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Kenji Misumi’s Sword Trilogy

March 27, 2024 – April 02, 2024

The Museum of Modern Art

Kenji Misumi’s so-called Sword Trilogy is a revelation. Made in rapid succession between 1962 and 1965—and recently restored in 4K by the Kadokawa Corportation—Kiru (1962), Ken (1964), and Kenki (1965) brought a thrilling vitality to a familiar Japanese genre, and helped launch the career of Raizo Ichikawa, Japan’s answer to James Dean, a tough, soulful actor who, like his American counterpart, died tragically young. Misumi, a prolific filmmaker who brought an idiosyncratic style to popular Japanese genres like the chanbara (sword fighting film) and jidai-geki (period piece), was a former Soviet prisoner of war in Siberia and an assistant to Teinosuke Kinugasa on Gate of Hell (1953) who later became internationally famous for his movie adaptations of the wildly violent and successful Lone Wolf and Cub manga.

In Kiru, the tale of a master samurai who discovers his parents’ violent past, we find Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo laced with a darkling Oedipal eroticism. The film is notable for a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo (KuronekoOnibaba) and claustrophobic cinematography by Shôzô Honda (who excelled at chanbara). Ken is an adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s sadomasochistic short story of the same name, shot in stunningly precise widescreen black and white. A contemporary drama infused with ancient samurai traditions of martial discipline and spiritual self-abnegation, the film is set in a kendo dojo (martial arts school) where Raizo Ichikawa and a fellow apprentice swordsman engage in a vicious contest of wills. And while Kenki, Misumi’s film about a “sword devil,” was a box office disappointment, it nonetheless furthers a tradition of strong but silent avengers that hearkens back to Gary Cooper and anticipates Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Forest Whittaker’s Ghost Dog. Shot in almost unreal color, the film centers on Raizo Ichikawa as a shy, sensitive cultivator of flowers who restores peace in shockingly violent ways. All films are courtesy of Kadokawa Corporation and Janus Films.

 

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art. Special thanks to Miki Zeze.

 

Film at MoMA is made possible by CHANEL.

Additional support is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by Debra and Leon D. Black, with major contributions from the Triad Foundation, Inc., The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), The Young Patrons Council of The Museum of Modern Art, and by Karen and Gary Winnick.

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Ken (The Sword). 1964. Japan. Directed by Kenji Misumi. Screenplay by Kazuo Funahashi, based on a short story by Yukio Mishima. With Raizo Ichikawa, Yukiko Fuji, Yusuke Kawazu. In Japanese; English subtitles. 95 min.

Kiru (The Sword Cut, Destiny’s Son). 1962. Japan. Directed by Kenji Misumi. Courtesy Kadokawa Corporation

Kenki (The Sword Devil). 1965. Japan. Directed by Kenji Misumi. Courtesy Kadokawa Corporation