Best known for portraying Zatoichi in 26 feature films, we look at other highlights from the career of Shintaro Katsu…
Without a doubt, Shintaro Katsu will always be remembered for his portrayal of legendary blind gambler Zatoichi in 26 feature films and a television show with no less than a hundred episodes. Katsu’s Zatoichi has become a part of pop culture, his adventures were remade in China and America among other countries and the character has been played by at least four different actors since Katsu’s initial take on the role.
However, it should be noted that Katsu’s work was in no way limited to Zatoichi. Working for a well-established motion picture company, Daiei, where he starred in new feature films on a monthly basis for the bulk of his career, Katsu churned out up to ten program features every year, only two or three of whom were new Zatoichi adventures.
For example, while starring as Zatoichi, Katsu simultaneously helmed two other film series at Daiei, the comedic anti-war series Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai yakuza, 1965 – 1972, 9 films) and the heroic yakuza film series Akumyo (1961 – 1971, 16 films). Indeed, during the height of his popularity Katsu was always in demand, always about to act in yet another feature film.
When Daiei went bankrupt in 1971, Katsu had already founded his own production company, Katsu Productions, and enjoyed almost complete artistic freedom. With a keen eye for talent, Katsu cherry picked the most talented of Daiei’s studio artisans and let them produce films for his own production company – most often, of course, playing the title role himself.
This list tries to track down the greatest films in which Shintaro Katsu starred over the course of his impressive career – excluding Zatoichi. After all, Katsu himself remains a giant of Japanese cinema who collaborated with such big names as Yasuzo Masumura, Hiroshi Teshigahara or Kenji Misumi to name but a few. Thus, he shouldn’t be restricted to being just the actor of Zatoichi – regardless of how significant this signature role has remained over the decades.
Samurai Vendetta (Hakuoki, 1959)
Written by legendary jidaigeki director Daisuke Ito, “Samurai Vendetta” incorporates elements from history, like the famous raid of the 47 ronin, into a complex, multi-layered narrative full of revenge, love and honor. In his first major starring role, Shintaro Katsu plays real-life ronin Yasubei Nakayama, a man caught between his duty towards supporting the revenge of his friend, Tange Tenzen, and his love for the latter’s wife.
In other words, a classic giri-ninjo conflict, the conflict between duty and personal emotions granting Katsu’s character a powerful dilemma. For the first time, Katsu was made the second lead alongside Daiei star Raizo Ichikawa playing Tange Tenzen. Katsu’s honorful and composed presence, much different from that of Zatoichi, ensured his breakthrough as a tateyaku, the heroic male lead of Daiei’s trademark chanbara eiga (“swordfight films”).
The Blind Menace (Shiranui Kengyo, 1960)
While Shintaro Katsu has become famous for playing Zatoichi, it was the role of another blind man which established him as a notable character actor. In contrast to Zatoichi, however, this blind man is a mean-spirited and vile human being not shying away from murder to further his ambitions to become the new head priest of the blind community. “The Blind Menace” follows the rise and fall of this repulsive character from his humble origins to his gruesome end.
Here, Katsu’s main character is cunning, his sinister presence frighteningly demonic. Supported by the suspenseful and moody direction of Kazuo Mori, a talented genre artisan who also directed Samurai Vendetta, Katsu truly shines in what is without a doubt his most diabolical role. While the success of the film made Katsu famous, it was another role the following year that marked Katsu’s final breakthrough as one of the most successful actors of the 1960s in Japan.
While Daiei is mainly known for its well-made chanbara eiga, the production company also commissioned several yakuza film series to cash-in on the success of Toei’s so-called ninkyo eiga (“chivalry films”) about the exploits of honorable yakuza during the early 20th century. The most successful of these, Akumyo, starred Katsu as the honorable, albeit hard-hitting yakuza Asakichi.
Despite of being relatively unknown in the West, the series actually became Katsu’s second most successful franchise after Zatoichi. Until 1974, no less than 16 films were produced, many of whom shot by masterful cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and directed by such Daiei luminaries as Tokuzo Tanaka and Kazuo Mori. The series’ success finally allowed Katsu to rise in status to become a new giant of Japanese cinema.
Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai yakuza, 1965)
When the first Hoodlum Soldier film was released, Katsu was at the height of his fame releasing new Zatoichi features every year. In Hoodlum Soldier he plays a rebellious ex-yakuza who gets drafted into the army. Violent and stubborn, he refuses to adapt to the strict hierarchical order of the military and soon befriends a pacifist intellectual, corporal Arita. Together, the duo violently confront the cruel military regime.
Being at the same time action-packed entertainment as well as a brutal and subversive attack on Japan’s militarist past, it’s no wonder that Hoodlum Soldier was successful with the audience from the start. Directed by Daiei enfant terrible Yasuzo Masumura, the first film was followed by 8 entries in the series until 1972. Regime-critical, both hilarious and tragic, this first entry is a masterpiece supported by a brillant Katsu at his most rough and badass.
The Man Without A Map (Moetsukita chizu, 1968)
The Man Without a Map was the last collaboration between genius avangarde director Hiroshi Teshigahara, autor Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu and is generally considered the weakest of the bunch. However, their last collaboration marked also the beginning of a new successful partnership between Shintaro Katsu and Teshigahara, who later went on to direct the final two episodes of Katsu’s Zatoichi tv series.
