Hitoshi Ueki: 1927-2007
Beloved Toho Comedian has Died
Author: Stuart Galbraith IV
Special Thanks to Oki Miyano
Japanese comedian Hitoshi Ueki, whose films came to symbolize Japan’s postwar white collar age, died Tuesday of respiratory failure at the age of 80. The eternal wayward salaryman, Ueki’s prolific output in both his solo films and those he made as the co-leader of the Crazy Cats comedy team were among Toho Studios’ most popular of the 1960s — in 1967 alone Ueki starred in three of Japan’s six top-grossing domestic films. Conversely, he remains all but unknown in America; in the U.S., the only Ueki film currently available on DVD is his least typical, a memorable supporting role as the pragmatic samurai General Fujimaki in Akira Kurosawa’s RAN (1985). Of his more than sixty film appearances several have sci-fi/fantasy elements and feature special effects directed by Eiji Tsuburaya and others, hence this tribute.
Ueki first found fame as a member of the Crazy Cats, a comic jazz band that was something like a combination of Spike Jones & His City Slickers and the Marx Bros., mixed with singularly Japanese postwar energy and humor. (It began as an Afro-Cuban band that found most of its early gigs on American army bases. The soldiers would tell them, “Hey, you’re crazy!” and they soon changed their name.)
Its members were both comedians and accomplished musicians, and most later also became fine dramatic actors in films and on television. Ueki played the guitar and was the group’s lead singer, co-founder Hajime Hana was a terrific drummer while Kei Tani (who took his stage name from Danny Kaye, thus in the Japanese last-name-first manner, Tani Kei) played the trombone. Others in the group included Hiroshi Inuzuka (string bass), Shin Yasuda (tenor sax), Senri Sakurai and Eitaro Ishibashi, both of whom played piano.
Ueki and The Crazy Cats first hit it big on network television, in a series of variety shows with names like WEEKLY CRAZY and SOAP BUBBLE HOLIDAY where they performed novelty songs and in sketch comedy while another rising talent, a twin sisters act called The Peanuts, did all the serious singing.
Ueki made his film debut in Yasuzo Masamura’s remake of THE WOMAN WHO TOUCHED THE LEGS (Ashi ni sawatta onna, 1960) but really hit his stride on the heels of his signature song, 1961’s Suudara bushi (roughly translated as “Hang Loose Melody” though its title is essentially untranslatable), and when he and his fellow Crazy Cats signed with Toho. Ueki’s second film there, THE AGE OF IRRESPONSIBILITY IN JAPAN (Nippon musekinin jidai, 1962) became and remains a classic of Japanese film comedy, and the first of four “Irresponsible” features all starring the comedian. In no time Ueki was headlining two more unofficial series: JAPAN’S SEXIEST MAN (Nippon ichi no iro otoko, 1963) was the first of 10 “Japan’s ~ Man” films, while his “Crazy” films, beginning with that same year’s CRAZY FREE-FOR-ALL – DON’T DELAY! (Kureejii sakusen – Sentai hissho), with Hana, Tani, et. al. resulted in a dozen more films for the studio.
Ueki typically played the envy of every white collar worker in Japan: the irresponsible salaryman who brazenly came to work when he felt like it, made his superiors look foolish, spoke his mind and broke every rule of protocol — and yet somehow came out on top every time, always with the wide, toothy grin that became his trademark. He was the Japanese J. Pierpont Finch, the salaryman who could succeed in business without really trying.
As his various series grew in popularity, Toho lavished bigger and bigger production values on them, culminating with 1967’s LAS VEGAS FREE-FOR-ALL (Kureejii ogon sakusen), a 157-minute, ¥180,000,000 all-star epic comedy shot on location in Hawaii, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas; and MEXICAN FREE-FOR-ALL (Kureejii Mekishiko dai sakusen, 1968), an even bigger comedy extravaganza partly filmed in that country, as well as in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. In most of these movies he was teamed with actress Mie Hama, better remembered in Japan for her comedies with Ueki than sci-fi productions like KING KONG ESCAPES (1967). Indeed, virtually all of Toho’s familiar character actors and musical stars (Yu Fujiki, Akiko Wakabayashi, and Akihiko Hirata of the former; The Peanuts, Kyu Sakamoto, and Kenji Sawada among the latter) turn up in these films, as do gajin talent like Peggy Neal (THE X FROM OUTER SPACE), Harold S. Conway (KING KONG VS GODZILLA), and George Furness (GORATH).
