Eureka Entertainment // 1953 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // December 7th, 2012
The Most Honored Screen Import in a Decade!
As Japan goes through a period of feudal unrest in the twelfth century, a brave samurai warrior, Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa), averts a palace rebellion, and in doing so saves the life of the empress. With the rebellion quelled, Moritoh is offered anything he should desire as reward. When Moritoh requests the hand of Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo) in marriage -- and subsequently refuses to retract his claim upon learning she is already married to fellow samurai Lord Watanabe (Isao Yamagata) -- he sets in motion a series of events that will lead to tragedy, unfolding on screen as Gate of Hell (Blu-ray) (Region B).
The fact that Gate of Hell has its roots in a stage play is no surprise. Though director Teinosuke Kinugasa brings an undeniably cinematic feel to the story, it is very easy to see how this tale of loyalty and love could easily have been told with no more than several cast members and a single set. Everything that Kinugasa brings to the table, no matter whether it be ferocious battle scenes or breathtaking scenery, is really only icing on the cake, entirely superfluous to the telling of the actual story.
The film opens with the samurai Moritoh very much set up as the heroic lead. His loyalty to the ruling clan sees him at odds with many of his former comrades -- including his brother -- who have fled to fight for the rebel forces. His tenacity sees him triumph, quelling the coup and earning him the appreciation of his masters. However, this unwavering loyalty shown by Moritoh immediately raises questions, as Moritoh is quite explicit that it matters not whether his rulers' actions are right or wrong; all that matters to him is that he has sworn to fight for them, and he shall do so until his own demise. To Moritoh, loyalty is the most important thing a man can have. Any doubts about this are soon expelled when, upon being granted anything he wishes in reward for his bravery, Moritoh asks for the hand of Lady Kesa, though it causes much amusement in the court. Lady Kesa is already married to Lord Watanabe (Isao Yagamata), leading the emperor to ask Moritoh to make another request -- but Moritoh won't budge. The way he sees it, he has served his master with distinction, and now it is time for that loyalty to be repaid -- no matter what the cost.
Moritoh's demands lead to a far darker film, and one which has a sense of inevitable tragedy hanging over it. Lady Kesa, who Moritoh is dangerously infatuated with, is happily married and -- though one suspects she is flattered by Moritoh's affection -- has a loyalty to her husband born out of love. So blinded by his sense of injustice is Moritoh, that he embarks on a series of increasingly dangerous challenges against Watanabe, assuming that besting him in combat will lead to his gaining of Wesa's hand. Watanabe and Moritoh's actions are in sharp contrast to each other, with Watanabe remaining calm -- though understandably a little perturbed -- while Moritoh becomes increasingly violent, leading to an unforgettable finale.
If it sounded dismissive when I referred to Teinosuke's contributions to the film as superfluous, I can assure you that was never my intention. Clearly the strengths of the story comes directly from the original stage play, but Teinosuke should still be commended for ensuring we the viewer are fully invested in his retelling of it. Likewise, the visual flourishes he brings to the film may only be "icing on the cake," but what grand icing it is. Few films manage to capture the splendor of feudal Japan in quite the way Teinosuke and his cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama have. The use of colors is especially impressive, though perhaps this should not be entirely surprising, as Gate of Hell was both production company Daiei's first color film, and the first color film from Japan to be given an international release. Indeed, Gate of Hell not only won the Palme d'Or grand prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, but also an honorary award for best foreign film at the 1954 Academy Awards.
Gate of Hell (Blu-ray) looks nothing short of stunning. The clarity of the picture is remarkable, with nary a sign of damage to the print, while any grain is unobtrusive. The Blu-ray packs in an extremely high level of detail, with the fabrics of the samurai's attire really standing out. What really grabs one's attention is the colors, though. Right from the off, their vibrancy is such that they hold your attention, and had me questioning whether it was possible a film could look this good and yet still be just shy of sixty years old. Considering this is the first release of the film on either DVD or Blu-ray, it is pleasing to note how such care and attention was paid to getting the re-mastered transfer right. Though the film's soundtrack may be less impressive, it nonetheless delivers clear dialogue, amongst a sometimes busy mix that still packs a punch. No extras were included on the screener copy sent for review, though the press release that came with it promises a booklet included with the retail copy that includes essays on the film.
Gate of Hell is that most rare of films where the lead is by no means the hero. Moritoh's increasingly disturbing actions, paired with his skewed perception of loyalty, see him cast in a dark light reserved usually for screen villains. This leads to a morally complex film, and one which -- despite the slightness of its story -- resonates strongly with the viewer. Teinosuke has crafted a fascinating, although not great, piece of cinema that has been lovingly remastered for this Blu-ray. The lack of extras is the only negative for this otherwise exemplary release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy