During an attempted coup d’etat on the emperor’s palace samurai Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa) rescues court lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo). During the short time that he watches over her Moritoh falls for the her – whilst battling dissenting samurai. On his return to court the emperor asks what he can give the samurai as reward for his loyalty. He asks for Lady Kesa’s hand in marriage only to be told, humiliatingly in front of the court that she is already married. Moritoh then begins a terror campaign to either win over Kesa or take her husband Lord Wataru (Isao Yamagata) out of the equation.
Gate of Hell won the Palme D’or at Cannes when it was released in 1954. Held with high regard by critics and fans of Japanese cinema it has been strongly petitioned to be released on home video which has not happened – until now. Released through the Masters of Cinema series (which is like a UK version of Criterion, without the fantastic special features) the new transfer of this forgotten “gem” looks stunning. It is hard to think that this was the first Japanese film released in colour. The screen is filled with bold, lush colours it even manages to out do Kurosawa’s Ran and Madadayo with it’s bold colour palette.
Also rare for a period Japanese production from this period is the use of locations. Rarely does the film feel set-bound and claustrophobic which is a trap that some films fall into when dealing with the emperors’ court. In fact at some points you can almost imagine a car park full of people just off camera whilst two samurai duel it out. The music is also a major highlight. Reflecting Moritoh’s increasingly fracture psyche we are treated to eerie, siren-like whistles and pounding drums that would unsettle in a modern work.
Not everything’s completely rosy with the film though. The drama has dated a bit. Reserved passion and obsession is swept aside to make way for oodles of melodrama that is almost pantomime like. I appreciate that much of 40s/50s Japanese cinema still relied on the template set by the theatre but seriously this gets hammy. Kazuo Hasegawa whilst convincing in his insane love for Kesa eventually becomes annoying. You kind of want another samurai to take him aside, whip him across the face with a scabbard and say something along the lines of “dude, can’t you just be cool”. Other moments in the film which could be played out with a lingering look are set aloud. There’s no internal monologue at work here. Another left over from the theatre tradition.
These points aside Gate of Hell is certainly worth a look for Japanese cinema enthusiasts. the story, whilst like I say melodramatic is ultimately quite compelling. The film looks and sounds stupendous. Plus it’s interesting to picture what the could have been like had director Teinosuke Kinugasa had chosen to present the film as a thriller rather than a straight forward drama. Yes, those kind of films are ten a penny now and generally suck but a film from this time and place playing out like a male version of Fatal Attraction would have been fascinating to behold.
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