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Farewell to the Funniest Man in Japan

Ken Shimura Book
The Japanese book "Shimra-ryu (Shimura style)" by Ken Shimura (2002) is available on amazon.com

Ken Shimura, a wildly popular comedian in Japan, died on March 29 after testing positive for the coronavirus on March 23. He was 70.

Shimura started his career in show business as a roadie for the popular band and comedy group The Drifters.  He joined the group in 1974 and soon became one of Japan’s favorite comedians thanks to their regular appearances on the very popular Hachiji Da Yo! Zennin Shuugo! (It’s 8 O’Clock! Let’s Get Together!) TV show. The show ran until 1985 and at its peak, drew an amazing 50% of the Japanese TV viewing audience.

Shimura’s character Baka Tonosama  (Stupid Lord) became a huge hit in part because he could make fun of people in power  such as company presidents, yakuza leaders, and even emperors.  His Henna Ojisan (Weird Uncle) character, a stupidly lecherous man, was funny but definitely from a more licentious time. Some of the skits age better than others, but one I highly recommend even if you don’t speak Japanese is simply called “Ken Shimura ―English Lesson” and can be found on YouTube.

Shimura had that manic energy that so many successful comedians have. You look at him and want to laugh. He had great timing, improv skills, and physical humor. Although a lot of the skits are a little racy by American standards, Hachiji Da Yo! and other shows he starred in were considered entertainment for the whole family. In fact, my wife, Yuko Enomoto, who grew up in Tokyo in the 70s and 80s, recalls the whole family laughing at his skits. “He was sort of like Gilda Radner or Kristen Wiig,” she says  because those two Saturday Night Live stars and Shimura would really get into their characters, often to an absurd degree.

In 1986, Shimura and co-star Cha Kato started commenting on videos sent in by viewers on the “Kato-chan Ken-Chan Gokigen Terebi” (Kato and Ken’s Good Times TV) show. Three years later, “America’s Funniest Home Videos” used that same format to great success.

Shimura was slated to be one of the Olympic torch runners this year before the pandemic took his life and pushed the Olympics into 2021. He was also supposed to star in his first feature film, “God of Cinema,” to be directed by Yoji Yamada of Otoko wa Tsurai fame. That film has been put on hold.

Shimura’s death has hit Japan hard, coming as the coronavirus seems to be taking a firmer grip on the country. He was an iconic figure who made the country laugh for decades and he still had an active career that kept him in the public eye. Kato, one of The Drifters and a longtime collaborator with Shimura, said, “I feel hatred for the coronavirus that took away the life of The Drifters’ treasure and a Japanese treasure. I want everyone to take his death as something that could happen around you and take care of themselves.” 

Shimura’s appeal stretched far beyond Japan’s borders. Upon his death, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement to Shimada, “Thank you very much for a lot of laughter and energy you delivered to Taiwanese people beyond national borders.”

Shimura was from Higashimurayama, a western suburb of Tokyo. One of his favorite bits was to sing the song “Higashimurayama ondo,” a folk song about his hometown. He would start out traditionally, with dancers all around him, and then devolve into madcap camp or start screaming the lyrics. Sometimes Drifters member Chosuke Ikariya would push him around the stage and tell him to shut up while Shimura screamed, “itchome, itchome!” Pure silliness. His humor made a lot of Japanese families laugh together over the decades. RIP, Shimura-san.