Gate of Hell.
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Stars: Machiko Kyo, Kazuo Hasegawa, Isao Yamagata, Koreya Senda
Out Now

Hailed by no less then Martin Scorsese as one of the ten greatest colour films ever made in the world cinema genre, director and screen writer Teinosuke Kinugasa’s masterful 1953 adaptation of Kan Kikuchi’s stage play Gate Of Hell definitely lives up to the Italian American director’s high praise. Ian Johnston reviews the DVD, released today.

An intimate epic that begins with a great eruption of action but moves inexorably towards quiet tragedy, Kinugasa’s devastatingly beautiful colour film (the first Eastmancolor film produced and exported by Japan, shot by Kohei Sugiyama, and brilliantly restored by Eureka! Masters of Cinema) retains its dramatic power.

During the Heiji Era (1160) Lord Kiyomori (Koreya Senda), ruler of the Taira Clan moves with some of his forces to the Temple of Itsukushima. Sensing a fortuitous opportunity, rebels forces led by Minanoto Yoshitomo and Fujiwara Nobuyori launch a vicious attack upon Kiyomori’s Sanjo Castle. With the Heiji Rebellion at its height a courageous loyal subject and lady in waiting to the court, Lady Kesa, agrees to act as a decoy to allow remaining members of nobility to escape. Unsophisticated country samurai warrior Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) elects to protect the carriage carrying Kesa, fighting heroically against superior enemy forces. Having saved Kesa’s life, Morito journeys to Itsukushima and returns with Kiyomori’s forces to the fight, dismayed to learn that his brother has joined forces with the rebels. Kiyomori’s forces wipe out Nobuyori’s and the Eireki Era – the Year of the Dragon – begins.

 

Despite the fact that Morito’s brother fought and died for the rebels, Kiyomori wishes to reward Morito for his bravery and informs the warrior he will grant him anything he desires. Morito has been hopelessly smitten by the radiant beauty of Kesa and asks for her hand in marriage. Informed that Kesa is already married to an urbane, high-ranking samurai of the Imperial Guard named Wataru (Isao Yamagata), Morito refuses to withdraw his claim, beginning a disastrous sequence of events.

The dazzling colour and elaborate period recreation give Gate of Hell the look and feel of an elemental mythic tale. Yasushi Akutagawa highly effectively reflects the mad unrequited love that consumes the unfortunate Morito in his strident score. The dreamlike / nightmare atmosphere with which Teinosuke Kinugasa imbues his drama and the semi surreal quality of the stunning locations and sets further heightens Morito’s derangement. Kyo is enchanting as the resolute and brave Kesa, while Yamagata is the very embodiment of dignity under extreme pressure. Hasegawa is totally convincing as the increasing deranged and impassioned Morito, who is so hypnotised by his overwhelming desire for Kesa that all his noble qualities slowly evaporate. Steadily Morito becomes a loathsome individual, fixated with his own erotic obsession to the exclusion of any consideration of the well being of others. His lowly end is both pitiful and profoundly moving, while Yamagata gives Wataru a very distinguished continence and Kyo’s Kesa attains a state of grace.

Wonderfully shot (as a battle rages in the background, a group of roosters clash in the foreground, arguably highlighting the vainglorious nature of the conflict) and masterfully paced, Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell is a remarkable cinematic experience.

Beautifully restored in high definition master presented in the film’s original aspect ratio, with newly translated English subtitles and a full illustrated booklet, featuring the 1955 reflections of Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer on Gate of Hell, a detailed 2012 appreciation of the picture by critic Philip Kemp (Jigokumon) and amazing rare archival imagery, this is yet another gem from the Masters Of Cinema label.

All words by Ian Johnston. More reviews by Ian on Louder Than War can be read here.

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