The Cinema of Kenji Misumi: a glossary
This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato will celebrate the genius and talent of Kenji Misumi (1921-1975), a prolific filmmaker specialised in historical films to whom the Kenji Misumi: an instinctive author section is dedicated. What is meant by the term historical film, what is the difference between jidai-geki and chanbara, and when exactly is the Edo period? Here is a quick glossary that will guide even the less experienced to understand Misumi’s works.
Bunraku (文楽): traditional Japanese puppet theatre, whose performances are accompanied by the music of the shamisen, a three-stringed lute. The name derives from the puppeteer Uemura Bunrakuken (1751-1811), who in the first decade of the nineteenth century undertook an important project in Osaka to revive the puppet theatre, opening the first theatre called Bunraku-za. Several of Kenji Misumi’s films, having literary origins or inspired by news events, tell stories that had previously been adapted for bunraku.
Bushido (武士道): literally translates as the “way of the warrior”. A code of conduct adopted by the samurai based on seven fundamental concepts: Gi (Honesty and Justice), Yu (Heroic Courage), Jin (Compassion), Rei (Gentle Courtesy), Makoto (Complete Sincerity), Meiyo (Honour), Chugi (Duty and Loyalty). Of ancient origins (the first forms of chivalric honour codes date back to the 10th century AD), bushido is still applied today in contemporary Japan in the most diverse of fields: from business to communication, to interpersonal life, to modern martial arts.
Chanbara (チャンバラ): sometimes transliterated chambara, it is literally sword fighting but by extension, it is the term used to refer to samurai films, a genre in which Kenji Misumi was a true master. The European equivalent would be swashbuckling films.
Edo period (江戸時代, Edo-Jidai): a period in Japan’s history that covers from 1603 to 1868 and corresponds to the years in which the Tokugawa family held political and military power in the country (also known as the Tokugawa period). The name derives from that of the designated capital, Edo, known today as Tokyo. Most of the chanbaras directed by Musumi are set in the Edo period.
Gendai-geki (現代劇): as the term quite literally suggests (“gendai” = present; “geki” = film), gendai-geki are films created within a contemporary and modern setting. During Il Cinema Ritrovato there will be the opportunity to watch a rare example of gendai-geki shot by Musumi, Ken, set in a kendo school in modern Japan.
Jidai-geki (時代劇): as opposed to gendai-geki, jidai-geki are dramas with a historical setting. A broad term that includes the subgenre of chanbara.
Kabuki (歌舞伎): a typical theatrical form born in Japan at the beginning of the seventeenth century that combines acting, song, and dance. The characteristic of this form of representation is the breaking through of the fourth wall, with frequent dialogues between actors and the audience. Many of the narrative styles of kabuki theatre have influenced other forms of storytelling around the country, from comics to animation to cinema. Similar to bunraku, several of Misumi’s films tell stories previously adapted for the Kabuki theatre.
Kendo (剣道): literally translates as “the way of the sword“; a form of fencing derived from the evolution of fighting techniques with the katana. The combat utilises bamboo swords (shinai) and the body is protected with armour (bogu). Great emphasis is placed on conduct and discipline. It is no coincidence that Misumi’s film set in a kendo school shown during Cinema Ritrovato this year, Ken, is based on a story by the famous Yukio Mishima (1925-70), who practiced kendo, and advocated for the ethical code of the samurai and committed suicide by practicing seppuku after a failed coup attempt.
Ronin (浪人): the masterless samurai, literally “wave man”, understood as a “man adrift”, “man who wanders”. This term indicates the samurai who have lost their master either due to death or because they have lost trust in them. They are dishonoured warriors, forced to wander aimlessly. Among the most famous ronin in the world of cinema is Kanbei Shimada, the leader of the Seven Samurai of Kurosawa. Kenji Misumi brought another famous ronin to the cinema, Ogami Itto, the protagonist of the Lone Wolf and Cub film saga, based on the manga by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima.
Samurai (侍): belonging to the warrior caste in medieval Japan, the samurai works for the Shogun or a Daimyo and follows the bushido (for this reason the samurai is sometimes referred to by the simple term bushi, warrior). The importance of the samurai figure declined during the Edo period until it disappeared completely during the Meiji renewal in the nineteenth century.
Seppuku (切腹): the Japanese suicide ritual for those who follow bushido must undergo when they lose their honour or to avoid a dishonourable death. The stomach is pierced with a short sword (the literal translation of the term is not surprisingly “stomach slash“) after having assumed the seiza position, that is, kneeling with toes pointing backward. The practice involved a second person, the kaishakunin, completing the ritual by cutting off the person’s head.
Shogun (将軍): a military and political leader of Japan between 1192 and 1868. A hereditary title: despite the fact that the shogun had to be appointed by the emperor, the appointment was a mere formality. The shogun’s powers were those of a head of government, similar to that of chancellors in European monarchies. The term literally means “commander of the army” and is the abbreviation of sei-i taishōgun (lit. “great general of the army who subdues the barbarians”).
The 36th edition ofIl Cinema Ritrovato will take place in Bologna
from june 25th to july 3rd 2022. Purchase your pass now!