Gate of Hell (Jigokumon, 1953)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Teinosuke Kinugasa

By Roderick Heath

The postwar rebirth of Japanese cinema and its eruption on the world stage reached its apex in the years 1953-54. Almost every great Japanese director of the age released a film within an 18-month period, and examples of the national cinema burst upon the international scene to general acclaim. Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse made multiple works, including Mizoguchi’s eclipsing classics Ugetsu Monogatari and Sanshô the Bailiff, and Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums; Yasujiro Ozu released his most famous film, Tokyo Story; Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Nobuo Nakagawa likewise had movies in theatres; and Hiroko Inagaki made the first of his three-part Samurai series, which would win what was then a special Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1955. What would eventually prove the two most famous Japanese movies ever produced, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, came out in their homeland, headed for slow but permanent infiltration of Western culture. Of all the films amongst this cavalcade, it was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell which captured both the 1954 Cannes Grand Prix, which was the festival’s top award at the time, and multiple Oscars the following year. Gate of Hell was Daiei Studio’s first colour production, utilising imported Eastmancolor technology, and adapted from a play written by Daiei’s erstwhile chief, Kan Kikuchi.

Kinugasa, by comparison with the other Japanese greats of the time, is now largely obscure, partly because little of his work was released overseas, and is also poorly represented on DVD. But Kinugasa’s life and career were multifarious, somewhat analogous to someone like King Vidor as a restless and innovative director whose oeuvre spans great shifts in cinematic modes and tastes and who settled into an uneasy relationship with studio cinema. Kinugasa began as an actor who had specialised in onnagata (female roles) in kabuki theatre before moving into film. In spite of his stage background, when he broke out as an independent filmmaker, he rode at the vanguard of emboldened, semi-experimental directors who severed Japanese cinema’s hitherto close relationship with the stage, in a flowering of revolutionary technique roughly equivalent to movements occurring then in Germany and Russia. Key to his early importance was his virtually self-financed, much-hailed, only partly extant drama A Page of Madness (1926), cowritten by the future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata. Kinugasa then went overseas, managed to get one of his films distributed and praised in Germany, and studied for a time under Sergei Eisenstein. When he finally returned to Japan, he settled down as a studio hand. Kinugasa wasn’t particularly proud of Gate of Hell, disliking the studio interference he had to contend with, and was bewildered when it became such a sensation overseas.

Gate of Hell’s impact abroad was based chiefly in its use of colour, resplendent in the eye-gorging cinematography by Kôhei Sugiyama and set and costume design by Kisaku Ito and Sanzo Wada, to wilfully transform the cinematic space into a sprawl of segmented tones that often resemble the hues of classical Japanese ukiyo-e art. Depending on the emphasis of the scene, the effect was to imbue the drama with both naturalism and a saturated, psychologised air of abstraction. Whereas most serious Western filmmakers in the mid ’50s were still often embarrassed by the decorative quality of the era’s colour as a less-serious form of expression that that found in the black-and-white sparseness of television, Kinugasa’s work embraced the idea of high artificiality as an artistic device. Otherwise, Kinugasa’s film would almost invite an audience challenge to prove just how it was so much better than Seven Samurai and Sanshô the Bailiff. Well, it has neither the overflowing narrative richness nor psychological depth of either of those films, but then again, few things do. Kinugasa’s film is still a formidable drama that is something close to a noir film wrapped in the guise of historical exoticism, and Kinugasa’s formal control of the film is superlative.

Like Luchino Visconti’s near-concurrent Senso, Gate of Hell reverses the common structure of historical dramas by starting off with large-scale events and epochal ructions before spiraling inward toward a personal crisis that mirrors and subverts the presumptions of the larger battle. Set in the late 1100s, during the Heian period that was the dusk of Classical Japan, Gate of Hell’s main protagonist is Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa), a mid-ranking provincial-born samurai attached to the imperial Taira clan. He finds his moment to show his worth during the Heiji Rebellion, an attempted coup d’etat against the ruling emperor that occurs when his chief supporter, Tairo Kiyamori (Koreya Senda), leaves the capital city of Kyoto to visit a monastery, giving rivals an opportunity to attack his stronghold and take over the government.

