Gate of Hell (1953)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

At a time when Japanese cinema was just starting to gain worldwide renown, Kinugasa had a veritable international hit on his hands—award winner at Cannes and the Oscars among others—albeit one whose success apparently perplexed him; he was dissatisfied by the film owing to studio interference and what he thought was a weak script. But! Gate of Hell has one inarguable factor on its side, and that’s colour. Early 50s Eastmancolor, and oh my. If Eastman could never entirely compete with Technicolor (apart from convenience), it could certainly put up a worthy fight in the right hands.

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Gate of Hell is set against a historical uprising, the Heiji rebellion of 1160 in which the dominant Taira clan were attacked by the Minamoto clan while the former’s leader was on a pilgrimage. In the course of this, our rather dubious “hero”, the provincial warrior Morito, emerges; he’s rather a rough diamond, and even his good deeds during the uprising are shadowed by association with his brother, who joined the other side. It’s his obsession with Lady Kesa, however, a lady-in-waiting who he rescues from the chaos at Kyoto, that really draws attention; not just for the idea of a rustic chap like him wanting to marry nobility like her, but also because, well, she’s already got a husband. Like that’s enough to stop him, of course…

All of this is played quite nicely (particularly by Kazuo Hasegawa as the initially heroic-seeming but really kind of creepy and unpleasant Morito), but I can kind of understand Kinugasa’s reservations about the script; it makes for nice semi-film noir business in a historical setting but there’s also not really enough of it to fill 90 minutes. Still, you can make an argument that the film is as much about its use of colour and design as it is the story (that Oscar it won for costuming was well-deserved), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do tend to give a pass to films that are visually interesting if the story is a bit lacking. Gate of Hell is pretty much the sort of thing I mean by that.

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