by Chris MaGee
It's been such a mad dash here at the J-Film Pow-Wow what with the crew rushing from film to film here at the Toronto International Film Festival that we nearly missed reporting on the passing of one of Japan's top television and film comedians. Tani Kei, best known to North American audiences as Nakamura, the head after life case counselor in Hirokazu Koreeda's 1998 fantasy "After Life" and once member of the Japanese comedy troupe The Crazy Cats passed away on September 11th in Tokyo as a result of a brain contusion. He was 78.
Born in 1932 as Yasuo Watanabe in Tokyo, but his father, who worked for the large steel company Nisshin Steel took his family to Hiroshima and then on to Yokohama as his work demanded. The young Watanabe began his artistic career as a musician, specifically a trombone player and it was this musical background that would serve him well in his future comedic endeavors. As a young man in his 20's he joinedd forces with one of Japan's most famous comedians of that decade, Frank Sakai, in the band Frankie Sakai's City Slickers. This gig would lead him to become a member of the famed Crazy Cats in 1956, a comedy jazz band lead by comedian Hitoshi Ueki. It was around this time that Watanabe took the stage name of Tani Kei, a Japanese transposition of American entertainer Danny Kaye.
Kei would go on to a hugely successful career, appearing in television series, films, commercials as well as releasing a number of musical comedy albums (such as "Gachon Legend" above"). Kei's last film appearance was in "Tsuribaka Nisshi 20 (Fishing Fool 20)", the last of the long-running comedy series of films starring Rentaro Mikuni and Toshiyuki Nishida. Our deepest condolences go out to Kei's family and friends, and our thanks goes to Japan Zone for the details of his remarkable life. Check out Kei in action with a ragtime performance below.