Even if you speak just English or Japanese, you just have to laugh.

You might remember The Benza, a toilet-seat themed comedy that launched the careers of a cast of foreign talent living in Japan. The series, produced on a shoestring budget, features main characters Chris and Kyle as they go through rites of passage that every foreigner living in Japan has to go through, like getting chased through a haunted house by a pirate ghost.

The comedy has racked up more awards since we last talked about them — including Best Web Series at Festigious International Film Festival and Best Supporting Actress for Maria Papadopoulou [Maria-sensei] at the 2020 Cult Critic Movie Awards — and they can now boast that they’re the first live-action series to be screened at London MCM Comic Con.

The Benza now has a spinoff series on Amazon Prime called Benza English, which is based on the style of English teaching programs shown on Japan’s national broadcaster NHK. The six-episode series was produced on half the budget of The Benza, and it also has a diverse cast to boot.

▼ Here’s a preview of what’s to come.

Of course, Benza English was made to be more than just a way to learn oddly specific English phrases like “Are you tipsy or balls to the wall?”. We sat down with the cast and production staff to find out more about what it was like to produce the spinoff series and what they hope to accomplish with its worldwide release.

SoraNews24: How did the experience you gained from producing The Benza affect the creation process of Benza English? What was different about producing Benza English?

Chris [Producer and actor for Chris]: This time a year ago, we had just released the first The Benza series. It will soon be available in 130 countries for the original series and 70 for Benza English. With all the content that there is to watch out there, we are very, very grateful for every single person who takes the time to hang out with us for a bit. That made us all the more determined to put on a good show and entertain people who need a good laugh or two. That’s probably the largest difference between the two series and what we learned from The Benza.

Haku [Line producer and actress for Inko-sensei]: I think working on the production side of things made this experience different for me. I had to look at things differently than I would as an actress. I really enjoyed seeing The Benza with new eyes this time around and understanding it on a much deeper level with both staff and cast.

Benza English Production crew

SoraNews24: What were some challenges you faced working with such a tight budget of just one million yen (about US$9,281) for six episodes?

Chris: In a way, we’ve gotten so used to working with a limited budget, it’s started to feel kind of fun. It really forces us as a team to work together and come up with creative solutions for things. I think it’s part of the series’ charm. If we had the money, it would be nice to have the barrier of a publicist between us and some of the negativity the anonymity of the internet allows and I’d love to find a sponsor, but even if we had all the money in the world, to keep consistency we would probably limit ourselves to a set budget and continue in the same way we have up until now.

Michael [Co-director]: Working with a limited budget is always hard. However, as many independent creators have proven of late, it’s completely doable.  It means we can get some amazing locations and equipment only for a set amount of time. It means we have to go in, work as a team to properly utilize the time and materials we have, and do the scene.

▼ The shoestring budget in action with producer Christopher McCombs (left) and co-directors Michael Williams (center) and Raito Nishizawa (right)

SoraNews24: You could say Benza English mainly pokes fun at Japan’s idea of “the foreigner” and Japan’s common portrayal of English teaching, but the cast is so diverse and everyone has a distinct role or personality. We’re assuming this was done on purpose?

Chris: With The Benza, we focused on what life in Tokyo is like for a foreigner against the backdrop of a hyper-realistic comedy.  With Benza English, we focused on the Japanese entertainment industry in general against the backdrop of a chaotic English language learning show. 

One of the things that surprised me about The Benza was that after watching it, many Japanese actors and actresses approached me with similar feelings to our foreign cast members. Times had changed.  Entertainment has evolved. However, the portrayal of Japanese characters on television has not. 

Why can’t a European female teach English instead of a native English speaker? Why can’t the Japanese female host of an educational show have a romantic subplot and dramatic conflict? Why can’t two guys from North America speak fluent Japanese as they try to save the world? It makes for great entertainment, and it feels so deliciously modern.

It really got me thinking that I needed to increase and diversify our Japanese cast as well as continue to expand our foreign cast to make sure everyone feels represented.

