Japan suffered its first high profile casualty from COVID-19 when veteran comedian Ken Shimura died in March of pneumonia caused by the coronavirus. He was 70 years old.
Born Yasunori Shimura in 1950, he was one of Japan’s most influential and best-loved comedians. He’s been called “Japan’s Robin Williams,” though his slapstick (and often decidedly low-brow) style invites comparisons to Benny Hill, too.
Part of the joy of watching Shimura is seeing the reactions of his fellow actors. Most of the time, he’s the only one in the scene with a straight face
Shimura’s career spanned more than four decades, and he continued working almost up until his passing. We’ve picked a few of our favorite sketches to remember this comic genius, from an all-too-real English lesson to a hilarious detective collaboration. If you aren’t familiar with Shimura’s work, you’re in for a treat.
English with Shimura Sensei
My first exposure to Ken Shimura, and likely the first for many of us, was his legendary “English Lesson” sketch where he corrects the pronunciation of native speakers. Those who have experienced working as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan will find this one especially relatable.
Part of the joy of watching Shimura is seeing the reactions of his fellow actors. Most of the time, he’s the only one in the scene with a straight face while the others choke up laughing. His asides and sudden voice changes make it feel like he’s performing just as much for them as he is for the audience. Every sketch feels live—and many were.
Shimura got his start as a member of the rock ’n’ roll comedy group The Drifters. Starting as an assistant, he was promoted to a full member in 1974. The group had previously opened for The Beatles on their first Japan tour with a lightning-fast one-minute set. By the mid-1970s, they were best known for their variety show Hachijidayo, Zen’inshugo (It’s 8 o’clock, Everybody Gather ‘Round).
In this sketch from 1980, Shimura shows off his excellent vocal and facial comedy alongside the group’s trademark slapstick. He plays a Shinto priest, trying to conduct a wedding ceremony and purify the guests by shaking a wand used in Shinto rituals over them.
You can’t talk about Ken Shimura without mentioning his staple characters. Baka Tonosama, the Stupid Lord, is one of his most famous. Here he is totally failing to take his duties seriously, which is basically the point.
Shimura would use a fictional historical setting to poke fun at modern issues, targeting seemingly untouchable figures like company presidents, yakuza bosses, and politicians.
While these sketches aren’t always the easiest to follow due to the highly exaggerated use of archaic and polite language, there are a fair few slapstick gems to be found.
Shimura’s other famous character, Henna Ojisan (Weird Old Man), is always finding inventive ways to perv on young girls.
While comedy like this was more acceptable back in the bubble era (1990-1991), Japan’s *ahem*, complex relationship with gender equality and sexual assault makes it somewhat tougher viewing nowadays.
Still, the ending catchphrase, “Sou desu. Watashi wa Henna Oji-san desu” (that’s right, I’m a dirty old man) and trademark dance is a testament to the raunchy and ridiculous comedy scene of the Showa era in which Shimura got his start.
International Man of Mystery
Shimura appeared on screen with the biggest names in the Japanese entertainment industry. His character, Baka Tonosama, has hosted everyone from TV personalities to up-and-coming manzai duos.
He didn’t limit his work to just appearing with Japanese stars, though. Here he is in a skit with Leslie Nielsen, playing a Japanese counterpart to Nielsen’s Naked Gun character, Detective Frank Drebin.
Rock, Scissors, Paper
Shimura leaves us with over 100 starring roles in everything from TV to slot machines and a huge repertoire of catchphrases. He’s even credited for popularizing the way janken (the Japanese version of rock scissors paper) is played.
Saisho wa gu, janken pon, or “rock is first, boom, janken!” is Japan’s universal phrase everyone says in unison before a rock, paper, scissors game starts. We all have Shimura to thank for that as he practically coined the phrase during this 70s sketch from the aforementioned Hachijidayo, Zen’inshugo, below. Never underestimate how seriously Japan takes rock, scissors paper.
Comedy can age fast. It’s a testament to Shimura’s talent that he remained a titan of Japanese entertainment for almost half a century with relatively few missteps.
What’s your favorite Ken Shimura sketch? Let us know in the comments!