Criterion // 1953 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 1st, 2013
An unforgettable, tragic story of obsession and unrequited passion.
Our story begins in 12th century Japan. When the emperor's army learns that a coup is being planned by the Sanjo Castle rebels, they hastily determine to send the emperor and his sister into hiding. To throw the rebels off the trail, they ask for a local woman to volunteer to pose as the emperor's sister until the royal family has made their escape. The soft-spoken Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo, Floating Weeds) signs up for the dangerous task, and soon afterwards finds her life in danger. Fortunately, she is rescued by the brave samurai Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa, The Crucified Lovers). When the dust settles and life returns to normal, Moritoh realizes that he has fallen madly in love with Kesa. Alas, it seems that she is already married to the humble, soft-spoken Wataru (Isao Yamagata, Seven Samurai). Even so, Moritoh's feelings for Kesa are so strong that he determines to do whatever is necessary to become her lover. Is his romantic quest in vain?
Despite the fact that Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell opens with battle, bloodshed and beheadings (albeit of the mild, mostly-implied 1953 variety) and the fact that it features an exceptionally ominous title, the film ultimately transforms into something that feels closer to the work of Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray than Akira Kurosawa. It's a turbulent melodrama with surprising depths, a movie that thoughtfully observes a man's romantic yearnings curdling into something much nastier. Yes, it's yet another Japanese film that questions the nobility of the samurai code, but it does so in an compelling and unique manner. By giving this centuries-old fable the eye-popping look and feel of a glossy Hollywood melodrama, Kinugasa effectively accentuates the timelessness and universal nature of the tale.
Though Kesa is the story's central figure, Kazuo Hasegawa's Moritoh is the person who commands our attention. It's a larger-than-life performance, to be sure (Hasegawa sweats, trembles and shouts, making wild facial expressions of all sorts along the way), but an effective one given the similarly over-the-top nature of the film. In the opening act, Moritoh comes across as an impossibly noble figure; a man who will not abandon his emperor or his principles even in the face of overwhelming odds. Unfortunately, it's this same unbending commitment to his own beliefs that ultimately causes the determined samurai to transform into a fairly horrific villain. He has determined that Kesa is going to be his, and there's no line that he isn't willing to cross to ensure that he wins her. Hopeless infatuation gives way to possessive aggression, and before long we realize that Kinugasa is making a larger point about the role life's circumstances play in determining whether or not we're "good" people.
Standing in direct contrast to Moritoh is Wataru, who seems like a kind, sensitive and understanding sort of fellow. Unfortunately, his passivity and failure to recognize Kesa's inner struggles makes him an unwitting accomplice in her life's downward spiral. Meanwhile, Kesa herself feels trapped by the restrictions of her culture, unable to simply say "no" to Moritoh and move on with her life. Kyo's performance is another big, expressive effort, but it effectively makes her considerable anguish an ever-present element that is impossible to ignore. I won't spoil things for you, but suffice it to say that the tale concludes as it must, and Kinugasa gives the somber finale all of the weight it deserves.
Gate of Hell: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) benefits from a tremendous 1080p/Full Frame transfer. The visual design is nothing short of astounding, as lovely backdrops, obviously artificial yet exquisitely designed sets and bright, eye-popping costumes make the film a sumptuous visual experience. Detail is superb throughout, and there's none of the color bleeding that often afflicts older full-color films (nor any of the scratches, flecks or grime that often afflicts older films in general). The LPCM 1.0 Mono track isn't quite as dazzling (the opening orchestral overture sounds a bit wobbly, in particular), but for the most part it's crisp and clean. As this is one of Criterion's budget releases, the only supplement included is a booklet with an excellent essay by Stephen Prince.
Gate of Hell is a fine film from an often-overlooked Japanese director. While I wish Criterion had delivered a meatier supplemental package, the transfer is nothing short of excellent. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated