In his autobiography, Chosuke Ikariya, who died two weeks ago at the age of 72, mentions that when he won a Japan Academy Award in 1999 for his performance in “Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)” he felt guilty because he had never taken acting that seriously. It sounds like the requisite modesty of a star who has been called upon to explain his success, but Ikariya’s career was mostly accidental.
Ikariya was the leader of The Drifters, the comedy group that, from 1969 to 1985, starred in “Hachiji Da Yo! Zenin Shugo! (It’s 8 O’Clock! Everybody Get Together!)” on TBS every Saturday night. At its peak, the program drew audience shares in the high 40s and infuriated adults who felt the show’s scatology and casual cruelty were bad for children. Kids — especially boys — loved it.
The Drifters’ comedy was based on desperation, but not the kind of desperation we associate with self-expression. Ikariya always said he was not a natural comedian, and that none of the other members were funny outside the group. They had to work at it. Or, more exactly, Ikariya had to work at it.
Like many Japanese who grew up during World War II, Ikariya had to improvise his life. His family evacuated from Tokyo to Shizuoka, where he eventually became a factory worker and took up the double bass to meet girls. He played in dance bands and got a job with Jimmy Tokita’s Mountain Playboys, a C & W outfit that played at U.S. bases. Ikariya was the tallest and most conspicuous member, and was sometimes singled out by drunks in the audience for “never smiling.” In response, he acted up on stage, annoying Tokita but amusing the audience.
In 1962, he was offered the bass position in The Drifters, whose ambition was to be like The Crazy Cats, a successful pop group who spiced up their musical numbers with slapstick comedy routines. Ikariya was wary because he considered himself a “fourth-rate” musician and even less of a comedian. But the other Drifters weren’t particularly adept either. Two years later he’d become the leader by default.
Ikariya’s main concern was making sure the group survived from one gig to the next, and when four members quit he had to hire anyone he could, because the group still had commitments to honor. Ikariya handpicked three people, none of whom had much experience in music or comedy.
They got television work because variety shows needed acts. TV was still an extension of vaudeville. Present at the birth of TV, Ikariya watched the medium grow and realized that the performers would have to broaden their material. A good rakugo storyteller, for instance, earned a following by telling the same story the same way over and over. This was fine on the stage, but TV audiences digested things more quickly and the medium offered more chances for a comedian to appear before the same audience.
The Drifters had to write and rehearse everything, and most of that work fell on Ikariya. The group’s warm-up show for The Beatles at Budokan in 1966 is their most famous moment, but at the time Ikariya thought of it as just another job, and not a desirable one. He didn’t particularly care for The Beatles and worried how The Drifters’ slapstick humor would go over in such a large hall.
So when a TBS producer came to him in 1969 and asked if he would be interested in a live, weekly comedy show Ikariya’s first reaction was incredulity. TBS wanted something to compete with the comedy duo Konto 55-go, who had an extremely popular show in the same time slot over on Fuji. Ikariya didn’t see how The Drifters could succeed. Konto were master ad libbers. According to one of the members, Kinichi Hagimoto, they didn’t even rehearse; all they did was decide on a general outline and wing it. The Drifters, on the other hand, needed time to write, develop, and rehearse their skits.
Ikariya eventually agreed to do the show and went on to make TV history. The group’s status as a comedy institution was something of a fluke. Except for Ken Shimura, who joined when original member Chu Arai quit in the mid-’70s, none of The Drifters forged individual identities outside the group. The act was a unified effort held together by Ikariya, who never rested a day during the show’s run (in addition to the weekly broadcast, the group had to make regional live appearances).
By the mid-’80s, The Drifters’ brand of vaudeville had run its course as TV comedy came to be dominated by performers who were naturally funny, like Sanma Akashiya and Beat Takeshi. All they needed was a topic. For better or worse, Japanese TV is now completely dependent on comedians. Skits and routines still have their place, but they are the exception to “talk-variety” shows, which are cheaper to produce.
Although The Drifters never formally disbanded, after “Hachiji” ended Ikariya had free time. His manager suggested acting. Again, Ikariya didn’t think he could do it, but he went on to become one of Japan’s most successful character actors.
He once said he was an “amateur at everything [he] did,” but the word “amateur” implies someone who does something out of love rather than necessity. Chosuke Ikariya’s legacy is that of an entertainer who made up his job as he went along. He had to work harder than someone with “natural” talent would, and for that reason the taste of success was sweeter.