Japanese Comedian Ken Shimura Dies From Coronavirus at 70

A household name in Japan since the 1970s, Shimura was a near-constant presence on local television.

Japanese comedian Ken Shimura, who was hospitalized last week after being infected with the novel coronavirus, has died. He was 70.

A household name in Japan since the 1970s, Shimura was a near constant presence on Japanese television. At the time of his death, he was appearing regularly on several local variety shows, and was set to star in Japanese director Yoji Yamada's upcoming feature film God of Cinema, produced by Japanese studio Shochiku to mark its 100-year anniversary in the film industry. Shochiku has put the film on indefinite hold.

Shimura was hospitalized in Tokyo on March 20 after developing a fever and being diagnosed with severe pneumonia. He tested positive for the coronavirus March 23, and became the first Japanese celebrity to go public with a COVID-19 diagnosis.  

Raised in the west Tokyo neighborhood of Higashimurayama, Shimura began his career in entertainment when he joined the Japanese rock band and comedy group The Drifters, famous for opening for The Beatles during their early tours of Japan. Shimura became a breakout star of the group's prime time comedy show Hachiji dayo, Zenin Shugo! (It's 8 o'clock, Assemble Everyone!). It was there that he developed his signature brand of slapstick caricature, wacky bits and deadpan delivery.

In a late-career memoir, Shimura cited American comedian Jerry Lewis as a formative influence. On hit variety shows of the 1980s, he would go on to win even greater nationwide fame for satirical characters like "Baka Tonosama" (foolish lord) and "Henna Ojisan" (weirdo uncle).

Shimura's starring turn in Yamada's God of Cinema was designed to lean heavily on public memory of his long-running career and iconic profile in Japan. It would have been his first lead performance in a major feature film. Based on the best-selling book The Name Above the Title, the project had been set to go into production in early April.