Wakayama Tomisaburo-born Okumura Masaru in Fukagawa on September 1, 1929-seemed destined for an actor's life. His family were notables in the traditional entertainment district: Wakayama's father was a renowned Kabuki performer and master of the traditional Japanese singing style, nagauta. So it seemed only natural for Tomisaburo and his little brother Katsu Shintaro to follow in the footsteps of their father.
At the tender age of 13, Wakayama began to build his martial skill by studying Judo. In fact, his attainment of yo-dan (4th degree black belt) nearly led to Tomisaburo abandoning the theatre altogether. This, after taking part (alongside his father and Katsu) in a grueling two-year tour as a member of the Azuma Kabuki troupe.
Frustrated with Kabuki society, the young martial artist gave up the family tradition upon his return to Japan. But life as a Judo sensei was not meant to be, as several movie studios pursued Tomisaburo offering him film roles. Wakayama resisted, and admitted to Fighting Stars correspondent Jerry Stout; “I didn’t like Kabuki society and I didn’t think I would like the world of motion pictures. I made impossible demands on Shin Toho, hoping they’d refuse me. Then, when they swallowed all my conditions, there was no other way but to go into the movies.”
Lucky for us, the old Shin Toho studios pretty much shrugged off the would-be Judo sensei’s demands. Wakayama signed a contract with the studio and began working in period films. To prepare for roles in Jidai-Geki (period) movies, Tomisaburo enrolled in more rigorious martial training. He immersed himself in Iaido, (the art of the naked blade and quick draw), Kendo, Bo-Jitsu (all of which can be seen in his turn as Ogami Itto), and Shorinji Kenpo.
For seven years he worked at Shin Toho, gaining enough experience to earn a contract at Toei Studios. Toei were the most successful producers of Jidai-Geki films during this time (the early 1960s).
Besides playing benign and wicked samurai, period priests and politicians, Wakayama also portrayed a variety of yakuza and gambling characters throughout his career. His film credits (anywhere from 250 to 500 roles depending on the source.) ran the gamut from comic to drama to action and suspense.
Unfortunately, an English list of all of his credits does not seem to exist, but William Connolly of Martial Arts Movie Associates provides a nice listing of many yakuza and some samurai films that starred or co-starred Wakayama from 1959 up to some projects post Kozure Okami in M.A.M.A. #26. 2 In addition, the internet movie data base has a small list of some of Wakayama’s more famous roles listed here (Note that on the IMDB page there are errors (including the date of Tomisaburo’s passing) and omissions in material posted. Connolly’s list is more accurate and varied for the fan who wants more than the usual fare).
Sadly, Wakayama passed away in a Kyoto hospital on April 2, 1992. Accute heart failure claimed the Lone Wolf at the age of 62.
As far as Wakayama’s martial prowess, here’s a passge from Billy Coyle from artsmagic.co.uk. who said this about Wakayama in the site’s February 2001 Samurai newsletter. “In my opinion Wakayama is the finest exponent of swordplay in samurai movies. It should be remembered that the stars in the films are actors first and swordsmen second (if at all) Wakayama was a classical singer before he entered the world of Lone Wolf...To prepare for this he began intensive study of Iaido, the art of drawing and cutting with the samurai sword. Although he plays down his achievement, he is looked upon by his peers as one of the finest exponents of movie swordplay. He also studied Shorinji Kenpo which is an art which is similar to Karate and Aikido combined.”
Jerry Stout, echoed almost identical praise for the actor’s martial know-how, but Stout also really nailed Wakayama’s acting abililties with this description of Tomisaburo as Shinkai (the womanizing Buddhist priest in the Gokuaku Bozu series). ‘In his characterization, the actor utilizes some of his technical trademarks- a facial scar, a voice that sounds like a disgruntled grizzly bear’s, flashes of an earthly sense of humor and an uncanny ability to dominiate a scene when doing almost absolutely nothing.’