PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
GATE OF HELL (Blu-ray or DVD) (Four Stars)
Japan: Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953 (Criterion Collection)
There were two great gateways to the international movie houses of the post-war world for 1950s Japanese cinema. The first was Rashomon. The second was Gate of Hell. Most of us remember the former—Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 period masterpiece about four conflicting views of a rape and murder in the woods—and we can recall it easily, intensely, rightfully. The latter, by the much lesser known writer-director Teinosuke Kinugasa, is another period film, gorgeous almost beyond belief, and once widely hailed as the most beautiful color film of all time. Gate of Hell is a film masterpiece too, if not quite on Rashomon’s level, but one that far too many movie lovers have forgotten or neglected.
Rashomon—which won both the 1951 foreign language picture Oscar and the Venice Festival Grand Prize—stunned movie audiences everywhere with its searing black and white visions of Japan in the 11th century, its whiplash camera movements through the dense forest, its shocking violence, its extraordinary cast (topped by the feral, glowering young Toshiro Mifune as the bandit killer Tajomaru, with sexy, delicate Machiko Kyo as his victim, and the aristocratic and somber Masayuki Mori as her husband), and. most of all, with its radical “modernist” narrative construction: a four part story, recalled in flashbacks that shows the bandit’s crimes from four different, widely diverging perspectives (from the three principals above, and from an “objective” witness, Takashi Shimura, a woodcutter/ who watches them, unseen). Rashomon was watched and debated by art film enthusiasts everywhere.
But, it was another Japanese film, neglected for over half a century, which confirmed the triumph of Rashomon—and of Japanese cinema in general. That film was director-writer Kinugasa’s 1953 Gate of Hell, or Jigokumon. Like Rashomon, Gate of Hell won two enormously prestigious foreign awards—another foreign language picture Oscar, and the Grand Prize (then the top award) of the Cannes Film Festival. But where Rashomon thrilled audiences with its exciting action and stunning black and white photograph, Gate of Hell entranced them with the beauty and lushness of its production and costume design and of its then-astonishing color cinematography (by Kohei Sugiyama). Indeed, Kinugasa’s film was often cited throughout the 1950s as the most beautiful color film ever made.
Like Rashomon, Gate of Hell was set in the distant past—in this case, in the even more contentious 12th century, in the time of the Heiji Rebellion. Like Rashomon, it’s a story of love and death and crime and the truth—and how that truth can be perceived or misperceived. Like Rashomon (a title which refers to the gate of Kyoto), it ends with an image of a great city gate. And like Rashomon, Gate of Hell costars the lovely Machiko Kyo, a Japanese star of doll-like beauty, sumptuous physique and catlike eyes—and once again, the target of a predatory killer. This time, Machiko’s nemesis is not a horny bandit, but a courageous warrior of the besieged Taira Clan, Morito Endo, played by the long-time Japanese superstar (and long-time collaborator of Kinugasa, Kazuo Hasegawa. Hasegawa, whose career dated back to the 1920s, as did Kinugasa’s, was a striking-looking man, whose grave, stern, sculpted features and soldierly stature made him an ideal player of brave swordsmen and heroes.
As with many of the great Japanese period pictures—Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, Oharu, and Sansho the Bailiff—sometimes highly negative view of Japan’s past, as a time and place that breeds injustice, violence and tragedy. And also villains and anti-heroes. Mifune’s Tajomiru is a ravenous beast of a man, who kills wantonly or, in one view, idiotically. Hasegawa’s Morito is, in contrast, a good soldier. A man of honor and extreme courage, loyal to his emperors (there are two of them), and in love with Lady Kesa, whom he wants to marry (even when he learns of her husband)—so in love that he becomes unhinged with desire for her, a lust/love that consumes him, turns him into a monster.
Machiko Kyo’s Lady Kesa, by contrast, is a women of extreme loyalty and honor, who has to make a drastic choice to try to defend that honor. Her husband Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata) is a man of loyalty and devotion to duty as well, but far more passive than the fiercely determined Morito: so dutiful, in fact, that he is unable to perceive or face Morito for the malignant threat that he is—both to his wife and to him. Instead he tries to be reasonable—when reason is the first casualty of Morito’s private war and rebellion.
The young Kinugasa made two of the great Japanese experimental films of the silent era, A Page of Madness and Crossroads, both in 1928. By 1953, he was a longtime cinematic veteran who had survived World War II and was now considered a traditionalist. But he was a traditionalist whose sense of beauty was honed by the near-expressionism of his younger work.
Gate of Hell begins with a traveling shot of the famous scroll book of the Heiji Rebellion— which then dissolves into real people, war, flight and chaos. Morito and Lady Kesa meet, when she volunteers to impersonate the Taira Clan Empress—of whose court Kesa is a lady in waiting—to fool the rebels. Morito is the soldier who remains loyal to the empire (even when his own brother turns traitor), drives her carriage and then quietly falls madly in love with her. There’s both romance and a shiver when he stares at her and we can feel the ecstatic charge that will consume him. Kinugasa was a Romantic—he began his career as a star movie actress and female impersonator (reportedly one of the best at this delicate art), and he’s able to shift easily between the viewpoint of woman and man, the desired and the desirer. The film’s sheer beauty helps convey its main themes—makes you feel the ravishment that triggers the conflicts.
There are several important differences between Rashomon and Gate of Hell. Rashomon was a radical artistic departure. Gate of Hell was a traditionalist work—by a filmmaker who, in his youth made one of the most radical departures in the whole history of Japanese cinema. Both films are concerned with morality, but Gate of Hell works in a more conventional tragic mode. Rashomon is a postwar work that reflects a vision of a world gone mad. In Gate of Hell, one man goes mad and drags part of the world down with him. Most strikingly, Rashomon is in black and white and Gate of Hell is in color, a gloriously designed and shot color whose sensuous imagery—the streaming banners, the forests, the meeting halls, the men on horseback, Morito manically creping though the darkness, Lady Kesa in her flowing white kimonos seduces us, as Morito is (unintentionally) seduced, and then exiles from Heaven and abandoned in Hell.
Why was Gate of Hell forgotten? Why is Kinugasa so underappreciated? Well, the original Gate of Hell was shot in Eastmancolor, which, unlike Technicolor, as we now know well, deteriorates and bleeds away its colors, into one vast red sea. This film has not been seen properly for decades. Criterion‘s new release is a color restoration and an extremely beautiful one. As for Kinugasa, he was not a favorite of Japanese critics (no Kinema Junpo awards, as I remember), much less the kind of American critics who think it’s a sensible pursuit to try to argue the inferiority of Kurosawa to Mizoguchi or Ozu. (We are blessed to have had all three.)
Most of Kinugasa’s films remain unseen in America. But the poetry of his work, the lyrically crazy experimentalism of Page of Madness, and the shimmering colors and tragic fire of Gate of Hell, make him, I think, a director worthy of further exploration. A candidate for one of Criterion’s Eclipse box sets? Maybe. But at least we can finally see Gate of Hell, a forgotten (no more) legend of the 1950s, and see it for the masterpiece it is, in its true colors. Easily, intensely, rightfully. Beautifully.