Gate of Hell Review
Japan produced its first colour feature in 1951. Carmen Comes Home was a sprightly comedy starring Hideko Takamine (a former child star who would soon become a fixture in Mikio Naruse’s female-centred melodramas) and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita (best-known for Twenty-Four Eyes, also available from Masters of Cinema), yet it didn’t make the journey West until much later in the decade. As far as Europe and the United States were concerned, it was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1953 feature Gate of Hell which first allowed them to witness Japanese cinema in a non-monochromatic state and they duly awarded the film for its Eastmancolor pleasures. In 1954 it won the Palme d’or at Cannes and a Golden Leopard at that year’s Locarno International Film Festival. US recognition in the form of nods from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle also led to a pair of Academy Awards in 1955, one for Best Foreign Language Film and another for Best Costume Design in Color.
Even today the colour continues to dazzle. In recent years Martin Scorsese has produced a number of ‘best of’ lists in conjunction with his Film Foundation and Philips Electronics to raise awareness for film preservation projects. His 2005 theme was ‘Light and Colour’ resulting in two top ten rundowns devoted to English-language titles and international films. Gate of Hell put in an appearance on the latter, happily rubbing shoulders with the likes of In the Mood for Love, Red Desert and Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, and deservedly so. Indeed, anyone picking up this new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray (its first English-friendly appearance in the format following a Japanese release earlier in the year) is going to be immediately impressed. Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama was shooting in colour for the first time (he’d been Kinugasa’s regular director of photography since the 1920s) and had clearly decided upon getting the utmost out of the format. You only need sample a few random frames in order to understand both Scorsese’s endorsement and that Costume Design Oscar.
Needless to say, Gate of Hell isn’t solely about the imagery but also has a story to tell. It is set during the 12th Century and centres its events on the Heiji Revolution, a short-lived civil war (it lasted just over a fortnight) between rival clans. Our central character, played by Kazuo Hasegawa, is a rural samurai caught in the midst of the conflict. His brother has recently switched allegiances to the other side – fatally, it will soon transpire – and he has also come to the aid of a young maiden. She becomes something of an object of affection for him and, once the conflict has ended, he requests permission to marry her as his reward for battle. Unfortunately for him, she is already married to an Imperial Guard (someone with a higher social standing than a lowly rural samurai), though such matters hardly cool his affections. Or perhaps that should be obsession.
Gate of Hell is structured like an ever-tightening vice. The wide-open spaces and densely populated frames of its opening scenes slowly give way to an increased focus on the three central characters: the husband, the wife and the other man. The colour also diminishes, switching from overt to stylised, whilst the dramatic impetus steadily shifts to a lower key. Whereas the first half is dictated by its set pieces – the Revolution itself, a horseracing tournament – the second places its attentions more closely to those of the psychological thriller. Eventually it will end with a solitary figure, its narrative having played in full.
Interestingly, Kinugasa finds the most interest in the figure of the wife. Played by Machiko Kyo – the female lead in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds – she’s allowed far greater depth and sympathy than either of the males and this despite Hasegawa being the star. For all this qualities as a performer (qualities that will be best known to UK audiences thanks to his 100th onscreen appearance, in Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge), the character is quite so richly drawn as he perhaps should be. Consequently, Gate of Hell can be a touch light on the dramatic side of things and never quite achieves its intentions. This isn’t to say that the film is workmanlike – after all, any feature from the director of A Page of Madness is surely going to possess a distinctive touch – but when placed alongside the contemporaneous Japanese titles also on the Masters of Cinema roster it does seem a little flimsy.
There’s a poster reproduced on Gate of Hell’s IMDb page that presumably dates back to its US run thanks to the prominence given to its New York Film Critics Circle award. Two quotes appear along the bottom, one from the New York Times, the other from Life. The latter emphasises the colour: the film is “unsurpassed” on this front and “astonishingly beautiful”. The former declares is “a rare experience”, which arguably sums up the response of the time. Japanese cinema was still an exotic quantity in the West having only recently been discovered via Rashomon. Add colour to such exoticism and, of course, it is only going to be enhanced. As such it’s easy to suspect that the various award givers were somewhat blindsided by the film’s beauty causing them to overlook the narrative deficiencies. (Philip Kemp’s booklet essay notes how domestic critics dismissed Gate of Hell as “stiff and old-fashioned”.) To an extent, you can hardly blame them – the colour photography is utterly gorgeous and fully deserves the Blu-ray treatment – though do be aware that it isn’t quite as sturdy as it should be.
Gate of Hell has been released by Masters of Cinema as a dual-format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD presentations and has been allocated spine number #40. Utilising the same 2011 restoration that appeared on the non-subbed Japanese Blu-ray earlier this year, the film looks suitably stunning in high definition. Maintaining its original Academy ratio (1.37:1), Gate of Hell appears near-spotless and with its colours looking extraordinarily rich. There are some inconsistences when it comes to the clarity of the image, though I strongly suspect that such issues were inherent in the film’s production. For the most part the amount of detail is excellent. The soundtrack is presented in its original mono in LPCM form and comes with optional English subtitles. There are no on-disc extras, though we do find a typically meaty 24-page booklet containing a newly commissioned essay from Philip Kemp and a newly translated excerpt from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 essay, ‘Imagination and Colour’. The booklet also comes with copious illustrations.