Kenji Misumi

Director Kenji Misumi
Photo © Arne Svensson, Screen Series: Japan

Kenji Misumi (三隅研次 Misumi Kenji, Kyoto, March 2, 1921 - September 24, 1975)[1] was a Japanese director of period dramas for Daiei studio. He is best known as the originator of the jidai-geki film series, Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub, and as the director of three of the Sleepy Eyes of Death films and the second Daimajin film. Best known in the West for Shogun Assassin, re-edited from the Lone Wolf and Cub films, his output exhibits more concern with humanism and visual impressionism than is evident in that film. Known as a chambara film director, Misumi remained loyal to this genre in spite of opportunities to move into A-list films. Despite inclinations towards an auteur-like control of his films throughout his career, he was able to script only his final film, The Last Samurai (1974), which has been called a summation of his work.


Kenji Misumi was born in Kyoto on March 2, 1921.[1] He was raised in a predominantly female environment, a background which showed influence in his film career as a sympathetic treatment of female characters.[2] As a child, he was fond of the chambara film genre,[3] and after graduation from Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, he began working at Nikkatsu in 1941.[4] Misumi's war experience ended as a prisoner of war of the Russians.[3] After return to Japan, he began work at Daiei's Kyoto studio in the early 1950s.[4]

At Daiei, he started out as an Assistant Director, working with directors Kōzaburō Yoshimura and Teinosuke Kinugasa.[5] He was Kinugasa's AD on the internationally award-winning Gate of Hell (1953),[5] and Kinugasa is considered Misumi's mentor.[2][3] Like Kinugasa, Misumi tended towards an impressionistic and abstract use of montage in his style.[2] Misumi specialized in the jidai-geki-- historical drama-- genre, a film genre closely associated with his native Kyoto.[4] His films are noted for their often extreme and stylized violence, and collaborators report that Misumi continuously worked to improve his visual style, if not always successfully.[2] His attention to visual story-telling made his work slower than Daiei producer Masaichi Nagata wished, and, earlier in his career, Nagata sometimes assigned a faster director, such as Tokuzō Tanaka, to help Misumi finish his projects.[2]

Misumi made his directorial debut with Tange Sazen: The Kokezaru Pot (1954).[6] Along with directors Tokuzō Tanaka and Kazuo Ikehiro he was known as one of "the Daiei trio", the studio's backbone during its most productive era.[6] Chambara superstar Raizō Ichikawa starred in many of Misumi's films, including his two Satan's Sword films, based on the same story as Kihachi Okamoto's better-known Sword of Doom.[3]

Noting the success of historical blockbusters, such as the U.S. The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments as well as domestic "blockbusters" like The Three Treasures from Tōhō, Daiei assigned Misumi to direct their own entry in that genre, Buddha (1961).[7][8] A financial risk for the studio, the 70mm religious-historical epic turned out to be a box-office success. Based on this film, Misumi was offered the chance to move out of the jidai-geki genre into the studio's A-list films. Misumi, however, chose to continue working the chambara films.[8] The following year, Misumi directed Zatoichi: The Tale of Zatoichi, the first film in the long-running and immensely popular Zatoichi series. Misumi would direct five more entries in this series, numbers 8, 12, 17, 19 and 21.[5] With the success of Zatoichi and Buddha Misumi was given more autonomy in his work.[2]

Kaneto Shindō's script for Destiny's Son (1962) was the first to inspire Misumi's abstract visual style.[2] Misumi's set decorator, Akira Naitō remarked, "The script of Destiny's Son was quite abstract, very poetical, and we tried as much as we could to find images to fit the words."[2] Writing for the website, Robin Gatto notes that Destiny's Son is one of the earliest jidai-geki to add a Freudian element to the depiction of samurai life.[2] Stressing Misumi's humanistic tendencies, his biograper Kazuma Nozawa points out that Misumi's films in the Zatoichi series were those which showed the lead character at his least heroic, emphasizing his "existential melancholy".[2] Misumi also directed three films in the Raizō Ichikawa-starring Sleepy Eyes of Death series,[3] as well as the historical giant-monster film, Daimajin 2: Wrath of Daimajin, the second in the trilogy.

Misumi's visual style as well as his sympathetic treatment of female characters earned him the nickname "Little Mizoguchi", in reference to master director Kenji Mizoguchi.[2] This feminine side to Misumi led him to direct Namidagawa (1967), starring Shiho Fujimura.[2] Misumi's work on the 1971 television drama Tenno no Seiki ("The Century of the Emperor") won him the 11th Galaxy Award.[6]

It is rumored that actor Tomisaburō Wakayama was leery of Misumi because of his feminine streak, however the two collaborated successfully on the Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972-1973).[2] Highly popular in the West, due to the Anglicized re-edited film Shogun Assassin, Misumi's biographer Kazuma Nozawa believes that this violent manga-based series has given the false impression that Misumi was merely a director of gory chambara films.[2]

Misumi's final film, The Last Samurai (1974), was the only one for which he was able to satisfy his auteur-aspirations by both scripting and directing.[2] The film was not successful at the time of its release, possibly partly due to Misumi's differences with the Shōchiku crew with which he collaborated.[2] At, Tom Mes writes, "With The Last Samurai, Kenji Misumi does something that few artists ever have the chance to do: deliver his final and definitive statement, reaching a conclusion that brings his entire body of work to a close. A genuinely great film."[9]

Misumi died of liver cancer on September 24, 1975.[6] He is buried in Kyoto's Reigenji Temple.[6] In 1997 Misumi was the subject of a 350-page biography by journalist Kazuma Nozawa.[2] One of Misumi's collaborators later commented of the director, "...watching Misumi's sword movies was like plunging into a well of sadness and melancholy which never left you untouched."[2]


Note: All films produced and released by Daiei unless another studio is noted in brackets at end of entry



  1. 1.0 1.1 Birth: "三隅研次" (in Japanese). Kinema Jumpo. Retrieved 2011-05-19; Death: Kenji Misumi at the Internet Movie Database
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 Gatto, Robin. (2005-10-24) "Remembering Kenji Misumi" at
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Mes, Tom (2001) "Kenji Misumi special: Satan's Sword " at
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Svensson, Arne. Japan (Screen Series), 1611. New York: A.S. Barnes. pp. 60-61 ISBN 0-461-07654-7
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 三隅研次 at the Japanese Movie Database
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 "Kenji Misumi(1921-1975)" at
  7. Richie, Donald (2001). A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History. Tokyo: Kodansha International. p. 178. ISBN 4-7700-2682-X.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Mes. "Buddha"
  9. Mes. "The Last Samurai"
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