A number of Ueki’s films feature sci-fi/fantasy elements. Kengo Furusawa’s CRAZY ADVENTURE (Dai boken, 1965) has the team battling postwar Nazis — including an alive-and-well Adolph Hitler! — rebuilding their army on a South Seas island base, and its pyrotechnic finale was supervised by Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya. Tsuburaya also had a hand in the on-set physical effects, notably a scene where Ueki is hanging on the ledge of a tall building and eventually bounces off various power lines (in a sequence obviously inspired by the end of 1963’s IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD). “That was scary” Ueki said. “The director was telling me to act scared, but he didn’t have to ask!”
In another film, Takashi Tsuboshima’s charming, Here Comes Mr. Jordan-like THE MAN FROM PLANET ALPHA (Kureejii dayo – Kisotsutengai, 1966), Ueki plays the ancient leader of a faraway planet. Special effects miniatures and props left over from earlier Toho films figure into the film’s sight gags and title sequence. Another movie, THE CRAZY’S BIG EXPLOSION (Kureejii no dai bakuhatsu, 1969) sent the team into outer space courtesy effects by Teruyoshi Nakano.
Most of these films have been released to DVD in Japan, though frustratingly without English subtitles. But even if you can’t speak Japanese, they’re easy to follow as the iconography of these comedies in many respects mirror those of their American counterparts: in one of the Crazy Cats films a character even slips on a banana peel. At the same time, like Toho’s concurrent “Company President” (“Shacho”) series starring Hisaya Morishige, Ueki’s films likewise function as wonderful time capsules of Japanese office and urban life in the 1960s, and though their storylines are often similar to American comedies, their concerns are resolutely Japanese.
Like many comedians, off-screen Ueki was the very opposite of his screen persona. “[He] was the son of a monk at a temple,” Mie Hama told me in a 1996 interview, “and usually very quiet. The very first film I did with them was very weird because there was such a strong contrast.” This was confirmed when I met Ueki a few days later: he told hilarious anecdotes about the team but with the seriousness of a company president presenting an annual report.
This seriousness was partly due to the then-recent deaths of Hajime Hana and Eitaro Ishibashi. “I feel a real loneliness because Hana-san isn’t here,” he said. “Last year Kei Tani wrote a book about his life, and he wrote a message saying please, please never forget The Crazy Cats. I feel exactly the same way.”
Ueki had been the subject of a recent NHK special, which included interviews with surviving Crazy Cats Kei Tani, Senri Sakurai, and Hiroshi Inuzuka (Tsuburaya’s THE MONSTERS’ DESPERATE BATTLE—DAIGORO VS GOLIATH), and this writer spotted Ueki in the audience enjoying at least one sumo basho last year, but by the time he appeared at songwriter Yukio Aoshima’s funeral this past December, his health had taken a turn for the worse and he was on oxygen 24-7. When he died, network news shows led off with news of his death and clips from his films and TV shows, and the following morning Inuzuka couldn’t hold back the tears during a telephone interview where he sadly noted how so many of his fellow Crazy Cats have passed away.
With so many Japanese yakuza and chanbara films available on DVD in America, it’s a shame that except for the work of Juzo Itami, so little Japanese film comedy is represented. And any major retrospective of the genre would have to include at least one movie starring Hitoshi Ueki, one of Japan’s most beloved comedians.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV’s most recent essays appear in Criterion’s new three-disc SEVEN SAMURAI DVD and BCI Eclipse’s THE QUIET DUEL. His audio commentary for Classic Media’s INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER is due out in June.