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Popular comedian Ken Shimura first Japanese celebrity to die from COVID-19

kyodo

Ken Shimura, a veteran slapstick comedian and onetime member of rock ’n’ roll band and comedy group The Drifters, a household name in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, has died of pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus, his agency said Monday. He was 70.

Shimura last week became the first Japanese entertainment figure to announce their infection with the virus. His agency on Monday announced his death from the disease known as COVID-19.

Shimura was hospitalized on March 20 after developing a fever and being diagnosed with severe pneumonia. He tested positive for the virus on March 23.

“I don’t think he imagined he would die a death like this,” a representative with his agency said. “I am sure he was working hard with a sense of mission to deliver laughter to people.”

The surviving members of the Drifters — Cha Kato, 77, Boo Takagi, 87, and Koji Nakamoto, 78 — who also belong to the same agency, were too shocked to issue a statement yet, according to his management.

Famous Japanese songstress Naoko Ken tweeted of her friend’s death, “I cannot think anything now. I can no longer see Ken-chan. This is too sad.”

“I was happy working with you. Thank you,” Ken, who played Shimura’s wife in TV comedy skits, also wrote.

His death also made headlines outside of Japan. Reuters reported that he “was one of the country’s best-known comedians.” The BBC, CNBC and Turkish state-owned Anadolu news agency also reported the news as did by media in other countries such as Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

A native of Higashimurayama in western Tokyo, Shimura, whose real name was Yasunori Shimura, replaced Chu Arai in the Drifters in 1974 after graduating from high school.

Formed by the late actor Chosuke Ikariya and four other men in 1964, the group, which opened for the Beatles in Japan in 1966, became one of the biggest successes in Japanese comedy history.

Shimura rose to prominence after starring in the group’s prime-time TV slapstick show “Hachijidayo Zeninshugo!” (“It’s 8 o’clock, assemble everyone!”) launched in 1969.

During that time, he became popular for his easy-to-understand gags and range of parodies, including the “mustache dance” and the song “Higashimurayama Ondo,” a reference to his hometown.

He later became known for the popular comedy characters he played on TV, including Baka Tonosama (stupid lord) and Henna Ojisan (strange uncle). From 2006, he began leading a troupe for his theater show “Shimurakon” (“Shimura Spirit”).

Shimura, who said in a memoir that he drew inspiration from American comedian Jerry Lewis, captured the hearts of viewers from all generations with his penchant for funny faces and his ability to deliver jokes as if they were unscripted.

At the time of his death, he was starring in “Tensai! Shimura Dobutsuen” (“Genius! Shimura Zoo”), as well as other TV programs and was scheduled to start work on a movie based on the book “The Name Above the Title” in April.

“He was popular among a wide range of generations and was the No. 1 source of pride for locals,” said Minoru Hasegawa, 69, who lives in Higashimurayama. “I’m the same generation and (his death is) very regrettable.”

Shimura had been expected to run in the Tokyo Olympic torch relay representing Higashimurayama.

Tokyo resident Toshio Takazawa, 70 — the same age of Shimura at his passing — recalled going to theaters to watch The Drifters’ live performances when he was young.

“He was our hero. I wish he could entertain us more,” he said.

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