Teinosuke Kinugasa’s colorful (literally – not figuratively) chamber drama Gate of Hell (1953) took home a slew of awards from 1954-1955 from Cannes to the Oscars. It quickly became one of the most beloved and acclaimed Japanese films of the post-WWII era. Then, as film scholar Stephen Prince notes in his essay accompanying the new Criterion release (on DVD and Blu-Ray), it was largely forgotten because the film stock that made its colors so vibrant and saturated was incredibly fragile. Like the emulsion itself, Gate of Hell faded into cinema memory. Now, thanks to a beautiful restoration, it’s back to be admired.
The film begins as a complex drama centered around the Heiji Rebellion of 1160, in which a rival clan of warriors attacked Kyoto and took the two Emperors prisoner. Stuck in the middle of the rebellion is Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a samurai whose allegiance is to the Emperor…despite the fact that his brother is one of the leaders of the rebels. Morito is a loyal and brave samurai who is tasked with protecting Lady Kesa (Japanese icon Machiko Kyō, who also starred in Rashomon and Ugetsu), a woman disguised as the Empress to mislead the rebels. Almost instantly, Morito falls in love with the disguised Kesa. When the rebellion is quashed with Morito’s help, he discovers that Kesa is actually not the Empress and requests that a nobleman approach her so they can be married. The nobleman informs the warrior that she is married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) and that he should give up on his foolish dream.
The scope of the film suddenly retracts, focusing on the triangle formed by Morito, Kesa, and Wataru. Morito’s infatuation turns into obsession, as he insists that he will win Kesa’s heart. Gate of Hell, however, is not a tale of forbidden love. Kesa is happily married to Wataru, a man as noble as he is understanding. He does not resent Morito for being attracted to his wife, nor does he try to blame Kesa for his advances. Kesa and Wataru think the obsession will eventually go away when the samurai sees that they are happily married. Tragically, it does not.
Kinugasa’s film is noteworthy because of its color palate (which verges on the expressionism of Powell and Pressburger’s expressionist work), the conflicted characterization of the three leads (even Morito isn’t inherently evil, just misguided), and the performances that the characterization feeds. It is a beautiful film, the Shakespearean equivalent of an ancient Japanese art scroll. My main critique is that – in a film which tries so hard to make its characters psychologically legible – we never really understand Morito’s obsession. Why Kesa? The film suggests that it is equally tied to the class structure (Morito is of a lower class than Kesa and Wataru and perhaps he initially sees the wedding as a means of social mobility) and masculine codes (does Kesa become the object of obsession because Morito is mocked by his fellow men for his desire, thus making his attainment necessary in reasserting himself?) of ancient Japan, but it never fully establishes it. I should note that these implications may come off as being more overt to those more literate in Japanese customs and culture (which I hardly am). So perhaps it’s more of a problem on my end than with the film.
As far as a home video release, Criterion’s treatment here is a disappointment. Typically a brand whose loving treatment only begins with a beautiful restoration and ends with a geyser of bonus features (ranging from commentaries, visual essays, documentaries, and deleted scenes), Gate of Hell is uncharacteristically barren. Aside from the essay by Stephen Prince and the beautiful transfer, there isn’t anything else here to sketch out the film’s context for us. To be fair to the publisher, the producers have realized this and accounted for it in the suggested retail price (the Blu-Ray is $29.95, approximately ten dollars cheaper than the average Criterion HD release). That said, this is one of those few Criterion releases to watch on Hulu Plus or wait for a 50% Barnes and Noble sale. It’s absolutely worth watching (preferably on a large HDTV with the colors calibrated properly) and I’m pleased – despite the lack of bonus features – that Criterion has brought Gate of Hell back from the dead.