Long before pop culture phenomenon Zatoichi was born to Japanese cinema, the man who gave him life, Shintaro Katsu, made his first appearance on the world stage. The year was 1931, the date November 29. His father, Minoru Okuyama, named him Toshio (his older brother Masaru was born in 1929). Minoru was a player of shamisen (three string Japanese lute), specializing in a classical music style called Nagauta. You may be familiar with the Japanese classical theater, Kabuki; Nagauta music was developed alongside the Kabuki theatrical tradition.
The original form of Kabuki theater came to Kyoto in 1603, and by 1750 was an established, and very popular, entertainment among the merchant class in Edo (Tokyo). As both Kabuki and Nagauta developed, the performers and presenters formed family-oriented clans, claiming their own original styles and forms. Minoru Okuyama belonged to the Nagauta classical music family of artisans called Kineya (today they are called Kene-ie). Minoru became a senior accredited master at the age of 15 and received his performing name, Katsutoji Kineya.
Minoru’s family lived in Fukagawa district, one of the hearts of Edo arts, but they lost their house in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and had to move to Chiba (near Tokyo). Minoru’s wife, Yaeko, came from a family that operated a noted cuisine house in Chiba. She was a popular beauty in the neighborhood, and it wasn’t long before she caught Minoru’s fancy -- his house was across the street from her family’s restaurant. Soon love flowered and the two were wed. Minoru and Yaeko were enthusiastic about their children’s artistic education, taking young Toshio and Masaru to Kabuki performances, Bunkaku puppet plays and dancing shows. After awhile Minoru brought the family back to Fukagawa.
Toshio started elementary school in 1938. However, the boy continued to attend Kabuki performances; late nights meant he usually didn’t make it to school until noon. (In Katsu’s autobiography, he confesses that another reason for him being late to school was that he was always wetting his bed.) Young Toshio was a daddy’s boy, his father spending as much time with him as he could. Normally the father of a traditional performing family at this time didn’t come home everyday, so it was always a treat to spend time with dad.
Since Toshio had been exposed to Kabuki plays from the age of two, he’d developed a talent for imitating the various Kabuki stars of the day and performing for the other kids. He started his Shamisen training quite early, at age seven, formally apprenticing to his father. In 1944, Toshio entered junior high school, but only temporarily; a U.S bombing raid on Tokyo destroyed the family home. In September, the family moved to Nikko, just north of Tokyo. The family moved back to Tokyo in 1947. Some time after the family’s return to Tokyo, the house they’d bought caught fire and with the insurance money, they were able to build a new house behind the historic Meiji-za Theater. Also, Yaeko opened a new cuisine house called Okumura.
Once in his teens, Toshio became a full-fledged Kabuki performer playing Shamisen. He and older brother Masaru began performing regularly and soon were making a living as professional musicians. Toshio received the accredited name Katsumaru Kineya II, becoming an official “made man” for the Kineya family in 1951. (Some records like Japanese Who’s Who have his official accreditation date as 1948, at the age of 17, but his autobiography places it at 1951.)
This was also the time of an important relationship in the newly-dubbed Katsumaru’s life. He was involved in a very intimate relationship with a Geisha named Shimako. She was devoted to Katsumaru and, according to him, played a significant role in his Shamisen development. Due to the circumstances, Katsumaru being performer and Shimako a geisha in the same circuit, the family disapproved of their relationship and eventually dissolved it. (An entire chapter of Katsu’s autobiography is dedicated to Shimako.)
The lives of Kabuki performers in those days were usually quite busy, flashy and expensive. A 20 year old master performer like Katsumaru got around quite a bit, and in the most expensive districts in Tokyo. He spent many an evening out with actor Ken Utsui, one of his close friends; they loved the Tokyo nightlife and did quite a bit of drinking together.
In 1953, Tamao Hayashi, a daughter of famous Kansai Kabuki actor Ganjiro Nakamura, made her film debut at Shochiku studios. Before long she would become Mrs. Shintaro Katsu, and remain so for the rest of Katsu’s life. Also in 1953, a movie actor named Haruo Tanaka encouraged Katsumaru to pursue a movie carrier, taking him to the president of Daiei Studios in Kyoto. President Masaichi Nagata knew Katsumaru’s father well, and he arranged the camera test the same day. A month later, Katsumaru received a letter from the studio, offering him a contract as an actor. This was his ticket movie stardom.
To be continued ...