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Obituaries

Ken Shimura's death leaves Japanese of all generations mourning

Beloved TV personality enamored people with unique movements and expressions

Ken Shimura, pictured in March 2006, stuck to focusing on the art of performing comedy skits and endured as a star. (Photo by Yukinobu Kurosaka)

TOKYO -- Comedian Ken Shimura, who died on March 29 of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus, was one of the most recognizable faces on Japanese TV and had been a fixture since the 1970s, always active on the front line of the business.

In Japan, many TV entertainers diversify their repertoires of performances into areas like emceeing and commentating. Shimura stuck to the art of performing comedy skits and endured as a star.

The main genre of TV entertainment program in Japan is talk shows. But Shimura was reluctant to appear on them because he was actually taciturn and shy, quite different from the persona he put on while performing comedy stints.

Shimura's unexpected death has left Japanese of all generations mourning. Many have gone on social media to express their grief. Some of them recalled how they grew up watching Shimura's performances.

His successful, half-century career has earned him a special position in the collective consciousness of the Japanese as the most familiar and beloved entertainer.

He started his comedy career in 1974 by joining the Drifters, which was a musical band until around 1969 and then began to perform as a comedy group. The Drifters had opened for the Beatles when they performed at the Budokan arena in Tokyo in June 1966.

They became a TV sensation thanks to the Hachiji Da Yo! Zen'in Shugo (It's eight o'clock! Let's get together) comic variety show, which first went on air in 1969 and ended in 1985.

Shimura joined the Drifters as a manager but it was not long before he became a core member of the group. He fit well into the role as a young newcomer, injecting a youthful energy, and he created many comedy acts and characters.

Members of the Drifters, pictured in April 1975: Shimura, second from left, fit well into the role as a young newcomer, injecting a youthful energy into the group.   © Kyodo

In the highly rated Hachiji Da Yo! Zen'in Shugo show, the Drifters mainly performed slapstick routines, with members running around the stage. Shimura drew inspiration from American comedy act the Marx Brothers and actor Jerry Lewis and tried to make people laugh with bodily movements and facial expressions instead of words.

Shimura gained popularity in other Asian countries where his programs were broadcast, including Taiwan. His comedy performances were not dependent on language and had a universal appeal.

His variety show Kato-Chan Ken-Chan Gokigen TV, which starred another former Drifter, Cha Kato, started in 1986 and lasted until 1992. It had a section in which funny videos filmed by viewers were shown, an idea conceived and proposed by Shimura. It was probably the first regular TV feature of its kind in the world. In recent years, the format has come to be recognized as the forerunner of YouTube.

This format was exported to other countries. One American version is ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos, which was launched in 1989 and is still going.

Shimura was also well-versed in music and had a special passion for soul. In early years of his TV career, he usually selected music for his comedy routines. His musical sensibility manifested itself in his comic performances. He often acted with singers and musicians in his programs.

He watched many movies and used various movie techniques for staging scenes in his shows.

Before he succumbed to COVID-19, Shimura was cast in his first starring role in director Yoji Yamada's Kinema no Kamisama (God of the Cinema) film. After he was hospitalized, his withdrawal from the role was announced.

Obsessed with honing his skills as a versatile, rubber-faced comedian, Shimura seldom took an offer to perform as an actor. That was all the more reason for his fans to look forward to seeing him play the starring role in Yamada's film.

The abrupt end to the life of an iconic comedian has brought home to many Japanese the threat posed by the coronavirus.

Larry Toda is a Japanese comedy critic. After working for a TV show production company, Toda became a freelance writer specializing in reviewing comedies and comic performances.

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