Gate of Hell (Jigokumon)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Screenplay: Teinosuke Kinugasa and Masaichi Nagata (based on the play Kesa’s Husband by Kan Kikuchi)
Stars: Kazuo Hasegawa (Morito Enda), Machiko Kyô (Lady Kesa), Isao Yamagata (Wataru Watanabe), Yataro Kurokawa (Shigemori), Kôtarô Bandô (Rokuroh), Jun Tazaki (Kogenta), Koreya Senda (Gen Kiyomori), Masao Shimizu (Nobuyori), Tatsuya Ishiguro (Yachuta), Kenjiro Uemura (Masanaka), Gen Shimizu (Saburosuke), Michiko Araki (Mano), Yoshie Minami (Tone), Kikue Môri (Sawa)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: Japan
Gate of Hell Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Gate of HellAlthough largely unseen in decades and subsequently marginalized in film history except among the most dedicated of Japanese film enthusiasts, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) was one of the most important films of its era. The first Japanese film to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (at the time, the festival’s highest honor) and only the second to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (following Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in 1952), Gate of Hell played a crucial role in advancing Japanese cinema’s inroads into Western culture. Although Japanese film had flourished since the early silent era, it wasn’t until the 1950s and the success of films by Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and others at international film festivals that Western viewers were made aware of its existence, and Gate of Hell helped to solidify Japan’s placement in the ranks of international art cinema.

The great irony, though, is that Japanese critics didn’t see the film as anything special, viewing it as a perfectly acceptable, middle-of-the-road historical drama, but little more. In fact, according to Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Ritchie’s indispensible The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, “The Japanese critics were completely confounded by the foreign success of Gate of Hell ... since it had made no one’s ‘best ten’ list in 1953, and their attitude was that of the insulted and injured, since these foreigners seems to suggest that the Japanese critics did not know their business.” One could imagine how bewildered the Japanese critics might have been while reading reviews like the one by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who gushed over Kinugasa’s film, noting that “It is hard to convey in simple language the moving qualities of this lovely film.”

Crowther suggested that the film’s secret is “the subtlety with which it blends a subterranean flood of hot emotions with the most magnificent flow of surface serenity,” but I think it is what he writes next that truly accounts for the film’s ecstatic acceptance in the West: “The very essence of ancient Japanese culture is rendered a tangible stimulant in this film.” Although its title suggests that it might be a horror film ,Gate of Hell is actually a particularly powerful example of historical Japanese aesthetics rendered cinematically, which to Western eyes, particularly in the early 1950s, was new, bold, and sensual, boasting an exotic power that even the best American and European cinema simply didn’t have.

At the time, Kinugasa was a veteran director, having directed dozens of films since the 1920s. An adept director of costume dramas, he was known for being particularly sensitive to cinema’s emotional currents, arguably because he began not just as an actor, but as an onnagata, a male actor who specialized in playing female roles. In fact, he went into directing largely because women were starting to play female roles in the late 1920s, thus making the onnagata a thing of the past, and he carried into his behind-the-camera work a sensitivity to acting that benefits his films enormously.

We can see this strength at work in Gate of Hell, which tells the story of a tortured love triangle set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 12th-century Heiji Rebellion. The protagonist is Morito Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa), a samurai warrior who remains loyal to the royal family during a a massive coup d’état, even after he discovers that his brother is part of the rebellion. Morito is instrumental in setting up a diversionary tactic in which a young woman is dressed as the empress and taken out of Kyoto, which helps divert the attention of a large number of the rebel forces. The young woman who volunteers for the dangerous assignment is Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), and while protecting her, Morito falls in love with her, although “falling in love” is too chaste and romantic a phrase for the obsessive desire and possessiveness that overtakes him. Morito asks his lord to arrange for him to marry Kesa, but they discover that she is already married to Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata), an imperial guard to whom she is fiercely dedicated. Thus, although Morito is depicted as an honorable warrior willing to risk his life to defend the emperor to whom he has sworn allegiance in the film’s first half, in the second half he descends into monstrosity as he relentlessly pursues Kesa with a frightening intensity. Casting aside all sense of honor and decorum, he does everything he can to make her his, even if that means lying and conniving, and even threats of violence.

As played by Kazuo Hasegawa, one of the great actors of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema and a regular collaborator with Kinugasa, Morito is a deeply conflicted character, one who draws both sympathy and ire, respect and disgust. Hasegawa plays him with unrelenting intensity, which helps elevate the film’s emotional textures to near operative heights. Machiko Kyô is also deeply moving as Kesa, and her presence in the film immediately associates it with many of the greatest Japanese films of its era (she also appeared in Rashomon and Mizoguchi’s award-winning Ugetsu, both favorites on the festival circuit). She has a surface fragility that makes her seem like a victim, but as the film unfolds she displays a resilient strength that makes her the film’s most notable character, especially since her husband, although honorable and decent, is ultimately clueless about his wife’s suffering.

Aesthetically, Gate of Hell’s most prominent virtue is its use of color. One of the very first color films produced in Japan (and the first to be released outside the country), it takes advantage of the intense hues of the recently invented Eastmancolor stock, which allowed films to produce deep, florid colors without the expensive, onerous Technicolor process. Kinugasa, working with cinematographer Kôhei Sugiyama (with whom he had first collaborated back in 1926 on his avant-garde masterpiece A Page of Madness), uses the intense color palette to mimic traditional, pre-cinematic forms of Japanese visual art, especially scroll painting, which he literalizes in the film’s opening depictions of the Heiji Rebellion in terms of both the right-to-left camera movements and the deployment of extreme high-angle shots. These aesthetic flourishes are relegated primarily to the film’s first act, which is decidedly more action-oriented, while the film’s subsequent dramatic developments remind us that it is adapted from a stageplay. The consequent staginess hampers the film to some extent, which may be why Japanese critics didn’t think it the revolutionary artistic statement that Western critics saw. Nevertheless, Gate of Hell is a powerful drama that has rightfully taken its place once again among the films that opened Western audiences’ eyes to the wonders of Japanese cinema.

Gate of Hell Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Gate of Hell is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Essay by film scholar Stephen Prince
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 9, 2013

    Criterion’s Blu-Ray release of Gate of Hell is a monumental occasion, as it returns to circulation one of the most important “lost” films of Japan’s Golden Age of cinema. The digital master was made from the 2011 2K restoration of the film produced by the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kadokawa Shoten Co., in cooperation with NHK. The restoration was made from a 4K digital transfer of the film, supervised by cameraman Fujio Morita, from a 35mm duplicate negative and several 35mm master positives. The resulting image is superb, with great clarity and detail and outstanding hues and saturation that once again bring the film’s impressive color palette to vivid life, particularly the florid orange tones of Keso’s kimono and the cool blues of Morito’s armor. This is certainly one of the most gorgeous films I have ever seen, and I can only imagine what an impression it made during its initial theatrical release, when most American viewers had seen only a handful of Japanese films, and all in black-and-white. The original monaural soundtrack also sound very good; it was transferred at 24-bit from 35mm positive and negative soundtracks and then digitally restored to remove aural artifacts and ambient hiss.
    No supplements are included on the disc, which is a bit disappointing. I would have loved to have seen some interviews with Japanese film scholars about the film’s continuing relevance to film history and something about its restoration, given that it has been largely out of circulation and considered very nearly “lost” for decades.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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