Friday, July 3, 2009

Japanese cinema's first comic superstar Roppa Furukawa

by Chris MaGee

It's funny how you come across new information about Japanese cinema sometimes. A few weeks back I posted the above left menko, or Japanese trading card, as my Facebook profile picture simply for the reason that I liked the way it looked. I got a friend from Tokyo commenting on it asking if "I liked Roppa Furukawa?" I had to admit ignoranace and replied that I didn't know who Roppa Furukawa was. She sent me the above right picture and said it was the same man as my menko Facebook picture "This is Roppa Furukawa," she said. It turns out that I had inadvertently stumbled upon one of, if not the very first, comic superstar of Japanese cinema, and I have my Facebook friend Miyuki to thank for it. Sadly English language information of Furukawa is a bit thin on the ground, but here's some of what I discovered about him.

Born Ikuo Kogawa in 1903 in Kojimachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo Furukawa started out as an essayist and writer for the landmark cinema journal Kinema Junpo, but it was his great sense of humour and uncanny gift for imitation and mimicry that got him work doing voiceover for the new "talkie" films and cartoons that began appearing in Japan in the 1930's. Furukawa also stepped out from behind the microphone in 1932 on the recommendation of a friend and made his stage debut in Takarazuka, the same town made famous for its all female theatre troupe.

Furukawa ended up fronting his own comedy troupe and was quickly brought on board to star in a series of comedy films for Toho. His chubby physique and trademark round glasses, plus his humour and mimicry, made him an instant screen superstar and Furukawa ended up becoming a favorite of both Mikio Naruse and Masahiro Makino throughout the 1940's. Like most people in japan, though, WW2 took its toll on Furukawa and by 1949 his comedy troupe disbanded and he began to struggle with both diabetes and tuberculosis. He ended up losing this dual battle in 1961 at the age of 57.

There's of course much more to learn about Roppa Furukawa, so if you know anything out there and can fill in the blanks please leave your input in the comments. He sounds like a fascinating man. To give you a bit of a taste of Furukawa's style and screen presence here he is performing a drinking song in 1937 alongside starlet Chizuko Kanda and actor Kamatari Fujiwara who you may remember from his many roles in the films of Akira Kurosawa.

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