Ken Shimura, Japan’s most famous comedian, died on March 29 from a pneumonia brought upon by coronavirus. He had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 24. Shimura was 70.
Born Feb. 20, 1950, Shimura was a fixture on Japanese television for decades, known for his mugging and facial expressions.
He had been scheduled to run with the Olympic torch this year in the run-up to the 2020 Summer Olympics, hosted by Tokyo, which since have been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. Instead, an estimated 40.7 million people across Japan watched a TV tribute to Shimura broadcast on Fuji TV on April 1.
Shimura’s comedy in the 1970s may have been raunchy to the point where you might compare him more to Benny Hill that Robin Williams, but as he aged, his comedy softened to adapt to the times. Japanese viewers could enjoy the elder Shimura playing Jenga against a chimpanzee, and losing. That was typical of his primetime variety series, Tensai! Shimura Dobutsuen (“Genius! Shimura Zoo”). He also hosted TV segments in his early days watching funny videos submitted by viewers, in a concept that predated America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Physical comedy always translates, no matter the language.
Take this sketch with Leslie Nielsen on a train, where Shimura plays the straight man?
One of the more popular sketches people have shared and uploaded is this one, in which Shimura teaches English to English-speaking students, From the Japanese comedy show Shimuraken no Daijobuda, generating laughs by trying to lure them into his way of talking and acting.
In that sketch and this later one, featuring Shimura as a supposedly intimidating sushi chef, you see how his stature and mannerisms tend to keep his fellow actors on their toes, as they try to stifle laughs.
If you need subtitles, here’s a compilation provided posthumously by a Japanese fan.