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The Cinematic Palette from Feudal Japan – Gate of Hell

Gate 1

By Giuseppe Sedia. 

Beyond any artistic value or aesthetic significance, the critical response to Gate of Hell (1953) provides a rare glimpse into the evolution of cinematic taste in the Fifties. According to Jean Cocteau, who served as jury president at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, Kinugasa’s visually flamboyant jidai-geki displayed “the most wonderful colors in the world.” It’s hard to determine if Cocteau’s sentence itself became a sufficient reason to convince the rest of the jury to assign it a Grand Prix.

Gate 2On one hand, the reception of Gate of Hell was, indeed, the result of the short-term japonisme that affected world cinema stakeholders when the Kurosawa-Ozu-Mizoguchi trinity suddenly came to the fore in the international festival circuit. On the other hand, Kinugasa’s feudal drama was a sumptuous reply to the angst and intricate storytelling as admired at the Lido in Rashomon (1950) and The Life of Oharu (1952). Concurrently, Cocteau’s passion-driven response could be seen as an anti-intellectual cri de coeur and claim for the centrality of aesthetic value in cinema. Furthermore, the reception of Kinugasa’s most celebrated effort is a potential case study to describe a “politique du jury” theory by which the jury’s decision can be considered as an artistic statement of its own.

Set in the year of Heiji Rebellion in Japan, when the rivalry between the Minamoto and Taira clans had reached its peak, Gate of Hell follows the rebels’ attempt to overthrow the Emperor by kidnapping his father and sister. The refined Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyô), disguised as the Emperor’s sister and escorted by Moritô (Kazuo Hasegawa), is used as a lure to divert the enemy’s attention from an easy target. Due to the fierce devotion Moritô displayed in defending the Taira clan, the samurai is allowed to be rewarded with whatever he desires. He shows interest in Lady Kesa, but his appetite for the woman cannot be satisfied as she is already engaged to another man, Wataru (Isao Yamagata). And yet, Moritô pursues her still and his desire borders on a destructive obsession as the story goes on. 

Gate 3The pictorial exuberance of the film itself was the main reason why filmmakers in the West looked at this movie with the same admiration as French Impressionists had for Utamaro’s and Hokusai’s oeuvre. In the initial battle sequences, Sugiyama Kôhei’s inventive cinematography and chromatic vividness are complemented with a vigorous camera work that evokes the iconographic richness of Kunisada’s mushae warrior prints.

Once the story line shifts on the feudal love affair between Moritô and Lady Kesa, Kinugasa necessarily adjusts the editing rhythm to a more domestic pace. The viewer can then eventually focus on the lavishness of Shima Yoshizane’s apparel and the intricate period-era set designs. Although Gate of Hell does not have the depth of a fully accomplished magnum opus, Kinugasa’s feudal drama is still one of the finest samples of world cinema ever produced in the Fifties.

Giuseppe Sedia is a French-born Italian journalist based in Poland. He is a contributing editor for The Krakow Post.

Gate of Hell was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka Entertainment as part of their “Masters of Cinema” series and by the Criterion Collection. 

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