From Shiro Toyoda, director of Illusion of Blood, and Ryunosuke Akutagwa, writer of Rashomon, comes 1969's Portrait Of Blood, a truly odd period art-house/horror film starring Tatsuya Nakadai, star of Ran and Sword Of Doom.
Nakadai plays Yoshihide, a painter in the employ of Lord Hosokawa (Kinnosuke Nakamura of The Yagyu Conspiracy), a powerful and rich man with considerable political influence. Hosokawa wants Nakadai to paint for him a vision of paradise on one of the main walls inside his massive palace, as it will show everyone just how great and powerful he really is. Unfortunately for Hosokawa, Yoshihide refuses on the account of the fact that he feels that there's nothing even remotely resembling paradise in Hosokawa's domain and in fact those who serve under him are closer to living in a Hell on Earth than anything else. Yoshihide has a pretty bleak view of the world and as such, he tells the Lord that he would much rather paint him a portrait of Hell, as it would be more appropriate given the circumstances.
Lord Hosokawa isn't used to being argued with and he's quite taken aback by Yoshihide's sheer ballsiness. He tells him to go ahead and paint a portrait of Hell and if he's impressed enough by it, he will then commission him to adorn the wall of his palace with a similar image. Yoshihide sets out to make the best painting that he possibly can and in order to do so, he has to go to some rather extreme measures to ensure that all of the agony and suffering that Hell entails ends up there on his canvas. To make this happen, as a sort of research, he goes about torturing people to ensure that he captures the true essence of pain. His recreations of Hell become more and more extreme as time passes until he finally decides he needs to know exactly how the pompous and the vain would suffer should they find themselves in Hell. To capture this, he'll have to burn Hosokawa's golden carriage and seeing as Hosokawa gave him his word that he would allow him free reign to create this painting, that shouldn't pose too much of a problem. What Yoshihide doesn't realize is that Hosokawa just might have outsmarted him and his own arrogance and disdain for those around him will cost him the ultimate price.
Portrait Of Hell is an impressive film on a few different levels. The multi-layered story tells the tale of a conflict between two men who are far too proud for their own good. Lord Hosokawa thinks he can control the artist Yoshihide, and Yoshihide is conceited enough to put his art above everything else, even human life, all in a conceited attempt to stand up to Hosokawa. A couple of sub-plots, an important one involving Yoshihide's daughter and a less important one involving a group of dissidents bent on taking Hosokawa down, keep things interesting and moving along at a decent pace and add further odd elements to this already strange movie. Ultimately, both men suffer from the same character flaws and it all feels very Shakespearian in nature once the end credits hit the screen.
In terms of performances, both Tatsuya Nakadai and Kinnosuke Nakamura are excellent in their respective roles. Nakamura makes for an imposing physical presence on screen while Nakadai is much smaller and less deterring in his appearance which makes for an interesting contrast considering how they operate on a similar level though neither of them really realizes that. Nakadai's pent up frustration with some of the events that have put him where he is are obviously starting to boil up to the surface in spots and he handles this well here. Nakadmura's Hosokawa, though quite sinister in how he treats his subjects, does attempt to joke around in a few spots and bring some humor to the situation he finds himself in with little success – Yoshihide has quite simply lost his sense of humor all together.
The visuals are also very strong here. Shot entirely on sets from the looks of things, Portrait Of Hell is awash in some wonderful primary colored hues that make the entire production look almost like a painting itself. It all makes for a very eerie looking movie that, at times, is also quite beautiful despite some of the rather extreme set pieces that Yoshihide sets up for his painting.
The near spotless 2.35.1 anamorphic transfer is very nice indeed. Aside from some mild edge enhancement and a tiny shimmer here and there, the picture quality is gorgeous. There's a little bit of mild film grain noticeable in some scenes but there's almost no print damage at all, save for the odd speck here and there, and the colors look beautiful on the widescreen image. The black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish and the flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural. The picture is very sharp and quite detailed in both the foreground and the background and quite honestly, overall this film very good on DVD.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack on this DVD comes through with excellent clarity and doesn't suffer from any hiss, distortion, or feedback. There is some of the flatness associated with older mono tracks but that's to be expected and in terms of overall clarity, this mix is top notch. There aren't any issues with understanding the performers and Animeigo once again earns high marks for adding little cultural notes to their subtitles that help Anglo viewers such as myself better understand some of the intricacies of the plot that might get lost during the translation or go unnoticed due to cultural differences. Having these notes available is a definite asset to the presentation and I wish more companies that release Japanese films, especially those set in feudal times, would follow their lead.
While this is hardly a super deluxe special edition, it isn't completely barebones either. Lurking deep within the confines of its menu system you'll find a few trailers, some brief biographies in text format, and a modest still gallery. Nothing to write home about, but it is something and we all know that something is better than nothing.
Portrait Of Hell is a bleak but interesting period horror film that does a fine job of mixing art-house sensibility and shocking horror elements into an unforgettable package of flat out weirdness. Animeigo's disc is, typically, light on extra features but it looks and sounds quite good, making this one recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.