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Obituary: Sintaro Katsu

Sintaro Katsu was an outrageously individualistic actor who became a living legend playing a blind master swordsman, Zatoichi. "Katsu-shin", as he was affectionately known, was adored by millions, not only in Japan but all over South East Asia, where his dazzlingly original sword-fight sequences influenced kung fu epics of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

He was the second son of a master of nagauta, "long song" accompanied by shamisen, often used as dance accompaniment in kabuki. He began by teaching nagauta and aged 17 performed it in kabuki. When with his father and older brother he joined the Azuma Kabuki tour of America, the shamisen players were relegated to steerage, while the actors all had first class cabins. That example of social discrimination rankled and made Shintaro determined to be an actor, too.

As soon as he returned to Japan, he joined the Daiei Movie Company, beginning with a small part in the 1954 Hana no Byakkotai ("White Tiger Brigade"). He had to wait until 1960 to take his first starring role in Shiranui Kengyo, the story of Shiranui, a blind court musician, and a villainous character with redeeming qualities, a new type of tough hero. His future wife, Tamao Nakamura, daughter of the celebrated kabuki star Ganjuro Nakamura, appeared with him. In 1961 he cashed in on this burly, gruff image as Asakichi in Tokuzo Tanaka's Akumyo ("The Rogue").

Against stiff opposition from Ganjuro, he married Tamao in 1962, and against all expectations the marriage endured, surviving many vicissitudes through the wifely wisdom of Tamao, who continued her acting career. They were to appear together in a stage play in the year before Katsu's death.

Katsu-shin's most glorious period began in 1962 with the first Zatoichi movie, Zatoichi Monogarari ("The Story of Blind Zatoichi"), directed by Kenji Misumi. This larger-than-life character was based on just a few lines from an essay by Kan Shimozawa, a sketch of an itinerant blind masseur who was also a gambler and a brilliant swordsman - a lovable creature despite his evil propensities. Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962) had utterly transformed the insipidly and mechanically performed cinematic sword fights, giving the jidai-geki (period) genre a new life with sequences of enthralling realism. Zatoichi movies followed that trend, and were highly successful, as was the theme song, sung by Katsu- shin.

In 1965, Katsu appeared in Yasuzo Masumura's Heitai Yakuza ("Gangster Soldier"), which extended his range considerably. Two years later, he founded his own Katsu Productions, and became a director with Kaoyaku ("The Big Boss") in 1971. In 1972, he directed his brother Tomisaburo Wakayama in Kozure Ookami ("Wolf Man and Baby"), the first in a brutally realistic sword-fight series later taken over by Kenju Misumi. (When the second episode, Babycart Massacre, was recently shown in the wonderful three-month-long Festival of Japanese Film in Paris, children under 12 were not admitted.)

Zatoichi became a television series made by Katsu's production company. But the Japanese movie industry was already on the decline, and Katsu began to encounter all kinds of problems, both financial and personal. He was arrested in 1978 for possession of opium. The attitude of the Japanese public and authorities towards drug addicts is very severe, but Katsu won people's sympathy by his touching innocence. He had naively believed he was doing no wrong by just carrying opium. His ingenuous nature had given him the public image of a sort of holy fool.

Next year, Kurosawa chose him for the leading role in his great historical epic Kagemusha. But the director was furious when Katsu-shin started shooting his own scenes, and sacked him, saying: "There is no need for two directors on this movie." The part was given to Tatsuya Nakadai.

In 1987 Katsu-shin was involved in another scandal when he was a guest at a big yakuza celebration. Then in 1988, after a long hiatus, he was directing what was to be the last Zatoichi film, and in the sword-fights real swords were used, because imitation weapons did not make an authentic sound. His son struck an opponent's jugular vein, and the actor died.

Then Katsu in 1990 was arrested at the airport in Hawaii for bringing marijuana and cocaine from Japan for purely personal use. Again his bewilderment was disarming. He had been very amateurishly transporting his stash in his underpants, easily detected by sniffer dogs, and when charged he made the typical reply: "I shall never wear underpants again!"

He, too, was on the decline, but he never lost his enthusiasm for acting and singing, and last year appeared on stage with his wife in Meoto Zenzai ("A Well-Matched Couple"). He refused to be operated for the cancer that had attacked his hypopharynx, saying: "If I can't produce my voice, my production company will lose its best asset. An actor's voice is his whole life."

He was a great artist, a great individual, and, alas, the last of the old jidai-geki sword-fight heroes.

Toshio Okumura (Shintaro Katsu), actor: born Tokyo 29 November 1931; married 1962 Tamao Nakamura (one son, one daughter); died Kashiwa, Japan 21 June 1997.