Gate of Hell opens in sound and fury. Gorgeous Japanese scrolls tell us that it's 1160, the Heiji era, and a rebellion is underway near the Sanjo Castle. General Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is traveling with his family, and the samurai who remain loyal to him are fighting to suppress an attempt to kill the nation's emperor and his daughter. Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô) is hastily chosen and whisked away with loyal warrior Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) in the hopes that she'll be mistaken for the emperor's daughter, and thus distracting the attackers from their true prey. Kesa and Morito head into the countryside and wind up hiding out, after a bit of spirited swordplay, at Morito's family home. Another fight breaks out, Kesa slips away, and Morito's soon able to alert Kiyomori, who quashes the rebellion. But not before the emperor and his daughter are killed, their heads hung up high in a sack atop the Gate of Hell.
Those events, enough to fill an entire film, are resolved in the first 20 minutes and are barely referenced again, as the first act is soon revealed to be an elaborate form of misdirection that deviates from our expectations of tales of brave bodyguards and their beautiful objects of concern. Morito quickly develops an obsession for Lady Kesa, and demands, with a level of conviction that's dangerous in the face of a superior, that General Kiyomori give Kesa to him. Amused, Kiyomori initially grants the wish, until he's informed that Kesa is already married to Lord Watanabe Wataru (Isao Yamagata), the leader of the Imperial Guards. Undeterred, Morito remains adamant in his demand, and quickly becomes a laughing stock for his indiscretion.
The first act, fast, clipped, exciting, contrasts subtly with the slow, contemplative portion of the film that remains. The change of pace is intentionally jarring, and places us with little fuss into the mindset of Morito, a fiery man, honorable in the battlefield, who's undone by the tranquil rhythms of everyday life. And the damage Morito ultimately wreaks is, in no small part, attributable to the society's monstrous objectification of women. Even Wataru, generally a sympathetic character, is held accountable for indulging a more insidious form of sexism: His sentimentalization of Kesa as the woman of his dreams blinds him to the peril she's facing.
Though it was acclaimed at the time of its release, receiving an Oscar for Best Foreign Film as well as the Grand Prix (now the Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival, Gate of Hell, sadly, hasn't enjoyed the long-lasting recognition and acclaim of other post-war Japanese films released around the same time, such as Rashoman and Ugetsu. (Even Japanese scholar Donald Richie wrote the film off, with uncharacteristic impatience, as “limp.”) True, Rashoman has a more contemporary sensibility, as Akira Kurosawa was without peer in expressing theme and emotion through beautiful, brilliant action set pieces. But Gate of Hell is so haunting precisely because it expresses social discord in the form of a genre that's unfortunately fallen by the wayside.
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa uses melodrama in a fashion that resembles the Hollywood films of Douglas Sirk, or certain films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, especially Black Narcissus. The deliberate pace of the last hour is, intentionally, emotionally suppressive and maddening, and the only real catharsis exists in the cinematography, which explodes with overwhelmingly passionate reds, blues, and greens. The titular gate is only glimpsed a few times, but the potentialities for damnation, doom, and violence it symbolizes hang over everyone throughout the film, a harbinger of the destruction wrought by a hypocritical and indifferent ruler that traffics in ideologies that would have to be, and have yet to be entirely, expunged. An intense exploration of post-war malaise, Gate of Hell no doubt meant quite a bit to the Japanese citizens who saw it at the time of its release, but the clamped-down anxiety it brilliantly conjures, the kind of anxiety that haunts newspapers every day, transcends the specificity of time and culture.
The image is stunning even by the standards of typical Criterion transfers. Colors pop with hyper-real vividness, clarity and depth of field are top-notch, and grain levels are appropriate. Gate of Hell is a historic early Japanese color film, and contemporary American viewers can now see what all the formal fuss was about. The audio track is clean and well-mixed.
Stephen Prince's essay does an excellent job of historically contextualizing Gate of Hell, particularly its use of color, but it's a shame that a film this relatively unsung hasn't been outfitted with a good documentary or scholarly audio commentary in an effort to resuscitate its reputation for future generations. A missed opportunity.
One of the most beautiful color films ever made, Gate of Hell is a despairing post-war masterpiece ripe for rediscovery.