The imperial loyalists at the film’s outset frantically try to arrange to smuggle the emperor’s sister out of the Sanjo Palace, and Moritoh is called upon to stage a diversion where he and a band of retainers will defend a carriage carrying a decoy in the princess’ place. One of her handmaidens, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), volunteers to be the decoy, and Moritoh and his men have to fight their way through a pursuing force. Moritoh finally arrives alone with Kesa at his family villa in the country, only to encounter his brother Moritada (Kunitaro Sawamura), who announces that he’s siding with the rebels. Moritoh is outraged and refuses to join his brother, and as Moritada restrains his own men from killing Moritoh, Kesa runs away. Moritoh manages to reach the temple and report to the emperor and his men. He also kills one of the emperor’s retinue who tries to sneak away and warn the conspirators that the emperor is about to strike back. A battle follows that sees the emperor’s loyalists victorious and Moritoh distinguish himself again, but his brother is killed.

Moritoh visits a shrine for the dead set up just next to the Sanjo palace’s jigokumon, or, literally, hell gate. Moritoh encounters Kesa and her aunt Sawa (Kikue Môri) there, also intending to pray for the fallen, and Moritoh’s interest in the comely courtier hardens into ardour. When the time comes for the emperor to reward his followers for their aid, Moritoh asks to be given Kesa’s hand in marriage, and only then learns that Kesa is married to one of Kiyamori’s ministers, Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata). Moritoh refuses to retract his request, asking the emperor to annul the marriage and thus entering into a public and conscious rivalry with Wataru.

Unlike Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), the film which largely opened the curtain on awareness of Japanese cinema in the outside world and which is set in the same period, Gate of Hell has a rigorously straightforward narrative, if a tad difficult to grasp towards the start as the film engages history presumably more familiar to Japanese than Western viewers, and a deceptive simplicity that nearly disguises the skill with which the tale has been pared down to its essentials. It could easily have been a mere sprawl of candy-coloured prestige pageantry, but it is instead a tightly wound and skilfully paced study in obsession, albeit one that proceeds with the clear delineations and iconic rigours of classical literature. The film barely runs an hour and a half, but fits in a whirlwind of events that flows with the same descriptive precision as the historical scroll painting that is unfurled at the film’s very outset. In his use of such motifs and his colour effects, Kinugasa anticipates and probably influenced aspects of Kobayashi’s dark plunge into the national mythology with Kaidan (1964): Gate of Hell is conscious of itself as not merely a film set in the past, but of the artistic prisms through which we conceive the past, lending depth to his stylisation. Kinugasa also downplays the sprawl of historical events and personages after the opening, and concentrates instead on his antiheroic protagonist, who for the film’s first half at least seems the definition of a loyal cavalier.

The rush of action in the first 10 minutes is worthy of Eisenstein or Michael Curtiz in its precise design and flow. Kinugasa’s camera is either at eye level or dizzyingly high above the action, in shots filled with actors and extras arranged in streams of colour, the panicking populace and chasing armies churning like multicoloured flotsam under boughs of hallucinogenic green leaves, more like an explosion in an orchard than a battle. This leads to the hard, vigorous edits of the decoy carriage and its guards fleeing, Kesa within the carriage fainting from the heat and bustling motion as the pursuers catch up with the retinue, who turn to engage in a few seconds worth of brutal combat. Moritoh cuts his way through a swathe of enemies with devastating panache, and repeatedly demonstrates his utter loyalty to his chosen master, even going so far as to riposte to his brother’s entreaties of pragmatism with the assertion that once a man’s given his loyalty, that’s the end of the matter. Moritoh’s race to reach the emperor’s friends at an island temple is another dazzling little sequence, as he chases a team of enemy assassins, shooting arrows at their backs, one plunging from his mount and lolling on the beach dying, his furled fingers leaking sand in symbolic place of his blood and life; but a few minutes later, Kinugasa offers a jarring moment of gore as in Moritou’s duel with the traitor, he lands a katana blow to the enemy’s face, bright gleaming blood seeping between his fingers before Moritou lands the coup de grace.

Moritou is offered literally anything he wants for his service, except, as the ruler jokes, “my head on a plate!”, but immediately finds this is a dishonest offer, if hardly without a good reason. Moritou’s obsession apparently transcends any materialist interests, but erotic fixation blends with awareness of Moritou’s subordinate role as a lesser samurai and a provincial outsider in the aristocratic, urbane ranks his new fame lifts him to, in a society that rewards the values he espouses but only in selective degrees. Moritoh’s singular determination to possess the lustrous Kesa warps him steadily into a lethal bete noir for the courtly, noble, but finally deferential Wataru, and the loyal, genuinely conscientious Kesa. The emperor even indulges Moritoh’s obsession so far as to invite Kesa to the palace to play the koto for him, and arranges for Moritoh to corner her and try to wring out an admission of mutual admiration for him, which he’s sure she feels.

