Gate of Hell: Criterion Collection
April 30, 2013
Gate of Hell (1953) belongs to the golden age of Japanese cinema that saw several of its filmmakers achieve international acclaim, including Teinosuke Kinugasa whose film won the Grand Prix prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. This makes its virtual disappearance all the more frustrating, which was due to the colors fading from existing prints. The lush, three-strip Technicolor look (a rarity in Japan at the time) was a large part of what made the film so distinctive.
Gate of Hell is based on a play entitled Kesa’s Husband by Kan Kikuchi and is set during medieval times. It is the Heiji rebellion of 1160 as the Taira and Minamoto warrior clans fought for supremacy. In an attempt to fool Minamoto, the Taira imperial guards recruit Kesa (Kyo), a lady-in-waiting, to impersonate the empress. Morito (Hasegawa) is a warrior that agrees to escort and protect Kesa as they escape Kyoto. They seek refuge at Morito’s brother’s house only to find out that his sympathies lie with Minamoto. Over time, Morito becomes obsessed with Kesa and this only intensifies when he finds out that she’s married to an imperial guard named Wataru (Yamagata). The rest of Gate of Hell examines the tragic love triangle that develops between these characters.
The first that strikes you about Gate of Hell is the vibrant color scheme, most notably the kimonos of Kes (orange) and Morito (yellow), the bright splash of red from a samurai’s fatal wound, and the contrasting colors of golden candle light against a dark blue evening sky. The distinctive outfits of the characters mirror their colorful personalities and it helps us keep track of them all. Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell marked the emergence of color in Japanese cinema and demonstrated the use of Technicolor, which originated in Hollywood cinema. It was also part of a prolific and highly acclaimed period of Japanese cinema.