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Tragic Threshold: Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate Of Hell (1953) – Blu-ray review

November 30, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Whether political rebellion or obsessive love, there’s a reason for life’s gates; Kinugasa’s thriller is a vibrant visual essay about the dangers of passing through them.

Gate Of Hell
(Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Winning awards is no guarantee of posterity. Gate Of Hell not only became Japan’s first winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but achieved the rare feat of winning an Oscar in a technical category (for its costume design) as well as Best Foreign Language Film.  And yet, ask any film buff to name a Japanese film from 1953, and they’ll namedrop Tokyo Story, or Ugetsu Monogatari. Gate Of Hell is pretty much forgotten in comparison.

That’s why this Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema is so welcome, especially as Blu-ray is the perfect vehicle for Kinugasa’s lush, extravagant experiments in colour; in fact, it was Japan’s first ever colour film. It’s hard to imagine this film having the same impact on VHS, or even in a knackered, faded 35mm print, but Blu-ray gives a sense of how this must have looked to the original audiences who lauded the film.  The palette is rich and intoxicating, as Kinugasa codes characters through their dress and raises the overall colour scheme to compensate. Even a rope tethered to an ox, seen in close-up for a split-second, is dyed in the most vibrant red imaginable. [Check out the clip below if you don’t believe me!]

And colour is perfect for a film about passions boiling over, as characters attempt to break out of their strict social confines. It’s the story of Morito, a samurai who falls for the decoy princess he’s ordered to escort during an attempted coup d’etat; as reward for this loyalty to the emperor, he asks for the woman’s hand in marriage… only to discover she already has a husband. But his feelings (and those colours) run too deep, and he’s not about to let the small matter of an existing arrangement get in the way.

Of course, that’s not how it begins – the opening act concentrates purely on the fall-out of the (real-life) territorial dispute, with frantic scenes of slaughter and plight that underline the opening narration’s hint of a historical epic in the making. But when the emperor returns to win back his throne, the big battle takes place off-screen. Kinugasa cuts straight to the aftermath as survivors lick their wounds under the imposing gate that provides the film’s title – a symbol of power and control, where transgressions are publically punished by hanging the severed heads of wrongdoers.

It’s an intriguing choice of title, given that the gate holds no major narrative function…but this is a film about the crossing of thresholds, and Kinugasa uses the rebellion as a metaphor for Morito’s deranged, Quixotic quest. The ‘hero’ – blinded by lust – never grasps the irony that he’s challenging the social status quo as passionately as he fought to preserve it politically. Nor does Morito notice that Kinugasa’s compositions are arranged to highlight conformity, the characters forever hemmed in by trees or pillars, or framed behind screens.  Every gesture Morito makes is an affront to the film’s symmetry.

So, despite the slightness of the material, there’s a visual denseness that requires close attention – especially in a bravura, wordless sequence as Morito stalks a love rival in the moonlight, breaking every rule of his code in the process. [And where does he start this journey? At the gate of hell, of course.] In doing so, Gate Of Hell becomes an elegant primer in classical Japanese cinema, itself at the crossroads between the pared-down contemplation of Ozu and the restless action of Kurosawa. With added colour.

Gate Of Hell is released on Blu-ray on Monday 3rd December. Aside from the ravishing print quality, the Masters Of Cinema edition comes with a typically informative booklet, which reveals that Japanese audiences were indifferent to the film on release but that the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer was a huge fan.

Watch the opening five minutes of Gate Of Hell:

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