If you’ve watched Japanese variety TV, it’s hard to miss him: Short shorts, no shirt, Bon Jovi in the background and a whole lot of flexing. Yet behind his over-the-top smile and semi-autonomous pectorals, Nakayama Shoji—better known as Kinni-kun (a pun that roughly translates as “Muscle Boy”)—spent the better part of five years earning a kinesiology degree from Santa Monica College in California.
When Nakayama started working out at the age of 17, Santa Monica’s iconic Venice Beach featured heavily in his bodybuilding magazines. “I wanted to try living there once,” he tells Metropolis in English. “I’d always been thinking that.” His work as a TV tarento gave him that chance in 2006, when he went to California for a televised sequence dubbed Kinniku Ryūgaku (“muscle exchange”), a play on the expression for language exchange, or gogaku ryūgaku.
The series included two all-English comedy shows—the first after Nakayama had spent only four months in the country. “I was so nervous,” he recalls, sliding interchangeably between English and Japanese. “Usually when I come onstage in Japan, I say, ‘Dōmo’—it’s like, ‘Konnichiwa.’ For my English show I’d decided to say, ‘Hello everyone.’ But I was so nervous I said, ‘Dōmo.’”
“I panicked for a second,” he admits. “But I looked out at the audience and saw a large group of Americans and thought, ‘Ah, I messed up, I messed up.’ And I calmed myself down and it worked out.” He credits the achievement to the universality of his routine—arguably the most literal definition of physical comedy, with his muscles used as reference points in non-sequitur stories, or as supposedly “random” result generators like a slot machine.
Returning to Japan in 2011, Nakayama has now added the role of language taskmaster to his schtick. He also brought back an affection for MADtv and Eddie Murphy’s 1980s stand-up comedy. “Foreign comedy basically comes from a different culture, so there are lots of things I can’t understand,” he explains. “But Eddie Murphy’s stand-up breached that barrier. It was hilarious.”
“My comedy style isn’t number one,” Nakayama says modestly, noting that he’s looking forward to trying English comedy again. “But it’s the only one—it’s different from everybody else. And that’s how I want to be.” He’ll be proving the point back in California on November 22, when he performs with veteran manzai duo Ten Dollar at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.
Aspiring bodybuilders can also check out Nakayama’s muscle-building protein at http://theprotein.jp