• Film & TV

Bicsmalln breaks ‘taboos,’ expands horizons overseas

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The members of Bicsmalln: Gon, center, with Chiro, left, and Guri

First popular in Japan about 20 years ago for using their bodies to mimic various items, the Bicsmalln comedy group has since expanded its fan base around the world. This year alone, they reached more than 2 million new subscribers to their YouTube channel, most of them overseas.

I visited their studio in early November to find out the secret behind their rapid growth.

The studio of Bicsmalln (pronounced “Bikkusumorun”) is in an apartment in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from the nearest station. There is no elevator in the building and the light was out in the corridor, making it quite dark by the evening of my visit. I was led up the stairs into a relatively small unit with two rooms and a combined dining room and kitchen. This is where Bicsmalln produces its videos, which sometimes get 400 million views a month.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Gold Creator Award from YouTube to Bicsmalln for reaching 1 million subscribers on their YouTube channel

The comedy group initially formed in 2001 as a duo by 183-centimeter-tall Gon, now 48, and 156-centimeter-tall Chiro, 46. In the early 2000s, they became famous for their “body art,” which involved acrobatic movements to mimic things like a cuckoo clock and a basketball. As they contorted into such shapes, they would chant, “I wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna be a cuckoo clock.”

In 2019, they became a trio with new member Guri, 32, who had been a fan of Bicsmalln.

Videos of the trio’s performances have been going viral, and they now have 2.7 million YouTube subscribers. About 20% of them are in India, followed by other countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, the United States and Brazil. Japanese subscribers account for just 0.5%.

As of mid-November, about 80 of the group’s short videos had each been viewed more than 10 million times. The videos have no dialogue and depict things like comically licking a candy or taking out potato chips stuck in the bottom of a tube-shaped container.

I expected them to do acrobatics as they had in the past but didn’t find it here. Some of the videos made no sense to me, no matter how many times I watched them.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bicsmalln’s studio is in Gon’s home. A lot of clothes and sneakers were found in his room.

I dared to ask about one: “I don’t really understand the meaning of this video …”

On hearing this, however, instead of taking offense, the three burst out laughing.

“I didn’t expect an interviewer to say such a thing!” Gon exclaimed. “We imitate videos that are popular overseas. To be honest, I don’t know what’s so funny about them. In fact, as a professional entertainer, I didn’t want to do these [videos]. But we decided to do whatever it takes to make our videos go viral.”

“We always wanted to appear on TV but got fewer and fewer job offers,” Gon said.

Bicsmalln started appearing on TV in 2004. Their first appearance on a program broadcast during the New Year’s holiday period was their big break. Their mimicry in striped clothes, moving in an easy-to-understand way with dramatic movements, became popular — especially among children. The duo’s work on TV went smoothly. They appeared in many comedy shows, and emceed some educational programs on NHK and shows at local TV stations.

Their eye-catching performance style was well received at events. Although they appeared less often on TV from around 2006 “for some unknown reason,” Gon said, they were still able to make enough money to get by.

In 2010, the duo went to the United States to further their craft, and in 2011, they started performing in China.

Their efforts have borne fruit. In 2017 and 2018, they were able to perform at the Amateur Night at The Apollo Theater in New York. They were serious about performing on the world stage.

In 2019, when the group was still a duo, they wanted to perform at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for the following year.

They thought of doing body art to create the Olympic rings, but they couldn’t make two of the five without another person. Guri was the perfect third member. He had broken up his own comedy duo and wanted to become an apprentice to Bicsmalln. Gon decided to welcome Guri, not as an apprentice, but as a member.

Courtesy of Gon
The Bicsmalln trio form the Olympic rings with their bodies.

Chiro disapproved at first, saying it would reduce his share of their pay, but Gon convinced him that becoming a trio would help earn more money. In the end, they didn’t get to perform at the opening ceremony, but their Olympic act was featured on the Olympic Channel’s TikTok page at the end of the year.

YouTube Shorts are videos of 60 seconds or less. Unlike regular videos, viewers can switch from one to another by swiping up or down on the screen.

Although such videos are popular with the younger generation and are easy to watch, they were not profitable for creators at first. When they became monetizable, the trio expected the format would match their body art, but it did not work as planned.

“We once went viral with a video of our body art for the South Korean drama ‘Squid Game.’ We kept doing it, but as we expected, people got bored,” Chiro said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Gon looks at a computer screen.

To stimulate their stagnation, Guri suggested they imitate viral videos trending overseas.

This idea must have been hard to accept for Gon and Chiro, because for the past 20-plus years of their careers, they had pursued their own style of performance.

In fact, Gon said he thought it was taboo, as he was from “a world where entertainers are not allowed to copy other entertainers,” so “I didn’t want to do it.”

In his suggestion, Guri didn’t just want to go viral: An admirer of Gon and Chiro and their craft for many years, he believed Bicsmalln needed an outlet to show their original performances to people around the world.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“I wasn’t short of money. I was delivering for Uber Eats during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Chiro said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bicsmalln was asked to appear and perform in far fewer events. It was hard to boost their YouTube views and getting on TV was much harder.

The group swallowed their pride and focused on producing and posting parodies of short videos that were popular overseas. They also changed their YouTube channel’s name to one written in English and also wrote the titles of their videos in English.

They posted up to four videos a day, believing that these efforts would help attract people to their performances one day.

The videos started to get more and more views, especially overseas. The Bicsmalln members watched videos that were popular overseas then produced and posted their versions. By repeating this process, their subscriber count exceeded 2.5 million in November.

Guri’s goal was also achieved. As the number of subscribers to their channel increased, their original body art videos gradually became more popular. In mid-November, the most-viewed video on the channel was a body art video with more than 65 million views.

Now the trio get approached by tourists from overseas, and children at an event in which they performed often already know of them through their YouTube videos.

Chiro said: “I started to enjoy posting videos when I realized they can make many people happy.” He sometimes spends all day editing videos.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Guri suggested to the other two to imitate popular videos from abroad.

Guri, the man behind the group’s change, said: “Little by little, Bicsmalln’s performances are gaining traction. We want to make videos that will be popular with more people.”

The three want to become popular not only on the internet.

Gon told me about an experience that has kept the group going for so long. It was at a music festival with an audience of 6,000 people, where they performed their body art.

“Our act excited the audience so much that we thought the venue was going to explode. I had never seen so many people beaming and applauding. I keep on working as an entertainer because I want to see that again. After all, I just want to make people in front of me laugh,” he said.

As Gon spoke with passion, Chiro cut in: “This story is from 2006. He’s been reliving it for more than 15 years!”

Chiro’s remark brought the biggest laughter of that day from the trio.