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February 18, 2012

Japanese Masters: Ueki Hitoshi (actor, singer, comedian)

Humor doesn't travel very well, it is often said, and you would certainly think so when looking at the Japanese film scene. While Kurosawa and Ozu have become worldwide household words and many samurai and yakuza genre films have been brought out with English subtitles, comedies seem to have a hard time breaking through the cultural barrrier. The only exceptions are the long series It's Hard Being a Man with Atsumi Kiyoshi as Tora-san (1969-1995), or a few films by Itami Juzo. But there seem to be no comedies from the 1960s that have been graced with subtitles and favored with a release outside of Japan. That is all the more regrettable because such films can tell you a lot about daily life in Japan, both at home and in the office. The Toho company was very actice in the humorous film genre, with as iconic actors Ueki Hitoshi and Morishige Hisaya. Here, we will look at the films made by Ueki Hitoshi.

Ueki Hitoshi (1926-2007) was a comedian, actor and singer representative of the Japanese post-war miracle. Born in a family of priests in Mie Prefecture, immediately after the war he started his career as a singer and guitarist in Tokyo. He first became famous as a member of the Crazy Cats, a comic jazz band, with Hana Hajime and Tani Kei. Their act was full of crazy gags a la Marx Brothers. Ueki and The Crazy Cats became a big hit on TV as well. One of Ueki's most famous songs was Suudara bushi, from 1962, with the nonsense text "I know it, but I can't stop."

Ueki made his film debut in Masamura Yasuzo’s remake of The Woman Who Touched the Legs (1960), but his breakthrough came with his own feature, the classic comedy The Age of Irresponsibility in Japan (Nippon Musekinin Jidai, 1962). We of course also find his fellow-cats, Hana Hajime and Tani Kei, here (as well as in most other Ueki Hitoshi films). This film, in which Ueki played a wayward salaryman, exactly suited the spirit of the times. Thanks to the hard work of its people, Japan was back to prosperity. The 1960s were the time of consumerism, of TVs, cars and "my homes." It was just before the Tokyo Olympics and the nation felt confident about the future. It was even possible to work a bit less hard and enjoy life.

That is exactly what Ueki's salaryman-type does. He is "genki," optimistic and energetic. While his colleagues sit yawning at their desks, he storms into the office, cries "Work, work," and starts working the phones to make a sales appointment with a big voice and smile - his toothy grin became his trademark. He is the archetype of the ideal salaryman. But he also has an "irresponsible" side: he doesn't care for small rules and procedures, sets his own time, jumps the hierarchy and uses very unusual methods to be successful. He brazenly says what he thinks. Any real-life salaryman who would have tried to act like Ueki, would have been out on the streets in seconds. But it sure gave satisfaction to see one guy on film break all the office rules! It gave the real salarymen of Japan the motivation to continue their grinding work.

The Age of Irresponsibility in Japan was so popular that more films were made with Ueki at high speed. There was another  "irresponsibility" film, Nippon Musekinin Yaro, the Irresponsible Guy of Japan (also 1962). Another group Ueki films was created round the title "Nippon Ichi no XX Otoko," "the Best XX Man of Japan," starting with Nippon Ichi no Iro Otoko, The Most Sexy Man of Japan, and followed by Nippon Ichi no Gomasuri Otoko, The Greatest Flatterer of Japan (1965) and Nippon Ichi no Gorigan Otoko, The Greatest Pusher of Japan (1966). In total ten of these films were made, until 1971. In all these films Ueki plays basically the same type of salaryman, and that was also true for a third series of films with the word "Crazy" in it. While all above-mentioned Ueki films contained musical numbers (Ueki suddenly singing and dancing in the streets, a la Bollywood), in the "Crazy Series" the Crazy Cats band comes on stage and the music is more elaborate.  A good example is Honkon Kureeji Sakusen, Hong Kong Crazy Strategy (here, 14 films were made until 1971).

Finally, there is a fourth series, in which the salaryman character of Ueki is transported to the past and runs around as a crazy salaryman-samurai. A good example is Horafuki Taikoki, The Bluffing Hideyoshi. In total, four films were made. Besides these series, in the same period, Ueki also appeared in a number of other comedies. So the 60s can rightfully be called the crazy, irresponsible Ueki Hitoshi age!

Director of many of these films was Toho comic genre director Furusawa Kengo (and to a lesser degree Furosawa's colleague Tsuboshima Takashi). A popular female counterpart (or “madonna” as the Japanese say) was Hama Mie, know in the West because of her role in James Bond's You Only Live Twice (1967).

In the 1970s, the tide turned and Ueki Hitoshi lost his comic appeal. He had some quiet years as far as cinema was concerned, but in the 1980s again appeared in many films, often in very different roles from the comedies of the 60s. He played for example a very serious supporting role as General Fujimaki in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). In the 90s his popularity was back, now mixed with nostalgia as his films started to appear on DVD. Like the ideal grandpa, still always smiling, Ueki was a frequent guest in TV shows and also was asked for almost countless TV commercials. He also continued making films, almost until his death in 2007 - the last film in which he appeared was Maiko Haaan, in which he played an elderly company owner from the Nishijin weaving district.

Ueki Hitoshi's comedies are symbolic of Japan’s postwar white collar age and form great time capsules of Japanese homes and offices in the 1960s. They are the ideal films about salaryman life. Why are they not better known outside Japan?