AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Ave atque vale: Ueki Hitoshi, Japan’s premier comic actor (1927-2007)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

SAD NEWS: The foremost Japanese comic actor of his–and perhaps any–generation, and my hands-down, all-time favorite Japanese show business personality, Ueki Hitoshi, died this morning in a Tokyo hospital of respiratory problems. He was 80.

ueki1

Ueki was a multitalented performer who started out singing in a band (called the Crazy Cats), turned to comedy with the other band members, and won respect as a serious actor later in life. If he is known abroad at all, it is for his appearance in Kurosawa Akira’s Ran in 1985. In 1993, he was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon for his contributions to culture, and in 1999 he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.

But it was as the lead in the comedy Nippon Musekinin Jidai (Japan’s Irresponsible Age) in 1962 that he made his name. The movie was a huge success and morphed into a series of films throughout the 60s that used in their title the phrase Nippon no Ichiban — Otoko (Japan’s Most – Man). Both Ueki and the films had a brash, energetic, and positive quality that paralleled the developments in Japanese society at the time, as the country’s economy and confidence skyrocketed during the period of rapid growth. He became enormously popular, particularly among salarymen, both for his films and his comic songs. The title of one of those songs, Wakattchairu Kedo Yamerarenee (I know, but I still can’t stop) became a national catchphrase in its own right.

There was no one quite like him in Japan, and no one quite like his character in the West, either. He was brassy, exuberant, zany, slightly roguish, yet perpetually bright and cheerful, and audiences loved him. To describe him in Western terms, think of Bob Hope in the early Road movies with Bing Crosby, remove the cowardice, add an irrepressible cheerfulness, and that puts you in the ballpark.

There’s also never been anything quite like those movies he made during his peak years, either. They were comedies that appealed to a mass audience, but they also had a touch of the freewheeling and slightly surreal that was also a part of popular culture throughout the West in the first half of the 60s.

My favorite of his films was one of the last of the Nippon no Ichiban — Otoko movies: Nippon no Ichiban Uragiri no Otoko (Japan’s Biggest Backstabber). In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that it got made at all, and it’s proof that the Japanese can make black comedy as well as anyone. In fact, the first scene is one of the most astonishing I’ve ever seen in any movie.

Here’s some quick background—there are two subjects in modern Japanese film and television that are always used to create the ultimate tragic mood. Those are the tokko butai pilots (kamikazes) and the Emperor Showa’s radio broadcast to the nation on August 15, 1945, announcing Japan’s surrender. No one would dream of parodying these two subjects.

Except Ueki, and he took on both in the movie’s first five minutes. He plays a kamikaze pilot about to leave on his last mission—this is a comedy, remember—and he and the other pilots are mustered to listen to the Emperor’s broadcast before they depart. But the reception of the radio broadcast is poor and filled with static, and they ask their commanding officer what the Emperor said. The officer answers that the Emperor asked them all to die for their country, so they climb into their planes and take off.

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Ueki crashes his plane into an American battleship, but it doesn’t explode and he survives. The American sailors are curious about this Japanese pilot sitting on the deck of their ship, and they wonder if he’s going to commit harakiri. Ueki at first defiantly announces that he’ll go through with it, but keeps coming up with new conditions for the ceremony that prevent him from actually cutting open his belly. The helpful American sailors then find ways for him to satisfy those conditions. The pilot warns them it’ll be a bloody mess, so one of the sailors thoughtfully rolls some toilet paper in his direction. Finally, Ueki says tradition demands that ritual suicide requires the presence of a registered nurse.

And then the opening credits start.

He was probably the only actor in Japan who could get away with a scene like that, and he knew it, too. In a newspaper interview published 18 years ago, he remarked about the series in general, “I just made up my mind that I would be the only person in Japan capable (of performing that role), and I ran with it. In the end, no one’s been able to make anything like them.”

No one anywhere has been able to make anything like them because Ueki was a true Japanese original. Here’s how the newspaper interview concludes:

“I (the interviewer) suggested to him that he had an upright and steadfast character, but he became embarrassed and let out a loud, boisterous laugh—‘Iya, uhhihhii’. It was the same laugh that delighted so many people over the years.”

Anyone who has seen any of Ueki’s movies will recognize that laugh immediately and hear it in their mind’s ear.

We’ll all miss it.

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4 Responses to “Ave atque vale: Ueki Hitoshi, Japan’s premier comic actor (1927-2007)”

  1. Infimum said

    To describe him in Western terms, think of Bob Hope in the early Road movies with Bing Crosby, remove the cowardice, add an irrepressible cheerfulness, and that puts you in the ballpark.

    I wonder how many readers of this blog get this analogy. The now common noun “road movie” is derived from the Road series.

    By the way Ueki’s Crazy Cats mate Tani Kei’s (谷啓) name is derived from Danny Kaye.

  2. ampontan said

    Infimum: Thanks for that nugget about Tani Kei!
    As for that reference: Ueki and Hope date from a time before adult culture became infantilized (both in Japan and the West). Sho ga nai!

  3. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    My fav line from Ueki’s singing – Zeni no nai yatsu(wa) oren toko e koi! (Come ye have-nots) Ore mo naikedo shinpaisuruna (Me too but don’t worry) Miroyo aoi sora shiroi kumo (Look up blue sky and white clouds) Sonouchi nantoka narudarou! (“Yes, we can” …. someday!)

    The song “Damatte Ore Ni Tsuitekoi” (Shut up and follow me)

    Me and my friend back in university days called Crazy Cats “Japanese version of Louis Jordan and Timpany Five”. Since Crazy Cats was jazz combo when they started, there is no doubt that they enjoyed and followed style of Louis Jordan and fitted it to their own.
    ———–
    I went to a funeral a couple of years ago, and the dead person’s best friend gave a speech. He recalled that they used to go over to each other’s house after school in their junior high school days (in the early 60s) and listen to Ueki Hitoshi records. I could understand that very well, because I used to do the same thing with similar kinds of performers in the US at the same time.

    – A.

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    I submit that nothing would fit to my funeral better than a good friend of mine speaking about the memory of listening to Ueki’s records together!

    Another candidate: Akireta Boys, and its offspring Kawada Yoshio & Milk Brothers, the seminal comic bands and forerunner of Crazy Cats. Kawada Yoshio, who later became mentor to Misora Hibari, the absolute diva of Japanese pop music history, was initially the leader of Akireta Boys, lost its original members by head hunting, and moved to form Milk Brothers (which was not inspired by Mills Brothers, but literal translation of 乳兄弟). These are all prior to WWII.

    Here are some link on Youtube. 珍カルメン(Goofy Carmen)by the original Akireta Boys and 地球の上に朝が来る(Morning comes on the earth) by the Milk Brothers.

    Full version (7 minutes plus!) of the latter:

    They do not necessarily equal to Ueki/Crazy Cats, but mastery of fusion of Western music and Japanese Naniwabushi and other traditional musical entertainment.

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