Many of the movies I review from Japan were made for Japanese audiences and make no concessions to anyone else, but as a general understanding of such things has spread it’s become possible to enjoy them for what they are. Samurai movies have had a cult following for a long time in the West, but now people are showing an appreciation for everything from yakuza-honor epics to bizarre J-horror productions like Ki-rei. Portrait of Hell has never appeared outside of Japan until now, and after seeing it for myself I can see why. It takes someone with a little bit of familiarity with Japanese popular cinema to really savor this movie, but getting to know Japanese cinema no longer requires going on word-of-mouth recommendations and buying blurry third-generation bootlegs.
Even existing samurai-movie fans might have a problem connecting with the film because of its theme, since there are almost no swordfights or gory beheadings. It focuses instead on a painter in Heian Japan, a man of Korean ancestry, who creates morbid but astoundingly emotional work, and is asked to create something that goes against his sensibilities. This sounds like it would make for a static tableau of a movie (like Rikyu), but instead it’s feisty and often melodramatic, not afraid to use theatrical gestures or frenzied flourishes to make its points. The story was derived from a short novel by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa — famous forever for Rashomon, but the movie made from that story and this film could not be more dissimilar.
The haughty nobleman Hosokawa would like Yoshihide to paint Heaven,
but all the other man can see around him in the turmoil of the Heian era is a living hell.
There’s also a certain amount of creative typecasting at work here. The artist, Yoshihide, is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, he of the hollow eyes, whom I have praised in everything from Ran to Kill!. Lord Hosokawa, who commissions his work is played by Kinnosuke Nakamura, his face powdered and his eyebrows shaved in the manner of a Heian-era lord. When Nakamura — haughty, proud, self-important — says to Nakadai, “Your art has no warmth or beauty,” and he responds “I can only paint the truth I have seen,” all we need to do is look at Nakadai’s haunted face. His character has seen too much horror in his lifetime to deal in facile prettiness, and while Hosokawa parties and writes poetry with his fellow lords the rest of the country is falling into starvation and war.
The two are engaged in a struggle over more than art. There is also Yoshihide’s beautiful daughter, in love with one of her father’s apprentices but jealously locked away from men at the first sign of outside interest. She rebels one day and runs off — right into Hosokawa’s arms, who is more than happy to take her for a concubine and use her to manipulate Yoshihide. From this comes a deal, of sorts: If Yoshihide can create a painting that truly conveys the sufferings of hell, his daughter will be returned to him. The nobleman is skeptical, of course — what mortal man has seen hell? — and scoffs at the suggestion that it is his own decadence that is causing the suffering of others.
Yoshihide's daughter becomes the pawn in a mutual tug-of-war,
with the ultimate stakes being not only their integrity or sanity but their lives as well.
If you’ve seen Nakamura and Nakadai in other movies as well — and they share at least one other film together, the outstanding Goyokin — add this to the list. Nakamura is always magnificent as a bad guy, and Nakadai’s tormented performance has hints of his later work in Ran. When he watches someone burn to death near the end of the film and proclaims “I am Hell! This is Hell!”, it’s like he’s back-channeling Hidetora from the later film (right down to the lines he’s speaking). Yoko Naito (also seen with Nakadai in Sword of Doom), the daughter, starts off as lively and happy, but in an effective bit of parallelism, she grows as stunned and wide-eyed with horror as her father.
One common complaint about the film is that there is no real hero — the nobleman is a sneering monster, the artist is unhinged to begin with, and the daughter is no more than a pawn. What others have pointed out, however, is that the movie is not about something as simpleminded as good versus evil, but about how opposing what is seen as evil at any cost does not automatically create good. Another not-so-buried theme is the prejudice that exists between Koreans and Japanese, but here it’s a two-way street. Yoshihide, of Korean blood, refuses to allow his daughter to marry anyone who is not himself from his native land; Hosokawa is only too happy to remind Yoshihide about whose armies were used to help Korea from being trampled by barbarians. (When he receives word that Korea is being besieged again, he haughtily withholds help — if they’re such advanced people, why can’t they get along on their own?)
The movie's searing and beautiful imagery is a good part of the reason to see it,
but it's been invested with a drama that's intriguing and thoughtful as well.
Shiro Toyoda, the director, has a career stretching as far back as the Twenties in Japan, but aside from the samurai-horror Yotsuya Kaidan (also with Nakadai), this is the only movie of his known at all in the West. And it’s a shame, because he does astonishing things with color and lighting in the movie (and sound, and editing) that bring to mind similar techniques used in Kwaidan. At least one “outdoor” scene is a carefully-designed set, but the fakery is so enthusiastic and clever that we don’t mind, and the level of artifice in the film is all the more appropriate as we move into its final, demented chapters. What makes all this truly work, though, is the presence of two of Japan’s finest actors — especially Nakadai, who can put a chill into the audience simply by widening his eyes.