Review: Gate of Hell (1953)

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Gate of Hell was the first color film for Japanese studio Daiei and it garnered a lot of praise in the west when it was released here in 1954.  It even won two Academy Awards — one for best costume design for a color feature and another honorary award for best foreign language film.

The story follows a samurai named Morito Endo who stays faithful to his lord despite an uprising involving his own brother.  During an early scene, Endo rescues the life of Lady Kesa, a woman who is a decoy for his lord’s wife.  He encounters her again much later and realizes that he is smitten.  When offered his choice of reward for his faithful service, Endo chooses to have her hand in marriage.  When it’s revealed that she’s already married, he sticks to his guns and insists his lord live up to his word and deliver her to him, then he becomes more and more irrational as he continues to pursue Kesa at all costs.  To say more would spoil the ending.

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his career as an onnagata (female impersonator) in the early 1900s.  When women were finally allowed to work as actresses, he chose to become a director, but he remained an actor’s director to the very end.  He directed over 100 films between 1922 and 1966, successfully transitioning from the silent era to talkies to lavish costume dramas.  Gate of Hell remains one of his most noteworthy efforts due to the fact that it was Japan’s first color film.

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Based on the play by Kan Kikuchi, Gate of Hell betrays its literary origins with static staging and a general lack of connecting images between scenes, but the beautiful Eastman Color shots crafted by DP Kohei Sugiyama  save the production.  The Heian period setting made it possible for Sugiyama to show off the production’s amazing sets and costumes while Kinugasa elicited excellent performances from all of his actors.  Golden light prevails onscreen and makes the characters look as though they’d stepped off of one of those elaborately illustrated room dividers.

The titular gate is both a real city gate and a metaphor for Endo’s descent.  The reintroduction of Lady Kesa takes place at the gate, so named due to the fact that the heads of Endo’s lord’s enemies were hung there after the revolt was squashed.  The film is expertly crafted to use color and line effectively but movement less so.  If it has a failing, it’s in the screenplay’s glacial pace.

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The stunningly beautiful images don’t do enough to make the story work.  Throughout the film, I found myself wondering just why Endo would sacrifice so much for someone he hardly even knew.  Possibly to save face, but he’s given multiple opportunities for outs.  He even says that he doesn’t know why possessing this woman is so important to him.  He comes off as a psychopath whose irrational attachment to a woman he hardly knows sends him on a downward spiral.

The film also suffers from having very few music cues.  While there’s some nice on-camera koto music there’s very little score.  A good composer could have boosted the melodramatic story and made the film seem a lot less sedentary.  As it is, the brief 90 minute feature crawls by at a snail’s pace.

If you’re interested in the history of Japanese cinema or the Eastman color process, Gate of Hell is a must-see.  If not, I wouldn’t recommend it.