You can not find a more breathlessly adventurous and rewarding a period of Japanese cinema than the golden years of 1950-1955. The number of era-defining international monsters of world cinema produced by Japan in this period is arguably unmatched in any national cinema over any five year period: Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon, Yaujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Early Summer, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. In this treasure-trove of embarrassing riches, Gate of Hell is usually considered an also-ran. Certainly, it qualifies as a “deep cut”, but only unfairly. Yes, it is no Tokyo Story or Ugetsu, but Gate of Hell is a stunning achievement, and it is stunning in a way that no other Japanese masterpiece from the period is.
Teinosuke Kinugasa, likewise, is not a “name” director in the cinematic world, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be, especially with Gate of Hell working as sumptuously and vigorously as it does to draw you in from the soul outward. Still, it is not his best film; unlike those other Japanese masters, Kinugasa’s greatest work was one of his earliest, and probably the earliest Japanese masterwork: 1926’s avant-garde silent horror A Page of Madness, a phenomenally effective study in Japanese cinema coming into its own with a visual language parallel to German Expressionism but not limited by it. Madness is, above all else, a distinctly Japanese film, drawing on Japanese watercolor art (and in black-and-white, no less), Kabuki theater, and Japanese cultural iconography. Kinugasa, arguably on his own, paved the way for the heights of Japanese cinema in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and Japanese cinema as it existed then arguably would have been passed over without Kinugasa looking to both the future (cinema) and his nation’s rich, luscious past in playing with performance and representation in both moving and sedentary art.
But Kinugasa wandered for decades, not quite disappearing, but never attaining the fame of the young-ins he helped bring into the cinematic world. 1953’s Gate of Hell was something of a return to prominence (winning the Palme d’Or, something no other Japanese director at the time managed, certainly helped), and his passion shows. It is no mere also-ran, and it seems him extravagantly and kinetically experimenting with a technique no Japanese director at the time had really mined: color. And not merely “color”. Gate of Hell is a work of ultra-contrasted color as bold and exciting as any work by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s, and the color in Gate of Hell is as fundamentally tethered to the narrative and character depth of the film as it was in any Powell and Pressburger production. It is a study in what color means for a film, and how the canvas of color could revolutionize cinema.
Right from the beginning, a battle scene throws us into a particular sort of abstracted bedlam with a ferocity and eye for counter-intuitive angles and edits (courtesy of editor Shigeo Nishida, who is a marvel throughout) matched in the ’50s only by the combat in Welles’ Othello. Seven Samurai’s battles may be better, but they are grungier and more classical, and they don’t work as a display of abstract chaos quite as well. The color in Gate of Hell, however, adds a texture unseen in those other films, prefacing Kurosawa’s much later Kagemusha (also a Palme d’Or victor) and his final masterwork Ran. Gate of Hell doesn’t match Ran for sheer color-as-mood-and-theme, but Kinugasa’s film is no ersatz substitute. This is not synthetic, nondescript storytelling, but mesmeric beauty both trapping and releasing a hypnotic tale of rivalry, identity, and self-destructive desire.
The color-work affords the film the gift of materiality, with every burning red, glorious green, and searing blue a new tangible stimulant to intoxicate. Gate is marinated in colors that approach the viewer almost carnally, but their boldness isn’t fixed or rigid. They have an elastic, malleable quality, bending to Kingusa’s will and evoking the needs of the moment (the different passions explored solely by the color red throughout the film are transformative). They speak to a natural visual storyteller, although Kōhei Sugiyama’s cinematography certainly helps on that front, as does the production design team of Hiroshi Ozawa, Kisaku Ito, Kosaburô Nakajima, and especially costume designer Shima Yoshizane (whose costumes may just be capable of telling the story all on their own).
As for that story, Morito Endo (Kazuo Hasegawa) falls in love with the married Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō) and plans to kill her husband Wataru Watanabe (Yatarō Kurokawa), a simple premise primed like a powder-keg with enough lecherous lust and devouring passions to set off any classical tragedy, which Kingusa does (serving as both writer and director, although he clearly privileges his camera over his pen hand). He proves perfect in every way, from his visualist ethos to his essaying of perfectly haunted performances pitched halfway between silent tragedy and bellowing melodrama (by Hasegawa, especially). Gate of Hell’s use of color seems like the last link in Japanese cinematic storytelling and its ability to convey character and mood in a traditionally Japanese way, but every other feature of the film is exemplary as well (Yasushi Akutagawa’s score is quintessentially ethereal, evanescent, and disquieting).
The film isn’t quite the master-class that, say, many of the aforementioned Japanese films are (it isn’t as effervescently transcendent as the films Ozu and Mizoguchi were releasing around this time, nor as overpowering in its use of color as Kurosawa’s Ran). But its position in the dustbin of history is unfair and unwarranted; Gate of Hell, with its overpowering tragedy and sense of theatrical but naturalist leisure and performance, as well as its habit of preempting the Japanese horror explosion of the ’60s, does the Palme d’Or proud.