Michiko Kyô soon became the closest thing Japanese cinema had to an international star after Toshiro Mifune, appearing in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) opposite Marlon Brando. She presented a specifically old-fashioned, specifically Japanese ideal of feminine beauty, with a sensual edge, emphasised here in her lips daubed a delirious red, which glisten throughout and lend a distinct quality of sexual intensity to Kesa. She is otherwise defined strictly by her rectitude and decency, which readily explains why Moritoh is so ardent in his quest to possess her. The film’s narrative revolves around the explicit likeness between the attempt by the emperor’s enemies to impinge upon his domain and Moritoh’s attempt to impinge upon Wataru, both eroticised acts of violent grasping and overthrow, and a distinctly Buddhist motif of desires that sooner or later dominate reason and torture men into irrational acts. In her suffering purity, Kyô’s Kesa is a practically archetypal distillation of feminine qualities, stoically attempting to hold her life together under the incessant battery of masculine force with the stoic determination of Mizoguchi’s women , but unlike, say, the ethereal remnant of such victimization found in Ugetsu’s Lady Wakasa, Kesa is provocatively corporeal.

The story’s underpinnings as a tale of sexual jealousy and fidelity amidst of a warrior culture evoke plentiful examples in the western canon, like Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. Kinugasa’s background as an onnagata, a profession which leading man Hasegawa had also once essayed, supports a hint of an actor’s delight in Kesa’s role as tragic pivot for outsized passions and moral quandaries. As I’ve said, there’s also a hint of the noir film to Gate of Hell, as it zeroes in on a situation that’s a heady mix of desire and power, one that can only resolve in crime. In a mode with links to the same traditions Mizoguchi’s films also invoked regularly, and close to the Hollywood style of women’s pictures, Gate of Hell conflates the usually disparate figures of the femme fatale, whose sexually pulchritudinous existence taunts a man to the limits of sanity, and the self-sacrificing female apostle. The specific cleverness of the tale is in the way Moritoh starts out as a hero and finishes up as a murderer, viewers following him towards his calamity with perfect logic and forced to ponder its loyalties constantly. Like Moritoh, the audience has no idea Kesa is married until it’s revealed to him before the emperor, and Moritoh’s humiliation before the watching audience is palpable precisely when his triumph should be complete. But where a cheaper narrative might have made Kesa’s spouse unlikeable or cold, Wataru soon proves to be a patrician who is decent, good-natured, and deeply in love with his wife. He presents only a solicitous concern when he hears about the story that’s amusing the court involving his wife, and proves ready—perhaps, finally, too ready—to roll with Moritoh’s antagonism.

When Moritou enters a horse race held on an annual religious festival that Wataru is recognized for consistently winning, the challenge of the now-notorious suitors becomes a must-see event. When Moritou wins, Wataru graciously applauds the victory, but Wataru’s friends and others of the aristocratic party are boisterous at the banquet afterwards and suggest that Wataru let Moritou win, a bone thrown to a dog to keep him quiet. Moritou, hearing this, angrily challenges Wataru to a duel, but a courtier forestalls this, forbidding a fight at a holy event. The film’s title has a certain portentous quality, one fulfilled right in the last shot, but it’s interesting to note that like Rashomon, the titular gate is a real location in Kyoto, which becomes a fulcrum for a social, historical, and spiritual understanding of the action. Early in the film, the severed head of Shenzei, a Confucian monk and minister for the emperor, is hung from the gate, and the common folk flocking about it state that he deserved his fate for his past acts of repression. Kinugasa zooms in to the faded murals on the gate depicting the tortures of hell, amazingly similar in spite of the vast separations of culture and distance to Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions. Monks often sit apparently oblivious to the worldly goings on that swirl near this landmark. The notion of hell on earth takes on macro- and microcosmic, sociopolitical, and emotional overtones in the course of the narrative, with the gate arching over all.

