Kenji Misumi’s Sword Trilogy

Kenji Misumi’s Kiru (1962)

The reputation of Kenji Misumi as a superb craftsman is primarily rooted in his direction of the first films of some of the most popular series ever to come out of Japan. The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) launched what we’d think of today as a franchise—twenty-six films starring Shintaro Katsu as the blind swordsman, a television series that ran from 1974 to 1979, plus twenty-first-century reimaginings of Zatoichi’s adventures from the likes of Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike.

The Zatoichi films are “action pictures doubling as sentimental melodramas, with roughly equal quantities of murderous swordplay, conspiratorial intrigue, and tearful scenes of grief, longing, and redemption,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in 2013, “and to complete the package, they are sprinkled throughout with farcical interludes and joking repartee.”

The Lone Wolf and Cub series of six films about a wandering assassin who goes about his business while caring for his young son “contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment,” wrote Patrick Macias in 2016. “In lesser hands,” Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972), “could have been pure cheapo exploitation, but Misumi’s knowledge of period film craft forms a rock-solid foundation that allows his entries to be serious, comedic, erotic, lyrical, and philosophical—while still delivering the bloody goods.”

Also in 1972, Shintaro Katsu hired the man who’d introduced him as Zatoichi to direct the first film in a trilogy he was producing, Hanzo the Razor, which centers on a well-endowed enforcer of the law during the Edo period. Ripe for rediscovery are three films Misumi made in the early 1960s that the Museum of Modern Art will present from Wednesday through April 2 as Kenji Misumi’s Sword Trilogy.

All three films feature frequent collaborator Raizo Ichikawa, a kabuki actor as a teen and a genuine movie star who died too young. In 1969, cancer spread to his liver, taking him at the age of thirty-seven. By some gruesome coincidence, Misumi died of liver failure just a few years later, in 1975. He was only fifty-four, but he left behind more than seventy films.

Written by Kaneto Shindo (Kuroneko, Onibaba), Kiru (Destiny’s Son, 1962) is a journey through nineteenth-century Japan with a twice-orphaned samurai hired by a doomed clan lord. In 2005, Midnight Eye cofounding editor Tom Mes noted that Kiru is shot through “with stylistic highlights: the one-take dolly shot of Ichikawa's running battle with a battalion of swordsmen under an inky sky, the labyrinth of empty castle chambers through which he attempts to find his ambushed master, the scene in which the unarmed hero defends himself with a twig of cherry blossom, and especially the recurring flashback to his mother's execution at the hands of her own lover, in a barren landscape beside a single, ancient tree.”

In Kiru, “the hero is the bushido ideal of the valorous and disciplined retainer, who, despite all his prowess with the sword and his noble heart, is powerless to prevent the deaths of those around him,” wrote Mes. Adapted from a short story by Yukio Mishima, shot in high-contrast black and white, and presenting a series of stark widescreen compositions, Ken (The Sword, 1964) is the only Misumi film with a contemporary setting. Ichikawa plays a top-notch apprentice at a martial arts training camp challenged by a jealous upstart. “Mishima’s fascination with the extremes of masculine conduct is captured in Misumi’s sweat-soaked closeups and stylishly choreographed scenes of combat,” noted Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström when Ken screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2022.

Ichikawa plays a shy gardener who is mocked by his peers until he demonstrates his prowess in combat in Kenki (The Sword Devil, 1965). For Hayley Scanlon, Kenki is a “vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age, unable to outrun himself or his destiny.”

At Midnight Eye, Robin Gatto wrapped his 2005 overview of the life and work of Kenji Misumi “with a very revealing account from a person whose identity I will keep secret. This person—a close collaborator of Akira Kurosawa—once said to me that ‘as a young boy, watching Toei sword-movies was exciting; you left the theater wanting to seize a piece of wood and stage fake fights with your friends. But watching Misumi’s sword movies was like plunging into a well of sadness and melancholy which never left you untouched.’”

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