Web star on an alter ego trip?
Ken Tanaka’s loopy life story has made him a breakout hit on YouTube. His is the cyber tale of a Caucasian, brought up in Japan by an Asian family, who now yearns to reconnect with his American heritage. Via the cagey use of documentary-style video, Tanaka portrays himself as a hapless hero, a sunny, awkward transplant from Japan, weaned on sushi but looking more like Oklahoma than Yokohama.
It’s all very charming, but there’s just one catch: Is it true?
Tanaka’s story has generated spirited online debate concerning this question: Is Ken Tanaka who he says he is or an engaging act performed by an actor named David Ury? In fact, Tanaka’s virtual presence underscores a larger question about the Internet: How wide is the divide between artful put-on artist and deliberate hoaxer?
As the Tanaka narrative on YouTube has it, he was born in Los Angeles and adopted by a Japanese couple who raised him in a solitary region back home in Asia. The saga further recounts that Tanaka spoke only Japanese until he taught himself English as an adult. Then, early in 2007, Tanaka returned to Los Angeles to locate his birth parents, Jonathan and Linda Smith.
On Saturday, Ken Tanaka’s biography literally will be brought home when he unveils his push-pull show of inner East-West dynamics at the Billy Shire Fine Arts gallery in Culver City. If Tanaka’s YouTube films portend what visitors will encounter in the art space, it will involve a Candide-esque archetype shambling through this world with perseverance and pluck.
Titled “Maximum Pleasant” and touted as a conceptual art exhibit, the installation runs through May 2 and features Tanaka’s reality-teasing videos and his primitive drawings, as well as purposefully naive music he has created. A catchy aspect of the event is identified as “Ken Tanaka’s Garage Sale,” in which Tanaka’s work is mixed with typical garage sale castoffs. So the buyer of a box of old vinyl records might discover a hand-painted album cover harboring a fake cardboard LP, while the shopper who purchases a stack of cassette tapes could find one made of wood whittled by Tanaka. In addition to Tanaka, several artists who have been in his videos, such as Kozyndan and David Mack, will have their work on view.
The show spins off of Tanaka’s quirky and kicky videos. Though they are generally gentle in tone and temperament, an aggressive silliness often pokes through. Currently, there are more than 80 Tanaka-themed YouTube vids online bearing such titles as “Ken Tanaka Eats Kobe Beef,” “Ken Tanaka Goes to Comic-Con and Meets a Suicide Girl” and “Ken Tanaka Goes Back to School?” The passion and the following these byte-size movies are provoking has caught its subject off-guard.
Like the videos, Tanaka’s live show undoubtedly will raise questions of authenticity and truth. For while some see Tanaka as an overblown, cartoony caricature, others receive him as a provocative inquiry into the Japanese soul as refracted by American values. Whereas many find Tanaka endearingly coy, others dismiss him as merely manufactured joy, the creation/alter ego of Ury, a Sonoma native who lived in Japan for several years, appearing on TV there as a wacky foreigner who jabbered in the native tongue.
Indeed, Ury is an agile performer who does innocence better than Bambi. When Ury relocated to Los Angeles in 2001, he studied improv with the Groundlings comedy troupe and soon afterward started an acting career. He has appeared on TV series (NBC’s “Heroes” and “Life”) and on Sunday will be spotlighted in an episode of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” In addition to acting, Ury has adapted into English more than 100 Japanese manga graphic novels.
As to Ury’s relationship to Ken Tanaka, Ury willingly cites Tanaka as a long-lost twin but maintains this is where the DNA starts and stops.
“I have my own life and Ken has his own life,” Ury recently insisted over a cup of coffee at Royal/T, a cavernous cafe-art space in Culver City tricked out in of-the-moment Japanese pop artifacts. However, if this is true, why are the rumors rife that he and Tanaka are one?
“People love conspiracy theories,” answers Ury.
Though Ury is far less personally invested than Tanaka in searching for their birth parents, he fully supports his newfound brother’s efforts. By way of illustrating his deep and abiding affection for his reunited sibling, Ury mentions that he just lent Tanaka a pair of fancy black dress shoes.
Not long after David Ury leaves the Royal/T, claiming another engagement, in walks Ken Tanaka. And there’s no denying he and Ury look exactly alike -- as if they are the same person! But whereas Ury was wearing a cap and a T-shirt, Tanaka is hatless and outfitted in a red vintage bowling shirt with “Brad” embroidered in script on the front. And while Ury was blunt and direct, Tanaka is reflective and considered.
“Yes, it is a surprise to me that so many people take an interest in my life,” Tanaka confides, his singsong English rising in wonder. He goes on to say he has made numerous YouTube friends since posting his first video but wants it understood there’s nothing “romantic.” Well, at least not yet.
While the debate over Tanaka’s existence has become the thing, in large measure this is-he-or-isn’t-he contretemps misses the heart of the matter. A crucial consideration is not Tanaka’s being or non-being, but rather how a trans-cultural exploration is being conveyed. The idea animating the Tanaka saga is the search for mom and pop, a character finding himself in translation. Real or surreal, Tanaka is snaring the attention of netizens and bloggers with his evocation of a foreigner’s examination of himself driven by the pursuit of his biological parents.
Is Ken really David? Is David really Ken? That’s for you to decide. What can be said definitely is that Ken Tanaka is entertaining viewers worldwide, coming across as a wayward ward committed to digging up his Western roots and disinterring a buried past. Now and again Tanaka blurts out Japanese phrases and terms, underscoring these verbal eruptions with mannerisms and gestures bringing to mind the cliche of a Japanese tourist on holiday. Yet unlike another YouTube phenom -- angst-for-the-memories lonelygirl15 -- Tanaka generally appears happy-go-lucky, his plucky persona pinged and dinged by privation but never defeated by it. Tanaka does not so such seize our attention as he sidles up to it.
During our conversation at the Royal/T, Tanaka is always solicitous and respectful. Indeed, Tanaka’s overall philosophy is best reflected when the conversation turns to President Obama and what he believes is the key task of the new president. “He has the responsibility,” declares Tanaka, “to make the world happy.” Tanaka sadly characterizes this is as an impossible goal since there will always be those who are most happy when they are most unhappy. Tanaka is asked if those who doubt his existence fall into the unhappy camp.
He slowly shakes his head and offers that they probably just “want to get noticed.”
And what would Tanaka tell his doubters if he met them face to face?
“I would tell them,” he pauses, smiling and brightly proclaiming his signature line, “Ken Tanaka loves you.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.