▼ Some of the cast: Aver Hamilton (left), Kaori Ikeda (center), Maria Papadopoulou (right), Masahito Kawahata (back)

Maria: I feel like the fact that I’m foreign “talent” in Japan doesn’t matter much. If you look the part of a “foreigner,” anyone will do, most of the time. Even if you are skilled and you have Japanese language abilities, they’ll often ask you to play more “foreign” or pretend you don’t speak Japanese.

This really demerits those who have spent years training or learning the language.  It also contributes to a false perception of what foreigners are actually like here. I feel that Japan is outdated and can socially and culturally appropriate anyone however they like. 

We are a unique group of individuals from all over the world who are passionate about making good media content. In Benza English, we’ve used satire as a tool to portray how ridiculous these core perceptions of foreigners can be, and we hope to bring a better understanding of what it is to be a foreigner and an individual in Japan. Let’s just hope Japan jumps on the wave and rides with us and not against us.

▼ The diverse cast at the Benza English premiere

Michael: I think what’s really important is allowing people to blend their cultures through entertainment.  We are making something that is in Japanese but isn’t just for Japan. Anyone can enjoy Benza English because we have so many different voices as part of the team.

My Japanese skill is not as high as some of the cast and crew but working with a co-director for the first time, Raito Nishizaka, was great. He really went out of his way to understand me, even if my Japanese was slightly off. We created a bond where we each understood and respected our own methods, eventually bringing them together.

SoraNews24: What are you ultimately trying to accomplish with this spinoff?

Haku: The point of Benza English is to encourage people to discard old stereotypes and focus more on quality and broadening our horizons. I mean, it’s 2020. Isn’t it about time to stop discriminating based on sex, nationality, occupation, gender, or appearances?

Michael: First, I want you to laugh. I want you to be off your sofa and on the floor rolling around laughing. That’s how I was when I first saw The Benza. Second, I want you to understand that there’s this small team in Tokyo making this. Things are possible. You can go and do things you thought would be impossible. I never could have imagined doing this a few years ago.  If we can do something like this, you and your team can, too.

▼ Producer Christopher McCombs (center) and actor Bob Werley (right) on set

SoraNews24: You’ve already racked up a ton of awards for Benza English and The Benza in South Korea, Japan, and more. What’s next?

Chris: I’d like to do a few more episodes of Benza English before we get back to the main series. Kaori, Maria, and Hamilton are such appealing characters, and I’m not quite ready to put them on the back burner yet. Maria has a role to play in The Benza series two.  She’s actually tucked away in the first series. I’ve read online that a few clever people have noticed where she is, but I’ll never tell.

We’ve also been hard at work on The Benza RPG as well. It’s a retro RPG that will be available on Apple and Android devices this summer.  It’s free to play with no commercials or microtransactions as a gift from us to our supporters. We might have expansion packs that cost something moving forward, but the base game is totally free!

Haku: My main goal for The Benza series is to reach as many people as possible. I want to win awards that indie teams normally don’t win. I believe it’s that kind of pioneering work. And on a personal level, I want to prove something to everyone: just because I’m a gravure idol doesn’t mean I can’t be a producer.

▼ On set with Maria Papadopoulou (left), Hannah Grace (center), and Janni Olsson (right)

SoraNews24: Lastly, what’s your favorite skit on Benza English?

Chris: Shayna Magnuson in Shayna Sanpo is my personal favorite. Considering I used to be on a show just like hers, it feels very close to me. Shayna does a brilliant job of portraying the fake reactions a lot of us are forced to do in Japanese entertainment, and she does an even more brilliant job turning those expected reactions on themselves.

Haku: I like the scenes where Maria and Tamura are flirting with each other. Have you ever seen a Japanese ghost and a curvaceous Swedish woman falling in love? I fell in love just watching them!

Michael: Tomo is just so adorable. You can’t help but love Tomo. I’d never worked with a puppet before, and shooting those scenes with the songs was so enjoyable. It truly turned into something wonderful. I still sing those songs to myself!

Benza English is currently available in 70 countries on Amazon Prime, so if you like what you read, check out this comedy series with a pioneering message and all the English you’ll ever need to know. You can watch the first episode in the US on Amazon Prime now, and more episodes will follow.

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Insert images: Tokyo Cowboys, Kelly Liu, Yukito Komine, Tomo Murata
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