“Gate of Hell” (“Jigokumon”) is a film I’d never previously heard of, made by a director of whom I had been completely unaware until a Blu-ray screener dropped through my letterbox recently, although Teinosuke Kinugasa turns out to be another of those Japanese masters, like his contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, who’d been working in their native film industry and making a successful name for themselves ever since the days of silent cinema in the 1920s and ‘30s before finally coming to prominence in the west in the early 1950s, during the period (after Kurosawa opened the door to extensive International interest because of the success of his “Rashômon” in 1950) that later became known to cineastes as the Golden Age of Japanese cinema. “Gate of Hell” feels instantly as though it belongs in the esteemed company of refined masterpieces such as the latter and Mizoguchi’s artful ghost story “Ugetsu Monogatari”, from the same year: for one thing, it stars the enigmatic actress, Machiko Kyô, who appeared in both those other works, and who can be seen once again, here, playing the typically mysterious, sensuous lead who’s odd demure beauty comes inextricably entwined with obsession, tragedy and death – just the kind of role, in fact, that seems to have been her stock in trade.
The film also makes a particularly vivid impression because of its ravishing colour photography and a highly stylised, mostly studio-bound aesthetic that coordinates schematic art direction, lavishly detailed set design and sumptuous costuming to create a mood of greatly harmonised poetic beauty throughout. Although not the first colour film ever to be shot in Japan, this was the first to be put into production by studio Daiei, using Eastman colour stock imported specially. It was also the first to find its way onto western screens, where it immediately made a huge impact thanks to its delicately elaborated artifice and the kind of colourful artistry that made no less an authority than Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer liken it to a classical Japanese woodcut come to life. It picked up the Grand Prix at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival and became the first film to win an Oscar in the newly inaugurated Best Foreign Film category at the 27th Annual Academy Awards, held the same year. Back in Japan though, “Gate of Hell” apparently caused very little stir: as far as the Japanese critical establishment was concerned this was a rather bog standard ‘jidai-geki’ – one of the many period piece melodramas based on classical plays, novels or traditional Kabuki dramas – and deserving of little critical attention when set aside the dynamism or formal beauty with which Kurosawa and Mizoguchi were busy revolutionising the genre. Perhaps that’s why, despite the names Kurosawa, Ozu, Yamamoto and Mizoguchi continuing to reverberate through any consideration of the history of Japanese film, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s seems to have fallen somewhat by the wayside.
In some respects one can still see why the Japanese critical establishment might have been a bit sniffy about this film at the time. Indeed, even Kinugasa was apparently dissatisfied with it, blaming a rushed production schedule and an under-developed script, as well as interference from his producers, for its various narrative deficiencies and lapses in pacing. Those of us watching it today for the first time will probably find they’re inclined to be rather more forgiving of such ‘faults’, though: it’s the gorgeous look of the film that will most likely do it for you – just as it did the jurors at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars in 1954: cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama had previously worked with Kinugasta on his dreamlike 1926 silent fable “A Page of Madness” and had since gone on to work with Kenji Mizoguchi on a string of his films as well as continuing to work with Kinugasa as he moved successfully into the era of sound movies. The curious thing about the photographic style of “Gate of Hell” is how visually it seems to anticipate the strikingly vivid hues and studio-bound settings of the early colour Hammer Gothics like “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Dracula”, both later to be conjured up by the teaming of Jack Asher and Bernard Robertson -- and it plays, during its first twenty minutes, a lot like one of Hammer’s adventure films, say “The Pirates of Blood River” or “The Brigand of Kandahar”, while at other times it mimics the heightened theatrical artifice of Powell and Pressburger’s “Tales of Hoffman”.
It’s fitting then, given the effect of that iconic moment of goriness in “The Curse of Frankenstein”, when Christopher Lee’s Creature is shot in the eye and a vivid splodge of crimson Kensington Gore spurts out, that “Gate of Hell” features a similar sequence, in which a court spy is bloodily gored in the face during a sword fight after having been caught attempting to flee on horseback to tell on the Shogun’s plans for striking down a recent rebellion. The opening makes it feel like we’re about to be presented with an adaptation of a rip-roaring adventure, set amid fractious civil rebellion and clan warfare in the year 1159 of Japan’s Heian period -- but shot using a palette of vivid primary colours that give the proceedings almost a fairy tale-like quality. The film was actually based on a story by the writer Kan Kikuchi (1888 -1948); in the opening scenes chaos reigns amid the billowing coloured veils of the Sanjô Palace -- for while the shogun Lord Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is away laying siege to enemies of the Emperor, a rival clan is taking advantage of his absence to attack the Imperial residence, where Lord Kiyomori’s young sister resides undefended. Since all the most senior Samurai are away at war, it falls to a lower grade rural warrior called Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) to save the day by organising the defences and employing the services of one of the Princess’s Ladies in Waiting as a decoy for the royal entourage, to divert the treacherous invading clan’s forces by spiriting her away in the official caravan while the real Princess makes her escape elsewhere.
This opening battle scene is conducted in a flurry of choreographed movement that takes place amongst a delirious riot of entrancing colour – the brightly pigmented kimonos of the panicked Ladies of the Court standing out in sharp co-ordinated relief against dyed bamboo Shoji screens and multi-coloured veils and drape dressings fluttering beguilingly amid the trampled chaos of the palace. The work of production designer Kisaku Ito, art director Yoshinobu Nishioka and costume designer Sanzo Wada must surely be acknowledged in playing a vital role, equal to that of Sugiyama, in establishing the sheer painterly beauty of the mise en scène here; and when Morito arrives at his brother’s remote house outside Kyoto, with the brave young woman who volunteered for this mission still in tow, the studio-made set, with its painted backdrops and bright studio lighting once again brings to mind the particular aesthetic qualities of a Hammer production, but here given their own distinctive Asiatic flavour through the mesmeric influence of Yasushi Akutagawa’s traditional music score.
