Can you make someone fall in love with you? Anyone who has suffered in the expansive, dark basement of loneliness, peering through the barred window has surely mulled over this question. Perhaps an even more interesting question is this: Is the devotion expressed through force attractive?
Gate of Hell is a film that throws these questions into the audience’s face. It’s about a lower class warrior’s unrequited love for a high born woman and the disastrous consequences that attend. On another level, it’s about force and its relationship to sex.
Set in 1160 A.D., during the Heiji era in medieval Japan, the film opens onto the Heiji monogatari, a painted scroll that unfolds the historical context of the narrative we are about to see. The shot of the scroll dissolves seamlessly onto the flaming battlefield, the locus of an armed rebellion against the emperor of old Kyoto.
In an attempt to protect the emperor, the royal guard hatches a plan to send a decoy empress to escape, in hopes of drawing away the attention of the traitors. One of the empress’ ladies-in-waiting, a beautiful young woman named Kesa volunteers to act as a decoy. Her protector is a gruff, brutal man named Morito. During their escape, Morito is waylaid by enemies. A fight is only avoided due to the emergence of Morito’s brother Moritada. He has joined the rebellion and offers Morito safety in the face of an all but lost war. Morito refuses. Eventually, the rebels are repulsed and Morito is praised both for his valor and his loyalty to the crown in the face of even his brother’s defection.
Kiyomori, a monk who finds himself in a position of political power after pledging allegiance to the victorious side of a rebellion is in charge of dealing out rewards to those who stayed loyal. He offers Morito any reward he desires. Morito asks for the hand of Kesa in marriage. During the brief time they spent together, he has fallen hard for her. There is a maniacal gleam in his eye when he sees her. Everyone at the ceremony chuckles because they know that Kesa is already married to a nobleman, Waritu, a serene, almost asexual man.
The asymmetry between Morito and Waritu is one of the central psychological points of interest in the film. What is so interesting is that neither presents the audience with a character they feel comfortable with. Morito initially appears to be a “good guy”, but not sympathetic. He never allows us to feel comfortable rooting for him. We are first presented with a loyal warrior. He shuns even his brother’s advances in the name of upholding his responsibility. As the film goes on though, it becomes clear that he has a dark, almost animalistic id. At every turn he is overcome by bloodlust. The only world he knows is that of force. Thomas Hobbes would have found a perfect example in him.
Waritu on the other hand, is in theory a good man. Highborn, respectful, he is abstemious in the company of his aristocratic, lush friends. When it comes to Kesa, he is caring and respectful. The thing is, he does not get enraged at Morito’s ostentatious attempt to steal her. Even after Morito has demanded an audience to try and woo Kesa, Waritu is placid and understanding.
While societal mores dictate that Waritu is correct, there’s a sense in which Morito’s aggressive behavior betrays his true passion, while Waritu’s neutrality shows his lack of inner fire. Kesa most certainly picks up on this. While mostly demur, and retreating into the complicity of “feminine virtue” there are moments when true lust flash across Kesa’s face in the presence of Morito’s abounding desire for her.
All that said, the most striking features of Kinugasa’s film are the sumptuous visuals. Watching Gate of Hell is like biting into a piece of cake. It hurts your teeth. Willowing ribbons of primary color punctuate the rich dark tones of foliage and rivers. Attendant to the natural world, Kinugasa breathes magic into the organic. Panoramic, long tracking shots drag the viewer’s eye through landscapes far richer than any dream. It has the sensuality of a movie produced by someone excited by the texture of cinema. One can to look back to early Fritz Lang films to see such devilish manhandling of the medium.
Gate of Hell won the Grand Prix at Cannes to go along with the Academy Awards for Best Costume Design and Best Foreign Film. Unfortunately, the film faded into obscurity. The colors on the available prints faded due to the specialized and difficult photochemical process used to give the film its color. While the United States had led the way in color film through technicolor, Europe and Japan lagged behind. An innovation called Eastman Kodak allowed people to film in color without purchasing expensive new equipment. Kinugasa was more than up to the challenge of wrangling the possibilities of color photography. Gate of Hell was one of the first color films to come out of Japan and a striking case for color it made.
The Criterion release comes with a fantastic essay by Stephen Prince, professor of film at Virginia Tech and the University of Copenhagen. For those interested in the particulars of the color production or the historical context in which to place this film, the essay is invaluable. His writing is elegant and his erudition shines through.