Moritou literally and figuratively passes through the gate of hell several times, including when he approaches the shrine to the rebellion’s dead with his brother’s name on it, murmuring, “The poor bastard!” whilst steadily marching toward the fate he becomes agent of, entrapping Kesa through a ruse and promising, in his fearsome state, to kill her and her relatives if she will not help him to eliminate Wataru and become his wife. Moritou’s transformation of himself into a kind of demon in his pursuit of his desired one is matched by Kesa’s act of martyrdom, built up to in a spellbinding sequence reminiscent of the best Val Lewton films, in which Moritou sneaks up on the Wataru house through moonlit fields whilst Kesa, inside, cajoles her husband into swapping rooms. When Moritou strikes at his quarry in bed, he finds that he’s skewered Kesa, which, with bleak irony, breaks the spell of obsession on Moritou. Shocked and aggrieved, he awakens Wataru and demands that Wataru kill him as punishment and atonement for his crime.

But the stunned and horrified Wataru rather thinks about the implicit message of Kesa’s decision to offer herself in such a fashion, for he feels it reveals she did not trust him to protect her from the danger, and in fact, took it upon herself to protect him. Thus, both men are framed together in the house’s courtyard, Wataru standing over the kneeling Moritou who begs for death, in a shot that somehow castrates both of them, even before Moritou cuts off his samurai’s topknot and pledges to live the rest of his life in shame, probably as a monk. For both of them, not simply the woman they loved, but also the ideals and structures that guided them are dead. Kinugasa provides an interesting ending, partly for its explicit rejection of violence as an answer to violence, the acidic commentary on a culture where the capacity to wield lethal force is heralded but will inevitable cut into the very heart of its presumed sanctuaries, and the idea suggested by the final shot, of Moritou emerging out of the mist and heading through the hell gate, that his new life may give him something of the same selflessness and redemption Kesa was able to find.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 10:23 am

    “Otherwise, Kinugasa’s film would almost invite an audience challenge to prove just how it was so much better than Seven Samurai and Sanshô the Bailiff. Well, it has neither the overflowing narrative richness nor psychological depth of either of those films, but then again, few things do. Kinugasa’s film is still a formidable drama that is something close to a noir film wrapped in the guise of historical exoticism, and Kinugasa’s formal control of the film is superlative.”

    I chose this particular paragraph to highlight simply because I agree with every single point you make. Mizoguchi’s SANSHO THE BAILIFF is one of my favorite films of all-time, and I have the highest regard for SEVEN SAMURAI and indeed for the Golden Age of Japanese cinema that you so passionately frame in that terrific opening paragraph. Your cinematic references throughout this towering review are abundant, and they help to assess the artistry of an exceptional work that may not approach the masterpieces, but still holds the stage most compellingly. Yes, the psychological slant of Lewton and the physicality of Eisenstein and Curtiz all come into play in a film that I think can simply be defined as an ‘affair of the (misunderstood) heart’, a film that would probably work better on the stage but one that works nonetheless, in no small measure because of the extraordinary use of color. It wouldn’t at all be a stretch to say that the use of color ranks among the most exquisite in the history of the cinema in fact. The husband isn’t your typical Japanese warrior in that he reads and weighs every action. This sets the stage for some fascinating character interplay that compliments the sheer breath of the physical production.

    You have brought out everything but the kitchen sink here, in a wholly engaging and intimidating essay of this ravishing film.

  • Roderick spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 10:44 am

    Thanks for commenting on this, Sam, as I had developed the distinct feeling I had wasted my time in writing it up. I like your point about the husband not being your typical Japanese movie (or any movie, come to think of it) warrior: Yamagata’s excellent performance delivers both the kind of integrity and sensitivity that makes one understand why Kesa loves him whilst also ever so faintly suggesting his lack of an edge that could ward off Moritoh and reassure Kesa.

  • MDL spoke:
    11th/04/2012 to 11:54 pm

    Thanks for the fine review of this great film. I caught it last year on a DVD of a VHS transfer. Tough to find but one of the key Japanese films of the period to hit the American screens in the mid-1950′s. It was released by Edward Harrison working in conjunction with Masaichi Nagata the head of Daiei Studios. It opened at The Guild in NY on December 13, 1954 and ran for 11 months. The other two films that were released in the same period by Harrison were Ugestsu and The Golden Demon. But it was Gate of Hell that won the NY film critics circle best foreign film. Hopefully it gets a release on DVD from Criterion at some point.

  • Roderick spoke:
    12th/04/2012 to 12:58 pm

    MDL: Glad you’ve seen and appreciated this film. 11 months – that’s awesome. Even a hit these days can’t run eleven weeks. Yes, it does need a good Criterion release and deserves some re-popularisation with film fans – I’m really fascinated by how far off the radar it seems to have fallen. Although historically speaking that’s not so uncommon for big Cannes prize winners.

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