Bill Thompson SISWT
Sun Jan 24 18:17:33 EST 1999


A couple of weeks ago Aaron asked about films which had been
turned into tv series.  With the discussion touching on Katsu,
let me add the Zatoichi series to Aaron's list and toss in
a few remarks about Katsu.

In toto there were 26 Zatoichi episodes made for the cinemas.
During the '60's Zatoichi was probably the most popular series
at Japanese movie theaters, with eight episodes being produced
in 1964-65 alone.  The Heitai Yakuza (Hoodlum Soldier) series
also began in 1965.  Generally at least two more Zatoichi episodes
were made each year through 1973.  With declining film box
offices, Katsu took his series to television.  Over 100 episodes
followed, some made by top chambara directors like Misumi
Kenji and Mori Kazuo.  Several of the tv episodes are actually
quite good.
(High-brow question:  I believe I once read that even Teshigahara
directed tv episodes for this series.  Would anyone have
further information confirming or denying this?)

During the late '70's and '80's Katsu's career went into decline.
Then he was cast to star in Kagemusha.  However, he and Kurosawa
proved to be two overly forceful personalities.  Katsu
videotaped his efforts during Kurosawa's initial filming.
He was unsatisfied with his performance, then proceeded to
fight with the master director concerning the interpretation
of his role.  Exit Katsu.  Kagemusha would certainly have been
a different film, more spontaneous and
less staged, with Katsu as the lead.

After further decline, Katsu's career then appeared to
reverse itself.  In 1988 he starred in a new major league Shochiku
feature simply called "Zatoichi".  At that time he also signed
several new commercial endorsements.  Then came the
drug incident in Hawaii, after which he lost his endorsements
and support at the family-oriented Shochiku.  I believe
American rights to this "Zatoichi" were sold to a Chinese
company (Shaw Brothers?), but never received a New York
premiere and had limited play elsewhere in the US.
He never rebounded after this.

Katsu had talent for the right role, and his efforts are
greatly underappreciated today.  He starred in several outstanding
film series.  Heitai Yakuza (it was called Hoodlum Soldier
in its American release), set during World War II, centers
on the friendship between a street-smart yakuza and an
intellectual, both mismatches in the Japanese army which
drafted them.  They were sent together to the Russian front,
where their AWOL actions blend into the black humor of the
series.  I personally rank its initial episode, which was
directed by Masamura Yasuzo, among the finest Japanese anti-war
films ever made, just behind The Human Condition and the
initial Burmese Harp.

Bill Thompson

More information about the KineJapan mailing list