New from The Criterion Collection, Gate of Hell is a Japanese drama directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, released in 1953. It was awarded the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. The film begins as an ambitious historical drama, heavy on action and somewhat grand in scope. Over its tight 89 minutes, the focus of the story becomes far more intimate and character-based. While the “gate” referenced in the title might initially seem to be the battleground upon which ferocious warriors fall, the true nature of this point of entry isn’t revealed until the film’s very end.
The time is circa 1160 and Japan is embroiled in an ongoing conflict between warring clans. We find the ruling Taira clan under attack by the rebellious Minamoto clan. People are trampled and samurai swords furiously slash at anything that moves. While the Imperial Palace burns, a woman named Kesa (Machiko Kyo) volunteers to serve as a decoy empress. The goal is to trick the Minamoto into following her instead of continuing to endanger the emperor. Fiercely loyal to the Taira’s military strategist, General Kiyomori (Koreya Senda), Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) steps up to guard Kesa during the journey away from the palace.
That’s where the real narrative begins to come into focus. Morito becomes infatuated with the beautiful, demure Lady Kesa. Regardless of her feelings for him, she’s in a committed marriage to the gentlemanly Wataru (Isao Yamagata). But Morito will not let up, becoming consumed by his desire. Gate of Hell makes a graceful transition from a portrait of honor and courage on the battlefield to an intensely personal character study. The action that dominates the opening act vanishes by the time we reach the end. Writer-director Kinugasa shrinks his initially broad canvas down to a close examination of a seemingly fulfilling marriage, rudely interrupted by a crass interloper. It works amazingly well, eventually leaving us to contemplate two very different gates of hell faced by the lead characters.
Even on standard DVD, the restoration of Gate of Hell is impressive. As explained at length in the DVD booklet, the color film stock used for Gate had faded so badly it essentially ruined the beauty of Kōhei Sugiyama’s cinematography. The film, despite its many accolades (including an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design), was a casualty of the technological limitations of its era. Criterion has also issued the film on Blu-ray, but even in standard definition the colors are vivid. The audio presentation is quite simple, with the original Japanese dialogue presented in a mono mix. This edition boasts a new English subtitle translation.
It’s a well-worn cliché, but sometimes less is more. Gate of Hell demonstrates that with a plot structure that successfully narrows rather than expands. It’s not only a story of one man’s irrational obsession with something he can’t have, but also a meditation on communication and honesty between two married people (or in this case, an unfortunate lack thereof).