Here is also the point at which the film performs something of a volte-face and takes a very different genre direction with a much slower pace. We learn first that Morito’s brother (to the Samurai’s uncomprehending distress and personal everlasting shame) has actually joined with the rebels out of a pragmatic desire to be seen to be on what he thinks will turn out to be the winning side in the war. But, partly because of Morito’s own efforts in informing his liege of the state of affairs in Kyoto, the rebellion fails and those who took part in it, including Morito’s brother, end up with their decapitated heads hanging outside the palace entrance – known as the Gate of Hell -- as a warning to others. The unpredictable randomness and instability of the politics of the era is brought home to the viewer in the fact that the rebels had earlier done the exact same thing to those loyal to the Emperor when they temporarily managed to gain control of the palace: we’re told how a monk who’d previously betrayed the rebellion and gone over to the incumbent Shogun’s side was punished in the same manner for his treachery. If he’d been able to hang on a little longer, of course, he would have seen the tide change again and the Emperor’s forces regain control … and he would have been proclaimed a loyal hero instead.
But now, the film focuses on the aftermath of these events and how they come to impact on the emotional life of Morito. Kiyomori decides to repay the loyalty, constancy and bravery of his Samurai during the rebellion with gifts. Morito, who has fallen in love with the woman who impersonated Kiyomori’s sister during the battle at the palace, requests her hand in marriage. The Shogun agrees but then a slight snag is highlighted by one of his officials ... namely, that the woman in question, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), is already married to one of the Emperor’s most senior Samurai who comes from a much more socially prominent clan, a man called Wataru (Isao Yamagata).
At this point in the film the viewer might well imagine that he or she can guess how the narrative will unfold from here on: perhaps Lady Kesa will fall for Morito in turn (the lowly country Samurai who saved her life during a time of war) and the two of them will be forced to battle tradition and snobbery -- as well as Kesa’s wronged husband -- in order to be together. But that is emphatically not the course events take, here. Instead we’re given a step-by-step account of Morito’s gradual moral breakdown, and of the social and psychological circumstances of his descent into a great wickedness which he doesn’t wake from until it’s too late. Just as the vagaries of society and politics decide who history will anoint its virtuous heroes and who will come to be seen as its traitors with their heads hanging outside the Gate of Hell, so random social and cultural factors join forces to influence Morito’s moral fate. At the beginning of the film, his loyalty and faithfulness and his courageousness in the field of battle combine to make him seem a heroic figure. His willingness to see a treacherous brother executed and his embarrassment about his familial connection to such a person might begin to sow some seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind with regard to his possible fanaticism, but generally Morito has always acted with bravery and valour for what he believes to be right. But his refusal to accept the news that Kesa is already married and the unhelpful reactions of those around him regarding the matter (who view the whole thing as something of a joke) leads Morito farther and farther from a path of justifiable conduct. He becomes desperate to prove himself a better man than Wataru, first of all by winning a yearly horse race that his love rival has previously always excelled in, believing his success will win Lady Kesa’s heart. But the truth is Kesa remains stubbornly devoted to her husband for social as well as for personal reasons relating to matters of love and loyalty: Lord Kiyomori, meanwhile, mischievously engineers formal meetings between Morito and Kesa, purely for sport in order to entertain the court; while rival Samurai and others at court mock the simple lower class warrior for daring to think he’d ever be fit to associate with someone of the rank that Kesa has obtained through marriage to a favoured Samurai.
All these slights contribute towards putting an extremely large chip on Morito’s shoulder, sending him on a downward moral trajectory that sees him transformed from the sympathetic hero of the first twenty minutes of the film to a reprehensible scoundrel -- obsessed and deranged enough to threaten and then carry out a shockingly awful crime if he doesn’t get his way. Kazuo Hasegawa is remarkably convincing in a central role that requires him to relinquish all audience sympathy during the course of his journey from simple, courageous, devoted warrior to obsessive stalker and potential murderer; Machiko Kyô is the traditional delicate Japanese flower: a formal symbol of female purity and rectitude who daintily plucks at the Koto strings, head bowed in gentle supplication – a woman destined to play out the usual tragic female role that’s to be discovered in so many traditional tales from Japan’s culture. Isao Yamagata as Wataru, meanwhile, turns out to be the only character in the film who is truly one-hundred per cent virtuous – but his reasonableness also makes him the most ineffectual, and his virtue in this case is unable to thwart tragedy.
The second half of the film is a sedately paced study of social mores and disintegrating character that looks even more aesthetically polished as it progresses, culminating in the dramatic high-point of the movie which occurs when Morito sets out to murder Wataru while he sleeps, having blackmailed Kesa into effecting his entrance into their home. The scene plays out in a sumptuously designed studio exterior set under a gorgeous blue haze of artificial moonlight with the silver moon luminescent on a studio backcloth. This meticulously restored film looks stunning on Blu-ray and is receiving its UK home viewing debut via this Masters of Cinema dual-disc release, which also includes a DVD version. An accompanying twenty-four page booklet comes with an authoritative overview of Kinugasa’s career and analysis of this film in particular from film critic Philip Kemp, plus an extract from a 1955 essay by Carl Theodor Dreyer which examines the meaning to be found in the film’s stylised use of colour and design. “Gate of Hell” may not be as well-known as most other Masters of Cinema releases but it’s equally deserving of a place in any connoisseur of Japanese cinema’s home collection and this is as perfect a presentation of it as one could ever hope to see.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!