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Jigokumon (Gate of Hell)

Posted by martinteller on March 8, 2014

It is the beginning of the Heiji rebellion in 12th-century Japan.  As rebels storm the palace, the imperial guard needs a decoy to pretend to be the Empress.  The beautiful lady-in-waiting Kesa (Machiko Kyô) volunteers, and the warrior Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) is assigned to escort her.  Miraculously, the two manage to escape the attack.  After the rebellion is quelled — and Morito’s own brother is slain as a traitor — Morito is offered anything his heart desires as reward for his valiant service.  What his heart desires is Lady Kesa.  And even when he is told that Kesa is married to the noble Sir Wataru (Isao Yamagata), he does not give up his attempts to win her.  Infatuation turns into dangerous obsession.

This film has two connections to my top 100.  This is only the second movie I’ve seen by director Teinosuke Kinugasa… the first is his creepy, avant-garde A Page of Madness, currently the only silent film on my list.  Kinugasa, who began his own career as an onnogata (a male actor who specializes in female roles), wrote and directed the original onnogata tale Revenge of a Kabuki Actor.  Though I haven’t seen the original, Kon Ichikawa’s dazzling remake is high on my list of favorites… and both versions feature Hasegawa in the lead.  Pedigree-wise, it must also be noted that Machiko Kyô was one of the great Japanese actresses of the 50’s and 60’s, with fantastic performances in Rashomon, Ugetsu and many others.

Gate of Hell has only a bit of the atmospheric quality of Madness, but it shares with Ichikawa’s remake of Kabuki a vibrant use of color.  In a time when color cinematography was still very new to Japanese filmmaking, the screen is awash with bright and beautiful hues, like the oranges and yellows of Kesa’s kimonos or the deep purple of Morito’s horse dressing.  The gorgeous aesthetic is enhanced by expressive visual motifs like the diaphanous, billowing curtains that seem to follow Kesa.  And the ears are as delighted as the eyes, taking in Tasushi Akutaga’s haunting score.  The music often lends a sorrowful, tragic tone as the story unfolds, with misguided principles and skewed senses of honor or loyalty.  The qualities that make Morito a heroic figure are also his biggest flaw… one senses that his devotion to Kesa is not entirely romantic, but also because now that he has publicly declared his love, he cannot back down.  Likewise, Kase’s actions are at best foolhardy and at worst cruel.  The kind and tolerant Wataru seems to be the voice of reason, the modern perspective.

On the downside, however, the movie can be quite slow.  The first act involves a lot of clumsy exposition, taking too long to explain things we don’t really need to know.  Throughout the film there are spots that feel needlessly sluggish.  A slow pace can accomplish many things.  It can build suspense, or express a very deliberate emotional state, establish an oppressive atmosphere or instill a sense of serenity.  At times, the pacing works to some of these ends, but often it doesn’t, and even when it does it feels overdone.  In the end it leaves the impression of a story stretched too thin.  Still, it remains a compelling story, and one told with great skill and beauty.  Rating: Good (76)


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