The media has been filled with tributes to comedian Hitoshi Ueki since he died of respiratory failure March 27 at the age of 80, but compared to the intense public mourning that followed the deaths of other, equally influential Showa Era pop icons, the eulogies have been notably subdued. One explanation is the march of time. Though Ueki was never forgotten, the temporal distance that separated his death from his heyday in the 1960s is greater than it was for actor Yujiro Ishihara or singer Hibari Misora. And while he continued working in the intervening years, he never made as much of an impression on the generation of Japanese who came of age after his period of peak popularity.
But another reason for the calmer response to his passing is the nature of the man himself. Some of the tributes have pointed out the gap between Ueki’s image and his real personality. Ueki was a prodigiously gifted performer, but his legacy will probably rest on his screen reputation as “Japan’s most irresponsible man.”
In a series of musical-comedies made during the ’60s, Ueki played a salaryman who embodied simultaneously a defender of the status quo and a sloppy, selfish individualist. This character sang emphatically about how great it was to be a company employee while shamelessly brown-nosing superiors, worming his way out of work, or taking advantage of his position as a white-collar worker (still an elite job at the time) to pick up girls. Even his clothing mocked the emerging stereotype: In one film he wears outrageous bow ties and in another an array of primary-colored suits that contrasts starkly with the ubiquitous dobu-nezumi (ditch rat) look of his fellow corporate warriors.
In real life, Ueki wasn’t anything like that. He didn’t drink or chase women, and colleagues invariably describe him as serious and thoughtful to a fault. Nowadays, such distinctions would be common knowledge since everything about a Japanese star is open to scrutiny. But there were no celebrity talk shows when Ueki was in his prime, and manufactured public images were meticulously maintained. In a TV interview he did in 1996 shortly after Yukio Aoshima was elected governor of Tokyo, Ueki related a conversation he once had with Aoshima, who as a scriptwriter and lyricist was instrumental in creating Ueki’s image: “He said to me, ‘Don’t tell anyone you don’t drink, otherwise you’ll put me out of a job.’ “
Ueki’s seriousness was practically bred into him. Born in 1926 and raised in Mie Prefecture, his father was a Christian who became a Buddhist priest when Ueki was three. A staunch defender of society’s outcasts and outspokenly antiwar, the elder Ueki’s activities often got him into trouble with local police and even landed him in jail. He gave his third son the name Hitoshi, which stands for “equal,” and sent him to Tokyo for religious training.
Ueki eventually entered Toyo University and graduated in 1950 with a degree in literature. However, his real interest was jazz guitar. By 1952 he had formed his own ensemble, Hitoshi Ueki’s New Sounds, and was greatly admired for his technique. Legend has it that pianist Hampton Hawes sat in with Ueki when he was stationed in Japan and predicted a bright future for him.
Japanese jazz had yet to reach the kind of maturity that could sustain a true artistic career and the reality for most players was the daily grind of live performance. In 1954, Ueki took singing lessons and joined drummer Frankie Sakai’s popular City Slickers. The name was a rip-off of Spike Jones’ comedy-music group, but it was Hajime Hana’s Crazy Cats, which Ueki joined in 1957 as guitarist-vocalist, that took the Jones idea to heart.
The Crazy Cats mixed slapstick with jazz, and before long the comedy in their act eclipsed the music. In 1959, they were featured in a daily noontime TV program that was only five minutes long. Each day, the group parodied one current news story. It became such a hit that a half-hour compilation of the week’s shows called “Shukan Crazy” was broadcast during prime time.
This led to “Shabon-dama Holiday (Soap Bubble Holiday),” often cited as Japan’s first variety show, though it was a variety show in the American style — musical numbers alternating with comedy sketches — and not the current Japanese style, which is mostly talk. It was here that Ueki and Aoshima developed the “irresponsible” character that was spun off into movies, records and even another variety program, “The Hitoshi Ueki Show.”
It was a character that Ueki never felt comfortable with. In his theme song, “Sudara Bushi,” he sings “I know what I’m doing is bad, but I can’t help myself,” a line that apparently bothered him. It was his father who convinced him to lighten up by saying that such a thought would have appealed to the 13th century Buddhist philosopher Shinran. “At least you know it’s bad,” he reportedly told his son.
In any event, as a loyal company man himself (to Toho studios and his powerful talent agency, Watanabe Productions) Ueki did what he was told. More significantly, as his father’s son he thought of show business as a form of social work, providing laughter and enjoyment to the masses who were working hard to lift Japan out of the ashes of war. Like Chaplin, Ueki’s comedy was grounded in a humanitarian impulse.
Last week, a 48-year-old man who just discovered Ueki’s movies wrote to the Asahi Shimbun saying that, compared to today’s politicians and leaders of industry, the comedian’s “irresponsible man” is actually the epitome of responsibility, because in the end he always does right by his conscience. In truth, the character’s behavior isn’t “bad”; he just doesn’t see the point in following conventions simply for the sake of propriety. It’s better to have fun, seriously.