Gate of Hell / 地獄門 (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s film Gate of Hell was a global smash upon its original release, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954, plus a couple of Academy Awards. Now re-released sixty years on by Masters of Cinema and Criterion, cinemaphiles are able to enjoy the film all over again, allowing a whole new generation to appreciate a masterful piece of cinema.

Set in 1159 Japan, the plot centres around Morito Endo (played by Kazuo Hasegawa), who is involved with evacuating Sanjō Palace in Kyoto during a revolt. A woman, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō) volunteers as decoy for the shogun’s sister, and he is amongst those asked to transport her out of the palace and lure the attackers away from the real princess. The plan is successful, and as a reward for his heroism he is offered a gift of his choosing. Unfortunately, he requests Kesa’s hand in marriage, only to find out that she is already wed. For a proud samurai, this is a disastrous embarrassment, and the film from then on deals with the emotional effect this has on Morito, Kesa and Kesa’s husband Wataru Watanabe (played by Isao Yamagata).

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The film looks and sounds brilliant from the start, with the recently developed Eastmancolor used to bring 12th Century Japan to life. It is an alternative view of the shogun era of Japan, which so often at the time had been detailed in popular films by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu, but in black and white. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this film back in 1954 and be blown away by the loud visuals and intricate costumes.

That said, a film wouldn’t endure for sixty years without a fantastic story and excellent acting, and this film has those in abundance. It’s paced perfectly and at 90 minutes there isn’t much in the way of filler. The actors are on top form too, harking back to the recently-diminished silent film era with long periods of silence counteracted with extreme close ups as emotions engulf their faces. It is a clever technique and one that would have helped set it apart when it reached Western audiences.

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Sourced from the 1954 New York Times review of Gate Of Hell, the comments from Jun Tsuchiya, Consul General of Japan, add context to the success of the film and the impact it had on the wider reputation of Japan globally. Speaking at the premiere, he said “The successful entree of Japanese films in the world market, may well have not only cultural, but also, I venture to suggest, economic consequences for both our countries. To me, it is entirely conceivable that the export of superior films will greatly help my country in its present unremitting struggle to become self-sufficient, to rely on trade, not aid.”

It is interesting to think of those comments in terms of the global view of Japan today. Buoyed by the hyper-acceleration of popularity of new technology and most global brands from Japan being technology-based (Sony and Nintendo spring to mind), it is ironic that they pulled themselves out of financial struggles to launch themselves forwards by looking so far into their past, especially when in this case the film’s initial popularity seems to be in part down to the use of cutting-edge film colouring technology.

Gate of Hell is out now on Masters of Cinema and Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.

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