Home Video Hovel: Gate of Hell, by Dayne Linford
Practically lost for nearly half a century, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell is one of those films that existed almost more in its absence than in its existence. Now, after being restored in 2011, this classic Japanese film is finally available for home viewing, a key part of history restored to cinephiles today. Gate of Hell begins with and continues after the Heiji Rebellion, told largely from the perspective of Morito, a samurai who stays loyal to his clan despite the betrayal of his own brother, playing a key role in their eventual victory. The head of his clan, a capricious, intelligent man named Kiyomori, offers Morito anything he should ask as a reward for his service. Morito asks for the hand in marriage of Kesa, a woman who protected as a decoy of the empress during the rebellion. Morito is unaware that Kesa is already married to another samurai named Wataru, but when told so, refuses to rescind his request, obsessing over Kesa and setting off a chain of events, leading to inevitable tragedy.
Gate of Hell is one of the first color Japanese movies, and Kinugasa knocks it out of the park. The colors are the kind of vibrancy reminiscent of The Searchers or Black Narcissus, especially the latter, popping off the screen in bright reds and deep purples. It is an astoundingly beautiful film in the way only Technicolor films can be, which is doubly impressive since Kinugasa was inexperienced with it and making his film in a country with no real technicians of the method, a big part of why it was unwatchable for so long. As such, it’s especially fortunate that Criterion is releasing it, giving the image the kind of depth and bitrate it deserves.
Beyond technical competency and the beauty of the camera work, Gate of Hell is a joy to watch, tense and melodramatic in the way of the best samurai films, a melding of Japanese history, theater and cinema that is absolutely arresting. Particularly interesting is the sheer range of topics Kinugasa manages to hit in what at first appears to be a simple genre film, going from masculine erotic obsession to class conflict to women’s role in society, played out in the three way conflict between Morito, Kesa and Wataru. The characterizations of these three principles are particularly strong and complicated, especially Morito, the consummate Japanese warrior who violates all social and moral principles in pursuit of another man’s wife. It’s hard to know exactly what Kinugasa is saying about these myriad topics in his film, but it nevertheless stands as a fascinating examination of them in action, played out against each other and against the extreme violence of the time period. Perhaps Kinugasa is using all of these thematic throughlines to lead to the tragedy and stipulate that, though Morito’s obsession is the prime motivator for the events leading to the end, the entirety of Japanese culture is culpable in those events as class conflict eggs on the essentially personal nature of Morito and Wataru’s conflict, and especially as the relative powerlessness of Kesa leaves her little to no choices in a situation that should be entirely in her control.
Gate of Hell is a film of surprising artistry and subtlety, and it’s an absolute pleasure to have it again to view. Truly unparalleled in its beauty, and especially important in the history of Japanese cinema, it’s a must buy for those interested in cinema in general, and Japanese cinema in particular.
The Criterion release is remarkably bare-bones, containing a new subtitle translation along with the film itself and nothing else, excepting the usual essay booklet, this time with A Colorful History by Stephen Prince, which I found to be excellent. Though hardly the packed offering I generally like best, the simple chance to see this film is worth the purchase price. Highly recommended.