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Gate of Hell
Savant Blu-ray Review

Gate of Hell
Criterion 653
1953 / Color / 1:37 flat / 89 min. / Street Date April 5, 2013 / 29.95
Starring Kazuo Hasegawa, Machiko Kyo, Isao Yamagata, Yataro Kurokawa, Kotaro Bando, Jun Tazaki, Koreya Senda, Masao Shimizu .
Kohei Sugiyama
Original Music Yasushi Akutagawa
Written by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Masaichi Nagate from a play by Kan Kikuchi
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the early 1950s most Americans were probably unaware that the Japanese even made motion pictures. Art house theaters specializing in subtitled foreign product were a relatively new phenomenon limited to a few big cities, but their influence grew steadily, fueled by reviews in newspapers and major magazines. New York artists flocked to the tiny theaters, as did the ambitious film crowd in Los Angeles. Initially hooked on Italian neorealist pictures and elegant French productions, America finally got a taste of impressive Japanese films that were considered sufficiently "Western" to find an audience here. Akira Kurosawa's art house hit Rashomon won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and his Seven Samurai became a cult hit several years later. The art film crowd was also dazzled by 1953's Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), a tragic costume drama set in Japan's feudal period. Gate of Hell starred Rashomon's Machiko Kyo, but viewers were enchanted by the film's striking color cinematography. The artful color design goes beyond the expected pretty images of samurai-era déor and costumes, to assume a dominant role in the storytelling itself.

Director-screenwriter Teinosuke Kinugasa worked from a play by Kan Kikuchi. The intriguing story is about a noble warrior who defies convention to claim the woman he loves. In the year 1159, the Emperor's palace is overrun by a coup attempt. Loyal retainer Morito Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa) arranges a decoy mission to help his leader escape. Lady-in-waiting Kesa (Machiko Kyo) volunteers to impersonate the Emperor's wife to draw the traitors away. In the brief time they are together Enda falls deeply in love with the courageous Lady Kesa. They're caught by the enemy, but spared when Enda's brother turns out to be one of the conspirators. Enda is able to alert the Emperor's general Kiyomori (Koreya Senda), whose troops put down the coup. In the aftermath the grateful Kiyomori rewards Enda by granting him an unconditional wish. Enda asks to marry Lady Kesa. Only after Kiyomori gives his assent is it discovered that Lady Kesa is already married to Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata), an official court guard. Enda is humiliated but refuses to give up his claim. Defying court protocol and the basic social rule of marriage, he asks Lady Kesa to leave with him, and tries to provoke the calm Watanabe to a fight. The husband fails to rise to the bait, and the affair becomes a major source of gossip. Lady Kesa doesn't know what to do -- Morito Enda threatens everything she holds dear, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

Gate of Hell tells its story directly, setting up a social dilemma that causes us to re-think our initial impressions of the characters. Lady Kesa did nothing wrong. She didn't encourage Morito Enda, yet she suffers as if everything is her fault. The grateful Kiyomori seems a just and fair arbiter until he refuses to take decisive action against Enda's unacceptable demand. He briefly considers allowing Morito to steal another man's wife. The husband Watanabe never questions his wife's fidelity, and calmly ignores Enda's provocations. Yet is Watanabe really giving Lady Kesa the support she needs?

The same qualities that make Morito Enda a true hero prove to be tragic flaws. Enda risks his life when many others are abandoning their posts. He chooses his oath of honor over his own brother. We initially admire Enda's resolve when he declares his love for someone else's wife. This humiliating faux pas takes place during a formal court session. Enda's good friend Kogenta (Jun Tazaki) speaks up to help him retreat from his awkward blunder, but Enda won't budge. He instead puts more unwanted pressure on Lady Kesa. The clash of codes is clear: Enda demands his rights for preserving the empire, and a good wife must preserve her husband's place of honor, no matter what the cost. What's needed is the 12th-century equivalent of a restraining order, but it isn't forthcoming. What will Lady Kesa do?

Word of mouth must have made Gate of Hell a must-see art house picture. Teinosuke Kinugasa had been directing since 1922 and handles all aspects of the film with a sure hand, eliciting carefully measured performances from his stars. But the film's knockout angle is its color. Eastman's multipack film color stock was only a couple of years old in 1953. It would soon displace the prohibitively costly Technicolor process, putting color within the reach of more producers. Director Kinugasa clearly saw color as an artistic opportunity. His designer Hiroshi Ozawa and art director Kisaku Ito bathe the screen in exotic textures and oddly complimentary hues. The story begins with the unrolling of a precious painted scroll depicting the events we're about to see. We're dazzled by the beautiful silken costumes, but also by colored draperies and sheer screens that act as color filters. Anyone interested in design cannot help but be impressed; seeing Gate of Hell's exotic display of the Japanese graphic sensibility is much more dramatic than viewing artifacts in a museum or color illustrations in an art book.

American distributors of the 1950s considered most foreign films inaccessible to average audiences. Yet Japanese pictures gained a foothold here, earning respect as works of art. Only after the success of epics and genre crowd-pleasers like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo did the audience embrace a wider range of Japanese film. With the exception of art houses and film schools, the full spectrum of Japanese film art didn't arrive until the advent of home video. Gate of Hell was one of the first to break through. It won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar as well as an Oscar for Sanzo Wada's costume designs. Interestingly, the theme of a feudal warrior who defies the social code to take another man's wife became the subject of a later American epic, Franklin Schaffner's The War Lord starring Charlton Heston.

Criterion's Blu-ray of Gate of Hell is a dazzler. The colors outclass anything we've seen on this title, and might well look better than original release prints. As reported in an insert pamphlet article by Stephen Prince, in 2011 a major restoration by the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo rescued the picture from decades of neglect. The original unstable Eastmancolor film elements had long since faded. But as Prince reports, Daiei had wisely protected their show with B&W color separations. The registers enabled modern digital processes to completely rejuvenate the film's colors.

Prince compares the new video's impact to that of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg -- the color imagery plays an active role in the presentation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gate of Hell Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English
Supplements: Insert pamphlet essay by Stephen Prince
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2013

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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