The Greatest films of all time: 48. Gate of Hell (1953)(Japan)


Japan with a history in filmmaking since the inception of cinema, never rose at a world race level and was not much recognized at an international level, until the 1950’s that is considered the golden age of Japanese cinema. With Rashomon of Kurosawa in 1950, this rich cinema became known to the world, so that any non-commercial film from Japan was the subject of accolade of western critics. Although none of these films could match or even parallel with the Kurosawa’s masterpiece, the Japanese films in the 50’s such as Ikiru, Ugetsu, seven Samurai, Godzilla, and specially Tokyo Story harvested many awards worldwide, and even the latter dethroned Citizen Kane in the Sight and Sound’s 2012 director’s poll. But only “Gate of Hell” by the Japanese veteran actor and director, Teinosuke Kinugasa came out of this land of rising sun, as another shocking masterpiece hard to resist not to praise.


The film, the first Japanese film in color out of the country, was also the first to win the palm d’Or or the grand prize award of the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. It also won the best foreign language film in 1955 Academy honorary award, best costume design and best color awards of that year of the Oscar. “Gate of Hell” also won the 1954 New York Film Critics Circle Award for best foreign language film and the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. “Gate of Hell” stands out as another Japanese cinema masterpiece since Rashomon, not for all the above awards and recognitions, as often these could be meaningless, but as another wakeup call for what cinema as an art medium could achieve, that had already been lost in the west to commercialism and popularism of the time.  


The film, a celebration of colors by Eastman for the first time in Japan, opens up with a modern time recitation of the Heiji rebellion of 12thcentury Japan, invading the emperor palace. A lady-in-waiting, Kesa, the wife of a samurai, Wataru, escapes the raid and lands at the house of another samurai, Morito, who remains loyal to the emperor unlike his brother and kills a traitor. Morito first not knowing Kesa being married, falls in love with her and when he is offered any prize for his loyalty and bravery, he wishes Kesa as his wife. Following the theme of Rashomon mixed with a tint of the American “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” of 1927, “Gate of Hell” is a shocking storyline for any culture, even the western.

Morito madly in love with Kesa, and in spite of everyone’s opposition to his wish and discouraging him, he is not willing to give up his wish even at the cost of killing anyone along the way, including Kesa’s husband and even her. To settle his blind love’s fire, and to save her honor as a devoted Japanese wife, lady Kesa agrees to go with Morito but after him killing her husband. In the final twist, Morito per arrangement with Kesa enters their house at night to kill the husband in sleep, but finds out that he had killed his love, Kesa who had slept in her husband’s bedroom for sacrifice of her love and end the Morito’s madness. Such a powerful drama with constant thrill, full of color, camera angles, perfect matching soundtrack, elegant costume and set design, masterful acting and directing is an optimal package of filmmaking putting Hollywood of the time to surprise.


“Gate of Hell”: A Gate to the Land of Rising Sun

With Rashomon that surprisingly is a gate as well and half of the story runs in it, the real art of Japanese cinema was known to the rest of the world. Despite many other films after and the hails of western critics about some of them such as Tokyo Story, Ugetsu and Ikiru, none could match the first artistic work of Kurosawa until Gate of Hell. Kurosawa was lucky to make Rashomon a few years before Gate of Hell, otherwise this film could have replaced it in a high ranking.


The film was not just the first Eastman color Japanese film showing out of the country, it is probably the best color film ever to that point. Much could be said and hailed about the film that opens up right away with action, colors, costumes, camera angle works and parallels. One interesting parallel at the opening is the fight of the soldiers and the fight of a group of roosters at the exact moment in the battlefield.  The set design of the film and the locations in and out are all like paintings and hard to believe to be real. The other Japanese films that hailed by western critics for whatever reason, such as Tokyo Story, Ugetsu and Ikiru, portray the Japanese, subdued and oppressed perhaps because of the defeat of Japan in the second world war, specially by the atomic bombs. But Gate of Hell shows the real Japanese people, how they were before their oppression, with rich culture and honor.


Gate of Hell has two sides beauty, outer with all the beauty of the color, costumes, settings, nature, beautiful palaces and buildings. But like Rashomon and some of later works of Kurosawa, Gate of Hell is more about the inner beauty, turmoil and honor. Once again this is Japanese version of a Shakespearian art, without being such a copy. Rashomon was about a mad love of a vagrant and bandit samurai towards the wife of an honorable samurai that would be tangled with events and different interpretation of the events and murder. Gate of Hell is another obsessive mad love of a samurai, but honorable one to the wife of another honorable samurai, ending in murder but with honor that brings the shame and guilt to the murderer.                        


In closing remarks “Gate of Hell” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“Gate of Hell” despite having some similarities in the story with Rashomon and “Sunrise” is an original art of filmmaking, for its complexity of story, its external and internal beauties. It is perhaps the most beautiful color film to that point, with many scenes as if they were paintings and not real, and with a celebration of colorful and elegant costumes, settings and such a camera work and directing that had been lost for a while until then.  
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “Gate of Hell” is in its beautiful and mesmerizing color, costumes, camera work, directing and acting. All these were so well weaved together that could be only possible by a veteran filmmaker, Teinosuke Kinugasa with rich experiences from the silent era as a director and also actor, acting in women’s roles before women being allowed to act on the screen in Japan.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “Gate of Hell” has been perhaps on the later Japanese films, specially on Kurosawa who once again moved back to making samurai films such as Seven Samurai, Throne of blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Red Beard, where he could show the Japanese power and honor.
  4. Survival:“Gate of Hell” has survived well to this very day that hardly could be believed while viewing, that such a beautiful and powerful film was made 65 years ago.



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