Curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström

A prolific director of Japanese period films (jidai-geki), Kenji Misumi (1921-75) was an auteur in the “Cahiers” sense: a genre filmmaker who stamped his own style and personality on commercial material. His stylistic brilliance, coupled with what some critics considered a feminine sensibility, earned him the nickname ‘Little Mizoguchi’. An unidentified journalist quoted by Misumi’s assistant director Mitsuaki Tsuji saluted him as an “unconscious auteur”, while Hiroaki Yoshida’s recent Japanese-language book on the director bears the subtitle “Secret Innovation”, highlighting his quiet subversion of genre conventions.
Misumi entered cinema with the support of Kan Kikuchi (1888-1948), an author and playwright whose work spawned numerous film adaptations and who served as wartime president of Daiei. His recommendation won Misumi an apprenticeship at Nikkatsu. With the outbreak of war, however, he was conscripted, ending up a Soviet prisoner in Siberia. He did not return to Japan until 1948. With Nikkatsu’s activities then limited to distribution, Misumi entered Daiei, serving as assistant director to Kozaburo Yoshimura (1911-2000), Daisuke Ito (1898-1981, master of silent-era period films), and Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982) on Jigokumon (Gate of Hell, 1953). The flamboyant colour imagery and psychological undercurrents of that film (a Kikuchi adaptation) herald aspects of Misumi’s own approach.
With Kinugasa’s encouragement, Misumi helmed his first film in 1954, and was based exclusively at Daiei until 1971, where he specialised in chanbara (the action-packed variety of period film). A reliable studio artisan, he could be trusted by Daiei with Japan’s first 70mm production, Shaka (Buddha), as well as episodes in long-running, money-spinning film series such as Zatoichi and Kyoshiro Nemuri (Sleepy Eyes of Death). But in his more personal films – unusual chanbara such as Kiru (Destiny’s Son, 1962) and Kenki (Sword Devil, 1965) – he imbued generic material with remarkable psychological undercurrents and imaginative widescreen compositions. He also crafted convincing films about modern martial arts and romantic love. His eye for striking imagery was complemented by sensitive direction of actors, most notably his regular star Raizo Ichikawa (1931-69).
In 1971, Daiei went bankrupt. In the wake of this, ironically, Misumi made some of his most internationally famous films in the flamboyantly violent Kozure Okami (Lone Wolf and Cub) series, based on a famous manga and produced by his former star Shintaro Katsu. His last feature film, Okami yo rakujitsu o kire (The Last Samurai, 1974), was made for Shochiku. Latterly he also directed for television, but he died suddenly in 1975, aged only 54. The films presented here are only part of an admirable legacy.

Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström