Entertainer Ken Shimura didn’t belong to any single generation. Following news that the 70-year-old comedian had died on Sunday from pneumonia caused by COVID-19, TV broadcasters on Monday featured both Shimura’s contemporaries and much younger personalities visibly upset over his passing.
On social media, fans shared clips from across his 40-year-plus career, a reminder of how far-reaching his presence had been.
Shimura was among the most renowned comedians in modern Japanese history. Since the 1970s, the Tokyo-born performer had been a TV staple thanks to comedy skits and recurring characters such as Baka Tonosama (Stupid Lord) and Henna Ojisan (Strange Uncle). Many of his performances in the first two decades of his professional career capture Showa Era (1926-89) entertainment in all its raunchy ridiculousness.
Yet, rather than calcify with that period as the Heisei Era (1989-2019) started, Shimura carried on and remained ever present. By the mid 2000s, a new generation of viewers came to know him as the host of a weekly primetime animal show, “Tensai! Shimura Dobutsuen” (“Genius! Shimura Zoo”), that found Shimura hanging out with dogs, monkeys and other critters.
He even remained a presence in early 2020 with a mix of variety program appearances and sketch shows, offering a bridge that connected the Showa years with the Reiwa Era (2019 to present day), and proving that his greatest skill was creating timeless comedy.
Shimura came to prominence in the early 1970s as part of rock band-turned-comedy troupe The Drifters, whose TV program “Hachijidayo Zeninshugo!” (“It’s 8 o’clock, Assemble Everyone!”) was a hit when it aired from 1969 to 1985 on TBS. He would appear on many more shows in the following decade, but his appeal remained the same throughout — crude jokes coupled with a knack for physical gags (and the occasional musical gag worked in). Thanks to relaxed social norms (and lax broadcast standards), some of Shimura’s best known performances from the bubble era can be jarring to watch today, in particular the Henna Ojisan routine that took the sexualization of women to an extreme degree but was still common for the period.
Shimura captured dominant social attitudes during the Showa Era, but he also spent this time poking fun at modern Japanese society in a way many comics couldn’t. He would offer critiques of the country via his character Baka Tonosama (using a historical backdrop of ancient Japan to mask contemporary broadsides), and one popular sketch found Shimura playing the role of an English teacher instructing a class full of native speakers on how to pronounce the language all wrong. It’s still hilarious now, and can feel too real to anyone working in Japan’s English-language teaching industry.
That sketch has proven to be a hit on sites such as YouTube, where it and many other Shimura creations have racked up views. However, the comedian also became a digital avatar to many outside of the country summing up what Japanese comedy was all about. Searching for “Japan funny” on YouTube will bring up multiple Shimura routines, while others have been subtitled into English, Vietnamese and more. It’s a testament to his talent that his jokes really could be so universal. In fact, one of the recurring segments on “Kato Chan Ken Chan Gogiken Terebi” (“Fun TV With Kato and Ken”) found Shimura and co-host Cha Kato watching funny videos sent in by viewers — a format that inspired the hit U.S. TV show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
Shimura carried on in the 21st century with appearances, specials and shows, including “Tensai! Shimura Dobutsuen”, which found him in a more grandfatherly light interacting with animals. While he still explored his Showa Era roots in recent years — Fuji TV’s “Shimura de Naito” (“Night of Shimura”) program from 2018 tapped into nostalgia for that period, albeit with stricter broadcasting standards observed — this creature-centric offering also helped to introduce Shimura to a new generation of viewers, giving then their own version of the performer separate from the one their parents saw.
Shimura’s passing has proven especially hard to reckon with for many in Japan because he has consistently been a presence in people’s lives and has created some of the most memorable and uplifting pop culture moments. Whether it was the entire 40 years or just a single decade, everyone had their own unique way to connect with him.
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