juncture confused and scared to take a big step. Because it tells us that sometimes things don’t go the way we plan. Because sometimes it’s not about the big influence but the small impact.
And most importantly, because it tells us that sometimes it is okay to give up on something as it is only then that a new chapter begins.
Bursenla has a postgraduate degree in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.