A visual delight, sumptuously restored to its original glory…
The tale of Gate Of Hell (Jigokumon) tells is that of a tragedy, as lowly samurai Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa, The Tale of Genji, The Loyal 47 Ronin, The Crucified Lovers, An Actor’s Revenge) becomes besotted with beautiful, aristocratic Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō, Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, Floating Weeds) after she bravely risks her life to save that of their emperor’s sister in a ruse.
Proving his loyalty and courageousness to their ruler, he is gifted whatever we desires. He asks for Kesa’s hand in marriage, not realising that she is already married to another samurai, Wataru (Isao Yamagata, Seven Samurai, Samurai Rebellion, Floating Clouds). Undeterred, he refuses to withdraw his request, setting in motion a tragic chain of events…
Recently fully restored to its former glory, it’s easy to see why Gate Of Hell caused such a stir when it was originally released in the West. The first Japanese colour film to be released outside of Japan, the lavish set and costume design truly stand out on this production. It received a honorary Academy Award for ‘Best Foreign Language Film first released in the United States during 1954’, before an official category for Best Foreign Film actually existed, as well the award for Best Costume Design, Colour. It also received the Palme d’Or grand prize award at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival and various other awards and nods.
The film looks beautiful beyond the richness of colours, patterns and textures; the cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama is well composed, taking interesting and imaginative angles, often highlighting the quality production and vibrancy of the costumes by positioning behind screens.
And yet time has not necessarily been kind to Gate Of Hell. A certain points it seems from a different era. Like when Machiko Kyō first appears, underpinned by a swirling score, that feels more akin to the Hollywood films of the 30s. Indeed the whole production, so lush and detailed, feels more like Gone With The Wind, echoing that films period melodrama.
It’s interesting how visually this film escapes its stage origins, the play Kesa’s Husband by Kikuchi Kan, yet dramatically it doesn’t. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s career ran from the silent era right up to the 60s, continuing into the 70s as a writer, and some of the performances, particularly Kazuo Hasegawa’s, seem a little overplayed.
In reality, of course, it was not at all detached from contemporary releases both in the East and West. The real problem is that the contemporary Japanese films we do remember, like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari or Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, are actually very ‘modern’ in how they use cinema.
But something rather interesting happens in the second half. As the narrative slows, the music becomes moodier and more traditional. Often the soundtrack comes from music a character is seen playing within the film, rather than a playback of an orchestra in a studio. (Alfred Hitchcock would use a similar idea rather more elaborately at around the same time on Rear Window.)
More importantly, the whole film becomes much more affecting. It’s hard not to get pulled in by the unfolding, inevitable tragedy on screen; to be touched by Kesa’s devotion. The film nicely plays out the contrast of a warrior or soldiers devotion to his ruler or country, and that of a loving wife – both willing to give up their life. Despite his disreputable brother, Moritoh is far more honourable than many of his peers until his obsession gets the better of him. His allegiance to the emperor unfaltering, he takes the conflict and it’s impact far more seriously than others who joke about it.
Unlike several of the other films best known of the period, which focus on lower classes, Gate Of Hell instead looks at upper or middle classes. In a sense perhaps its onscreen opulence seems a statement in itself, of a country pulling itself out of the harsh war period and becoming one of the world’s most industrious economies within the next few years.
Absolutely stunning, it’s difficult not to be rather enchanted by Gate Of Hell, an important Japanese film finally available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Gate Of Hell is available now on Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD from Masters Of Cinema.
Dual Format details
Distributor:Masters Of Cinema - Eureka Entertainment (UK)
Edition: Dual Format (Blu-Ray + DVD) (2012)
High-definition master presented in the film’s original aspect ratio, in 1080p on the Blu-ray; with newly translated optional English subtitles.
Comes with a 24-page booklet containing a new essay by critic Philip Kemp; vintage writing about the film by Carl Theodor Dreyer; and rare archival imagery.