This movie starts a bit frustrating and ends in one of the most marvelous final half hours I’ve seen in film. Considered lost for a time, not because the negative disappeared but because the magnificent colors captured on early Eastman Kodak stock had faded, Gate of Hell by Teinosuke Kinugasa is a visually sumptuous story that starts too big and ends up with laser-like focus on its core drama.
It’s Japan during the Heiji Rebellion, and the emperor of Japan is under attack. In order to provide a distraction, the emperor’s guards enlist a young woman to pretend to be the empress and head in the opposite direction, attaching a soldier to playact as her bodyguard. If this sequence was a lot cleaner in demonstrating this dramatic series of events, I’d have gotten into the film a whole lot sooner. However, the sequence is so full of names, many of which are names of characters we never actually meet in the film, and are used to provide setting. I imagine that it would play easier to an audience that had some level of understanding of this period in Japanese history going in (like, for instance, naming a series of Civil War generals would make sense to me but not to a typical Japanese audience). So, this may just a cultural thing, but I felt lost in the opening twenty minutes. The frustrating thing, though, is that with the whole movie having been watched, I feel that this specificity in the setting wasn’t that necessary. The point is the drama between three people, not the specific historical figures that surrounded them.
The second section picks up some time after the rebellion has been quelled. The warrior, Morito, has risen in prominence because of his loyalty to the emperor (especially considering his brother chose to join the rebellion), and he’s given the choice for what he wants in return. He asks for the girl he helped save, Kesa, unknowingly that she’s already married. Because the promise had been made to give Morito whatever he wanted, the emperor’s agent feels like he has to at least present Morito the chance to woo Kesa.
The relationship that Kesa has with her husband, Wataru, is respectful and loving. They even get drunk together in the film, but there’s a formalism that separates them in ways that Wataru doesn’t realize. Both know of Morito’s challenge, but Wataru feels no apprehension at the prospect because he’s so confident in his wife’s love for him, but Morito is unwavering in his quest. After a public competition between the two at a race where Morito beats Wataru, but his victory only further enrages Morito.
The final large section of the film takes place all in one night. Morito tricks Kesa away from home and forces her, under threat of murdering her aunt, to conspire with him to murder Wataru. This is such a masterful sequence of suspense and tension, and it’s filmed in such a restrained style. We know exactly what’s supposed to come, and it’s all dependent on Kesa finding the balance between protecting her aunt’s life and trying to find a solution that protects her honor. Her solution is tragic and heartbreaking.
Throughout the film, the movie is gorgeous to look at. One of the very first Japanese films made in color (thanks to the cheaper alternative to Technicolor’s three strip color process provided by Eastman Kodak), Kinugasa uses bright primaries to highlight marvelous costumes and sets. The scenes filmed outside pop with bright greens, and the final sequence at night balances dark blacks and blues to evoke the ultimate sadness of the action at play.
Maybe with a repeat viewing, the opening of the film will bother me less, but even with that frustration, this movie is highly worth the time. It narrows its focus over the course of the film to squarely zoom in on its core story, and once there it grips you and never lets go.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4