The first stop on the US tour was Los Angeles. Katsumaru was surprised by the enthusiastic reception he and his family received. Together with the arrival of Seven Samurai and Musashi Miyamoto that year, Japanese culture was definitely a hip ticket. While Katsu talks at length about the great experiences he had on tour in his autobiography, no articles appeared in the Japanese press about the tour; only a handful of small articles in American newspapers mentioned it.
While in Los Angeles, Katsumaru took the opportunity to visit 20th Century Fox studios. A guide showed him around the lot, and paused to point out an elegantly disheveled young actor in t-shirt and jeans. “That’s James Dean,” he said, “one of the most promising young rising stars in the industry.” Katsu later recalled Dean as having “not even combed his hair. He looked like he just woke up, just wearing jeans, a wrinkled shirt, and some slippers, I thought: that’s a movie star?!”
Nevertheless, young Katsumaru was struck by Dean’s aura of star power, as well as his decidedly rebellious persona. This was no preening matinee idol. Here was a dynamic young actor whose unique style and passionate performance would launch him to superstardom the following year in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Gazing at James Dean on the Fox lot that sunny winter day in LA, something changed in Katsumaru. With just a glimpse of Dean, the 22-year-old shamisen player from Tokyo was completely inspired. In the coming years he would channel this inspiration, developing his own rebellious persona in films like The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi monogatari), Bad Reputation (Akumyo) and Yakuza Soldier (Heitai Yakuza). Each of these films would spawn numerous sequels, placing them among the most beloved films series in Japanese film history.
According to Katsu’s autobiography, he returned to Japan in October of 1954. However his first film for Daiei Studios, Hana no byakko tai, was released that same month, so it’s more than likely that, as other sources have it, Katsumaru returned in June.
During this period, the Japanese film industry was dominated by six studios, namely Toho, Shin-Toho, Toei, Nikkatsu, Shochiku and Daiei. It was not uncommon for movie studios to own their own theater chains, and during the mid-50s Toei theaters began the practice of double feature releases. Soon other studios followed suit, releasing two movies at a time, a trend that created a demand for new stars. Into the void stepped the newly-dubbed Shintaro Katsu (named by Eiichi Tanaka, a pupil of Katsu’s father).
Joining young Mr. Katsu at Daiei were two more new faces, Raizo Ichikawa (a Kabuki performer from the Kansai region) and Takeshi Hanayuagi (an actor from the Shin-pa school, a modern theater at odds with the stylized traditions of Kabuki). Japanese newspapers at the time featured articles about the threesome, notable for their varied backgrounds in Nagauta, Kansai Kabuki and Shin-pa respectively.
Raizo Ichikawa, or simply Raizo (as he came to be known by legions of adoring fans), was not officially contracted with Daiei at first, but was nevertheless treated as an up-and-coming superstar, due to his dazzling good looks and reputation in Kansai Kabuki. Katsu, on the other hand, was still a raw youth and treated as such. In his autobiography, Katsu talks about the location shooting of Hana no byakko tai: “Raizo had a private car for himself, and I had to take the bus.” During filming, Katsu apparently refused to play a dead man in one scene and had a little argument with the director (a trend that would lead to his eventual clash with Akira Kurosawa many years later). Raizo was contracted for 300,000 yen per film, while Katsu was contracted for only 30,000 yen. At that time, Daiei had no intention of making Katsu a star ...
To be continued ...