Here, Katsu can be seen in his most subtle role as a private investigator who is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a salaryman. Soon, however, the film becomes an intriguing play on identity as the private eye’s personality begins to merge with that of the salaryman. Katsu’s most subdued role, he plays a nondescript man who doesn’t understand the mystery around him and in the end, seems to have lost any sense of his own identity.
Devil’s Temple (Oni no sumu yakata, 1969)
Mysterious, beautiful and deeply haunting, Devil’s Temple was directed by Kenji Misumi, the most talented of Daiei’s outstanding chanbara directors. It tells the story of a mighty warrior, played by Katsu, who lives with his two wifes, the faithful Kaeda and the demonic Aizen, in an abondoned hut in the midst of a forrest. When a priest arrives, Kaeda tries to seduce the latter to prove his belief in the purity of the soul wrong.
As in many of his films, Katsu plays a fierce fighter, however, here he falls prey to the beauty of a poisonous seductress. What follows is an engrossing battle of wits, in which the legitimacy of Buddhism itself is at stake. Even if you don’t share the religious sentiments, the film’s philosophical nature will keep you captivated. The last scene, when Katsu finally leaves the hood to preach the word of Buddha, belongs to the most unforgettable sequences in Japanese cinema.
Released the same year as Hideo Gosha’s better-known jidaigeki Goyokin, Hitokiri could be called the definitive masterpiece of Gosha. Penned by acclaimed screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, the film tells the complex story of real-life assassin Okada Izo who, following the orders of Tosa-loyalist Takechi Hanpeita, eliminates pro-shogunate samurai during the final years of the shogunate, commonly known as Bakumatsu period (1853 – 1867).
However, at its heart, Hitokiri is really a story about the quest for personal freedom. At first, Katsu’s Okada Izo is just a tumb killer, but slowly doubts about his mission begin to arise. He tries to free himself from the constraints of his cruel master and pays a hefty prize. In his final moments, however, he seems at ease with his decision knowing that for the first time he was fully in charge of his own life.
Ode to a Yakuza (Yakuza zessho, 1970)
Probably the least-known film in this list, Yasuzo Masumura’s Ode to a Yakuza is a testament to the kind of sleazy exploitation Katsu Productions churned out in the 1970s. In what must be described as Scarface on acid (if only for the lack of cocaine in the film), Katsu plays a violent yakuza who beats up cops and gangsters alike and even harbours romantic feelings for his own sister.
Supported by a funky electronic soundtrack, slight overacting and bloody action, this film could have only been made in the 1970s. In the end, however, it also emerges as a bizarre character study of a man who takes on the world. Strangely, even though his character is beyond despicable, Katsu’s charme still makes one root for this monster-of-a-man whose exploits are coated in blood, incest and alcohol.
Inn of Evil (Inochi bo ni furo, 1971)
Inn of Evil is said to be the least successful of Masaki Kobayashi’s extraordinary “injustice” trilogy consisting of Harakiri“(1962), Samurai Rebellion (1967) and this film. However, while arguably being not quite as refined and rather slow-burning, “Inn of Evil” still tells a powerful story filmed in beautful widescreen compositions and populated by colorful characters. One of them is Katsu’s character, a mysterious drunk, meakish and lonely.
In fact, his role bears very little resemblances to the heroic antics or even the fighting prowes of most of his most famous characters. It’s his performance which elicits a profoundly tragic note from the film as the viewer soon learns that he desperately tries to drown his horrible past in alcohol. In the end, like in all of Kobayashi’s better films, Katsu’s drunk may not find his happiness, but at least wins back a bit of his dignity.
Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (Goyokiba, 1972)
Based on a Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima manga, the same duo that also brought us “Lady Snowblood” (1972) and “Lone Wolf and Cub” (1972 – 1974, 6 films), Katsu production’s “Hanzo the Razor” series must be named among the most outright insane exploitation flicks of all-time. Katsu plays a masochistic cop in Edo japan, who fights crime with deadly violence and his giant genitals which he uses to rape (or rather please) women to make them confess their crimes.
Truly, Zatoichi couldn’t be further away from Katsu’s Hanzo whose morning routine consists of severly beating and burning his penis in order to toughen it for every possible “ordeal”. Nothing about “Hanzo The Razor” is political correct, that’s for sure, to their credit, however, the films, directed by masters like Kenji Misumi and Yasuzo Masumura, are also among the most beautiful-looking and refined exploitation films ever shot on film.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Katsu’s life became more and more embroiled in scandals (most of them concerning his notorious use of drugs), the actor himself grew considerably larger while his voice soon sounded husky and sick. His worn-out appearance at least gave his last performance in Japan as another sad drunk named Bull in “Ronin-gai” a shockingly authentic feeling.
It’s true that Katsu may have become a living reminder of the dangers of drug abuse in his final days, but his acting skills certainly hadn’t suffered. Under the direction of noted avantgardist Kazuo Kuroki, he once again delivers an impressive performance as the bouncer of a local tavern. After “Ronin-gai”, Katsu continued his excessive life style for seven more years. When he died in 1997, he had already become a legend.