Kei Kumai, director, 76

Helmer made feature debut with 'Long Death'

Director Kei Kumai died May 18 in Tokyo of a brain hemorrhage. He was 76.

Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1930, Kumai entered the Nikkatsu studio in 1954 and made his feature debut in 1964 with “The Long Death” (Teigin Jiken: Shikeishu), a drama based on a 1948 mass murder case in which twelve employees of a Tokyo bank were fatally poisoned. Kumai investigated the case thoroughly and came to the conclusion that the man convicted of the crime, Sadamichi Hirasawa, was innocent.

Although Hirasawa was never freed — he died in prison in 1987 at the age of 98 — for the rest of his career Kumai continued to shed light on lives lived at society’s margins, as well as crimes and abuses the powerful wanted hidden. Though his subject matter was often grim and his style tended to the earnestly realistic, Kumai communicated a sincerity and passion that both auds and critics responded to.

After making “Tunnel to the Sun” (Kurobe no Taiyo), a big-budget film starring Toshiro Mifune and Yujiro Ishihara about workers on a dangerous tunnel project in his native Nagano, Kumai left Nikkatsu and went independent.

In 1970 he released “Apart from Life” (Chi no Mure) a film set in Nagasaki that examined prejudice against atom bomb victims. In

1974 he made “Sandakan 8” (Sandakan Hachibanshokan Bohkyo), a drama based on the true account of a Japanese woman sold into prostitution as a girl by her family and sent to Borneo. The pic was screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and star Kinuyo Tanaka was awarded a Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress.

In 1987 Kumai’s “The Sea and Poison” (Umi to Dokuyaku) won a Berlin Silver Bear — his first. Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, the pic told the true story of eight captured American fliers who, in 1945, died after vivisection experiments performed by

Japanese doctors under orders from the military.

Kumai continued to turn out pics throughout the 1990s, including “Luminous Moss” (Hikarigoke, 1992), a drama about shipwrecked sailors who resort to cannibalism during WW2, and “To Love” (Aisuru), a drama set in a leper colony. In 2001 Kumai returned to his beginnings with “Darkness in the Light” (Nippon no Kuroi Natsu – Enzai, 2001), a drama about a 1994 nerve gas poisoning incident in the city of Matsumoto that resulted in several deaths and the arrest of one of the survivors as a suspect. He was later freed when police uncovered evidence that the real killers belonged to the notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was also responsible for the mass poisonings on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

In 2002, Kumai released his last film, “The Sea Is Watching” (Umi wa Miteita), a period drama based on a script by Akira Kurosawa.

Kumai’s pics were screened at many festivals in Japan and around the world, but he had a particularly close association with the Berlin fest, where six of his pics were screened in competition. In 2001 Kumai was awarded a Berlinale Camera prize in recognition of his contributions to the fest and world cinema.

He is survived by his wife, Akiko, and a daughter.

More Film

  • Ventana Sur: 10 or So Takes

    Ventana Sur: Drilling Down on This Year’s Edition

    BUENOS AIRES —  11 takes on the biggest Ventana Sur yet, in initiatives and initial business announcements: 1.CANNES’ MOST DARING MOVE? Over the last decade, film festivals two biggest growth roadmaps have run through strengthening their industry heft, aiding an ever more challenged independent film business, and to morph into all-year-round structures. The Cannes Festival [...]

  • Ian Schrager Ian Schrager, New York,

    Studio 54 Co-Creator Ian Schrager Wants to 'Set the Record Straight'

    In the 1970s, Studio 54 was the epicenter of New York nightlife. With wildly theatrical sets, a guest list of celebs, and jet-setters that included everyone from Andy Warhol to Grace Jones, and a pulsating disco beat, the nightclub helped define the Me Decade. But its reign was short lived. In 1980, founders Steve Rubell [...]

  • 'The Favourite,' 'Black Panther' Lead Critics'

    'The Favourite,' 'Black Panther,' 'First Man' Lead Critics' Choice Movie Nominations

    Fox Searchlight’s “The Favourite,” directed by rising art-house star Yorgos Lanthimos, led the field of film nominees for the 24th annual Critics’ Choice Awards, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. announced Monday. The period comedy, a biting send-up of the court of Queen Anne, received 14 nominations including best picture, director, actress (Olivia Colman), supporting actress [...]

  • Blood Window, BIFFF Partner On TV

    Blood Window, Brussels International Fantastic Film Fest Partner on TV Initiative

    Argentina’s Ventana Sur, certainly one of Latin America’s most important meet-marts, announced today that its Blood Window sidebar will collaborate with INCAA – the country’s national film-TV body, which co-runs Ventana Sur with Cannes – and the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFFF) on the B2 Genre TV project, the first such program aimed at [...]

  • Film Factory Boards Andrés Wood’s Fox-Distributed

    Film Factory Boards Andres Wood’s Fox-Distributed ‘Arana’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — Vicente Canales’ Film Factory Entertainment has boarded “Araña,” directed by one of Chile’s foremost filmmakers, Andrés Wood, and distributed in North and Latin America by 20th Century Fox. Produced by Alejandra García at Santiago de Chile’s Wood Producciones, “Araña” is co-produced by Brazil’s BossaNovaFilms and Argentina’s Magma Cine, two of Southern America’s [...]

  • Tim Roth, Thierry Fremaux and Gaspar

    Tim Roth, Gaspar Noe Join Thierry Fremaux at Cannes Festival Cinema Week

    BUENOS AIRES — Kicking off with the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’Or winner, Hirokazu Kor-eda’s “Shoplifters,” and framing  multiple Cannes winners, the 10th Cannes Festival Cinema Week will feature a masterclass by Tim Roth, before a projection of “Reservoir Dogs,” and a presentation by Gaspar Noé of his Directors’ Fortnight hit “Climax.” Curated and M.C-ed by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content