Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (1953) won the Palme d'Or grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Academy Award for best costume design. It also doubled as the first Japanese export to be fully produced in color...and as soon as you lay eyes on its rich, vivid hues, you'll understand why this visual stunner was a giant leap forward out of cinema's formative black-and-white years.
Gate of Hell follows wild warrior Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) as he defends Sanjo Castle from rebel forces. As the enemy closes in, Morito is tasked to protect the beautiful Kesa (Machiko Kyo), who serves as a decoy for the emperor's daughter. The two eventually escape and find shelter at the home of Morito and his brother Moritada (Kunitaro Sawamura), who has sided with the rebels. While the brothers quarrel, Kesa escapes to the home of her kind aunt. Morito isn't satisfied with their separation and wishes for her hand in marriage, pleading with Lord Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) to arrange the ceremony. Kiyomori quickly learns that Kesa is already wed to Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata), a skilled swordsman and leader of the Imperial Guards. Needless to say, the determined Morito doesn't take "no" for an answer.
Once the story gets moving, Gate of Hell gains momentum and maintains it through the closing moments. As Morito's stubborn lust for Kesa deepens, he resorts to a threat of violence against the young woman, her aunt and, eventually, Kesa's noble husband. Morito quickly becomes an unlikable but interesting central character, unwavering is his decision to make Kesa his bride. As Morito's plan unfolds, it takes a deadly turn that forces our "hero" to live with his sins in solitude. It's more than a linear tale with a twist ending, though: Gate of Hell reminds us that unchecked emotion often yields disastrous results.
Perhaps Gate of Hell's most obvious strengths are its striking color palette and painterly appearance. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa made use of a new single-strip camera negative process from Eastman Kodak (Technicolor's main competitor), as well as Eastman 5248 film stock. The latter was relatively slow and, though it required much more light to capture images correctly, produced a vivid, crisp picture with a fine level of detail. As a result, Gate of Hell stands apart from most films of the era, especially if your only exposure to 1950s Japanese cinema is Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, and the like. It's a technically proficient film that makes great use of color to intensify emotion and identify specific characters.
These strengths are perfectly translated on Criterion's new Region A Blu-ray. Thanks to a brand new 2K restoration in 2011 (also used for last year's Region B release from Masters of Cinema), Gate of Hell looks younger and more vibrant than ever before. Though a lack of bonus features spoils the party a bit, this is still a release that Kinugasa fans should enjoy and appreciate. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Not surprisingly, Gate of Hell's's captivating, vivid cinematography is rendered nicely on this crisp 1080p transfer, which retains the film's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Restoration was completed in 2011 by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kadokawa Shoten Co., Ltd., in cooperation with NHK, and the results are even better than you'd expect. Gate of Hell uses a particular film stock that produces vivid color and fine grain detail, but requires more light. As a result, outdoor sequences burst with color and only the darkest indoor scenes suffer slightly from lack of shadow detail. This was undoubtedly tough source material to work with, but Criterion's Blu-ray highlights every strength perfectly. Those who have only watched Gate of Hell on television or VHS will immediately notice an improvement, while anyone accustomed to seeing classic Japanese period films in black and white will also be pleasantly surprised.
DISCLAIMER: These promotional images are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
The Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono track is perfectly acceptable overall, as neither the dialogue nor the occasionally unsettling music cues fight for attention. Several light hisses and crackles are present during a handful of sequences, but it's nothing major and Criterion undoubtedly did what they could to preserve the aging source material. Optional English subtitles have been presented during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This 89-minute film is divided into 17 chapters (including color bars), the layer change is subtle and this Blu-Ray is locked for Region "A" playback only. The disc is housed in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, adorned with colorful two-sided artwork and a chapter insert. The included Booklet
features an essay by film historian Stephen Prince, who discusses Gate of Hell's
's themes and the 2011 restoration. There are no bonus features.
Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell is saddled with a somewhat convoluted first act, but the obsession of our stubborn central character establishes momentum and an unsettling, intense edge that should easily captivate those who submit to its charms. The film's colorful cinematography looks better than ever on Criterion's Blu-ray, thanks to the recent 2K restoration and Gate of Hell's particular film stock. Its higher price (and lack of supplements) might keep casual viewers from a "blind buy", but the strength of this Blu-ray's 1080p transfer makes Gate of Hell a worthy purchase for established fans. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.