Gate of Hell (1953)

Review #1,345

Director:  Teinosuke Kinugasa
Cast:   Machiko Kyo, Kazuo Hasegawa, Isao Yamagata
Plot:  A samurai pursues a married lady-in-waiting.

Genre:  Drama/Romance
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes). Won 2 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film, Best Costume Design.
Runtime:  86min
Rating:  Not rated (likely PG13 for some mature themes)
International Sales:  Kadokawa Pictures

“Today is the first day of a life of sacrifice.”

Unless you are really into Japanese cinema, the name Teinosuke Kinugasa may not ring any bells.  To be fair, the incredibly prolific filmmaker was best known for only two films: the 1926 silent avant-garde classic, A Page of Madness, and this Cannes Palme d'Or (at that time called the Grand Prize of the Festival) winner. 

Gate of Hell stands as one of the finest restoration efforts by the Criterion Collection.  Its recapture of the vibrant colours used in the original film negative is especially stunning, to the extent that they seem to pop out of the screen.  Kinugasa's vision was nearly lost forever, with colours fading out from existing badly-damaged prints.  Thankfully, enough prints were duplicated in black-and-white with the full range of colour data stored, enabling the restoration process. 

The narrator opens the film with a historical recount of a rebellion, occurred almost a millennium ago, even pre-dating many of the jidai geki chambara (swordfighting period dramas) movies that we are familiar with, for example, from Kurosawa.  The narration is accompanied by picture scrolls, and interestingly, they segue into filmed sequences of battle that mimic the qualities of these scrolls—frenetic, chaotic and lateral moving. 

After the heat of war has dissipated, Gate of Hell evolves into a drama with careful plotting.  We are acquainted with a loyal soldier who after saving a (married) woman of royalty becomes enamoured with her.  She refuses her advances, leading him to continue to pursue her at all costs. 

This story of romance is an excellent treatise on fierce loyalties and unrequited desires.  The film’s unhurried pacing works in a two-prong manner: it brings us deeper into the psychology of the characters, while also giving each picturesque or intricately-designed shot a longer moment than usual to mesmerize us. 

A winner of two Oscars, including for Best Costume Design, Gate of Hell is significant as one of the first few Japanese films to be shot in colour, and released internationally.  If there’s no other reason to see this film, at least see it for its wild use of colours.  It also contains one of the most exciting horse races in cinema. 

Verdict: Lovingly-restored in rich, vibrant colour, this is one of Kinugasa’s best-known works and an excellent treatise on fierce loyalties and unrequited desires.


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