LOS ANGELES — Just exactly who is this Ken Tanaka character generating buzz on YouTube?
He seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to one David Ury, a Los Angeles-based improvisational actor who in the 1990s worked and studied in Tokyo but now takes small acting roles in Hollywood and was recently seen on the TV show “Heroes.”
However, on his YouTube channel “helpmefindparents,” Ken Tanaka says he is a 35-year-old Caucasian man adopted by Japanese parents and raised in Shimane Prefecture. Tanaka’s numerous clips on the YouTube video-sharing site document his search in the U.S. for his biological parents, Jonathan and Linda Smith.
A disclaimer on the site warns viewers that Tanaka lives in a reality that is likely very different from your own. In this reality, unreal things can and do happen.
Other than that brief disclosure, Tanaka consistently sticks to his particular “reality” in which he and Ury are merely twin brothers adopted at birth by different families. Tanaka is fully independent in his search for their biological parents and responsible for all the shenanigans that ensue.
Is Ken Tanaka the alter ego of David Ury? Is he the Japanese version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character? He won’t reveal anything, but people are taking notice of this self-effacing, light-haired man with a spot-on Japanese accent and his humorous personal and cultural misadventures.
Since he began his quest two years ago, the helpmefindparents channel has had hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. More than 5,500 people subscribe to his YouTube channel and his audience continues to grow.
Asked why he thinks his persona and journey resonates with people, Tanaka says that perhaps there is something universal in his story.
“I think there is a human interest in that idea of going to a different world or place and having to make a new life in that place,” he reflects in broken English. “It’s something everyone has felt.”
Indeed, the Ken Tanaka character has thus taken on a life of its own, inspiring music compositions, popular video language lessons and artwork. He has even been interviewed by media from the U.S and South Korea.
In April, Tanaka was featured in a Los Angeles Times article about his popularity on the Web and his relevance in the scheme of the art world, particularly with his recent mixed-media collection titled “Maximum Pleasant” at Billy Shire Fine Arts in Culver City, Calif.
Tanaka says most of his artwork is selling for $100 to $300 and one of his pieces, titled “Ken Tanaka Story,” sold for $1,500 at the gallery opening.
Susan Hancock, owner of the Royal-T maid cafe in Los Angeles and an art collector who includes Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara pieces among her collection, purchased a couple of his drawings.
“His art has emotion,” she said. “I like that his childlike drawings of animals and regular objects express their feelings. You can see the inner joke in it, and it makes you smile.”
Aside from the videos chronicling his search for the Smiths, Tanaka has posted dozens of clips introducing various aspects of Japanese culture. He has taken viewers with him on his trips back “home” to Japan where, for the cultural erudition of his followers, he has eaten Kobe beef, observed a geisha in Kyoto’s Gion district and visited a Suntory whiskey distillery in Osaka Prefecture.
However, not everyone finds his videos engaging or amusing. Comments left by viewers range from supportive to skeptical, while others say they are downright offended. A few puzzled viewers question his authenticity as Ken Tanaka while others mock his work as an unoriginal though elaborate prank.
Asked about the critical responses, Tanaka whimsically likens the experience to different interpretations of a cat playing with a ball of yarn. Some people think it’s cute while others find it saccharine and unappealing. In other words, people take it as they like, and it’s not for everyone.
What’s next for Ken Tanaka now that he has delved into the art world?
According to him, he won’t be packing his bags and returning to Shimane any time soon. Tanaka is resolute in his search for Jonathan and Linda Smith.
“I never imagined that it would go on for two years,” he contemplates wistfully. “I guess all I can say is that I have to keep doing different kinds of artwork to send out my message.”