The 1950’s is often considered to be the ‘Golden Age’ of Japanese cinema, and it’s easy to see why. This decade saw the release of Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’, Mizoguchi’s ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’, Honda’s ‘Gojira’ (Godzilla) and of course, Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’. These are some of the most influential Japanese films to ever grace our screens, and are still regarded by many to be the greatest films to have come out of Japan. However, Teinosuke Kinugasa‘s ‘Gate of Hell’ doesn’t seem to have gained the same recognition. Despite it being from the same period and being an important landmark in Japanese cinema, it seems to have been mostly forgotten. Which may be surprising considering that this was not only the first Japanese colour film to be released overseas, but also a major award winner; winning Best Foreign Language Film and Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards, and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But now, thanks to The Masters of Cinema series, ‘Gate of Hell’ may have a chance for recognition once again, with a brand new, beautifully restored, high-definition DVD/Blu-ray package which comes with a terrific 24-page booklet.
Set in 12th century Japan, during the Heiji Rebellion, a dissident group plan to revolt against the feudal rule. In a desperate situation, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo) agrees to risk her life by acting as a decoy, so the royals can escape. The diversion is a success, and because a noble samurai warrior by the name of Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) is there to help, Kesa is unharmed. Morito is praised for his bravery and heroism, and is granted anything he desires as a reward. He wishes for Kesa’s hand in marriage, but there is a problem, unbeknownst to him, Kesa is already married to a fellow samurai (Isao Yamagata). Despite this revelation, Morito refuses to withdraw his request and begins pestering Kesa, telling her to leave her husband and marry him instead. Kesa refuses his countless proposals, but Morito remains stubborn and hopeful. Although Kesa clearly wishes to stay with her husband, Morito continues his attempts, willing to do whatever he can to get his wish, even if it means the use of violence.
The first thing I should comment on is the visuals. ‘Gate of Hell’ has a wonderful colour palette. You will struggle to find a film from this period, or from any other period for that matter, that looks as beautiful as this does. The simple use of soft colours and delicate composition creates something genuinely stunning that excels any sort of fancy modern-day CGI effects. The sets, costumes, makeup- they’re all beautiful, and enhanced dramatically thanks to the newly restored visuals. Unfortunately however, beyond the visuals, technical achievements, and design, I have very little else to praise.
The plot is a simple one; Man falls for married woman, tries to win her heart, but woman ultimately sticks by her husband. It’s straightforward, short and simple. And that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. This is character driven piece rather than a plot driven one, so to have a complicated narrative full of surprises would be unnecessary. However, when the characters are largely unsympathetic, and largely uninteresting, then we do have a problem. I’m sure everyone would agree that Morito is a repugnant man. His overbearing love for Kesa is neither endearing nor charming, it is creepy and disturbing, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Of course, that’s the point. Morito is not meant to be looked upon sympathetically, he’s unlikeable, and deliberately so. But the thing is that he’s so unlikeable, so repulsive, that it reflects somewhat onto the film. His persistence is so forthright, and so obsessive, that it almost brings a level of repetitiveness to the plot. He approaches Kesa, she rejects him, then he does it again, and it just seems to go on and on. It’s so frustrating to watch, that you wish you could be there so you could slap his face and tell him to “get over it!” While Morito may be annoying, at least I found him mildly interesting, which is more I can say for the other two central characters, Kesa and her husband, who are quite frankly a bit boring. They may be loyal, they may be honourable, but my God they’re dull. In fact, so dull that I was almost rooting for Morito by the end of it. They lacked a sense of authority, and a sense of willpower. It’s like they just let Morito take advantage of them without putting up a fight and it was exasperating to watch.
Something that I would often say about films is that visuals and special effects are just adornments. They’re there as decoration, and ultimately things such as the plot and characters should take precedence over style. In the case of ‘Gate of Hell’ I will make an exception. The look of the film has been so praised and lavished, that even Martin Scorsese himself named it as one of the top ten uses of colour for a foreign-language film, and who would dare disagree with Marty? Whilst I believe that there are much better Japanese films released in the same decade, I cannot deny that there is great beauty in this film, which would be unfair to ignore.