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Gate of Hell

Gate of Hell(1953)

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One of the first efforts from the Japanese studio system to make significant inroads with western audiences, director Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (1953, aka Jigokumon) along with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) transported American audiences to feudal Japan when samurai warriors roamed the landscape. It also obtained an Academy Award before the prize was regularly issued to foreign releases, and remains a colorful and compelling story of obsession and devotion.

The story is set during the nation's feudal era in the 12th century, where the emperor's palace comes under siege by rivals in a surprise uprising. In a bid to arrange a surreptitious escape for the emperor's family, the palace guard arranges a decoy; Kesa (Machiko Kyo), one of the ladies of the court, volunteers to occupy the royal carriage in order to draw enemy fire. Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa), the samurai charged with leading the decoy through the firefight, finds himself immediately taken by Kesa's bravery and beauty.

The insurrection is ultimately put down, with the heads of traitors being used to festoon the titular archway. Afterwards, the regent Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) gratefully doles out favors to the loyalist warlords. Moritoh's request is simple; he wants Kesa's hand in marriage. This elicits embarrassed laughter from the court, as the lady is already married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata), one of the emperor's most highly placed warlords.

Those who thought that Moritoh would quietly and honorably accept the rebuff, however, were mistaken. After the samurai's continued insistence, Kiyomori pledges to do no more than allow Moritoh an audience with Kesa to apprise her of his feelings. The humiliated lady pledges her fidelity to her husband, which only serves to inflame Moritoh's fixation all the more. As the warrior's behavior grows all the more irrational, Kesa is backed into a desperate ploy to spare her loved ones from Moritoh's growing wrath.

Kinugasa, a former actor who specialized in assaying oyama (female) roles and who had made his early reputation during the silent era with German Expressionism-influenced works, had migrated to a more mainstream narrative approach over the ensuing years. His stock in trade became period dramas of a similar stripe to Gate of Hell. While the Japanese film industry had to this point been largely unsuccessful with its color processes, Gate of Hell was Daiei Studio's first project to utilize Eastmancolor, and the film would be the nation's first color feature distributed abroad. The vibrancy of Kinugasa's palate and the intensity of his battle sequences struck a chord with viewers of the day; the jury at Cannes responded by awarding the film the Grand Prix.

Hasegawa delivered an intriguing turn as the disturbingly love-struck samurai, whose tunnel vision shifts from comical to chilling as the story progresses. Also impressive is the delicate, moving work of Kyo. The actress would become the grand dame of Japanese cinema's inroads into the West, for her efforts here as well as Rashomon, Ugetsu (1953) Street of Shame (1956) Odd Obsession (1959) and Floating Weeds (1959). In addition to Gate of Hell's honorary Oscar, Sanzo Wada's costume design was also rewarded by the Academy.

Producer: Masaichi Nagata
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Screenplay: Teinosuke Kinugasa, Masaichi Nagata, Kan Kikuchi (play)
Cinematography: Kohei Sugiyama
Art Direction: Yoshinobu Nishioka
Music: Yasushi Akutagawa
Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa (Moritoh), Machiko Kyo (Lady Kesa), Isao Yamagata (Wataru Watanabe), Yataro Kurokawa (Shigemori), Kotaro Bando (Rokuroh), Jun Tazaki (Kogenta).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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