From a novel by Renzaburo Shibata. Scen.: Seiji Hoshikawa. F.: Chikashi Makiura. M.: Kanji Suganuma. Scgf.: Shigenori Shimoishizaka. Mus.: Hajime Kaburagi. Int.: Raizo Ichikawa (Hanpei), Michiko Sugata (Osaki), Goro Mutsumi (Tomozo), Kentaro Kodo (Asuzo), Rokko Toura (Masanobu Unno), Ryutaro Gomi (monaco komuso), Asao Uchida (Yaichiro Daigo), Kei Sato (Kikuma Kanbe). Prod.: Mitsuru Tanabe, Shiro Kaga per Daiei – DCP. D.: 83’. Col.
Like Kiru, this remarkable film was based on a novel by Renzaburo Shibata (1917-1978), in this case adapted by prolific Daiei screenwriter Seiji Hoshikawa (1921-2008). Shibata was also responsible for the Kyoshiro Nemuri sequence of novels (serialised from 1956), which became one of Daiei’s long-running film series in the 1960s (known in English as Sleepy Eyes of Death), again starring Raizo Ichikawa; three instalments were directed by Misumi. Kenki itself was in fact envisaged, by its star, director and studio, as the opening instalment in a projected series; but its indifferent box-office performance left it as a standalone film. In retrospect, nevertheless, it can be seen to complete an unofficial ‘sword trilogy’ also comprising Kiru and Ken, which arguably forms the centrepiece of Misumi’s art.
The film’s tone and characterisations are unusual, even if its title might suggest formulaic chanbara action. The “Kinema Junpo” critic commented that the protagonist Hanpei (played by Ichikawa) “differed from the ‘great swordsman’ characters we have seen before now”; rather than being a “sword devil” as proclaimed by the title, he is “a gifted gardener by day … and a soft dreamy man”. This gentle persona makes the climactic violence all the more shocking. The critic also praised Misumi’s “elegantly refined” direction, although he wondered if the film might profitably have been more experimental. In fact, Misumi’s extraordinary, flamboyant style definitely has its arty elements; the opening scene in particular, with its deliberately artificial use of lighting, feels like it might belong in a New Wave film. Elsewhere, Misumi intersperses claustrophobic closeups with impressive landscape vistas, creating a sumptuous visual spectacle as well as a powerful drama. For Hiroaki Yoshida, the use of flowers, which may be taken to draw on Buddhist symbolism, suggests both life and death.
Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström