Few things in the movies excite and enthrall me more than a lost masterpiece, found once again. Last year a nearly-complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, believed lost to history forever, was located (it was hidden inside the wall of a movie theater, no less!) and restored. For film buffs, it was akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Gate of Hell might not come trailing the same level of name recognition or film-history pedigree, but having it restored to its original beauty and then some is no less exciting to me. This was not the first Japanese movie I saw, but it lodged so profoundly in my memory — not just for its blazing visuals, but its emotionally turbulent story — that it might as well have been.
As with Ugetsu, another film I saw early on in my self-education in Japanese cinema, I watched Gate of Hell courtesy of a VHS copy rented from the mom-‘n’-pop video store around the corner from my apartment. And as with Ugetsu, both the telecine and the print were in such lamentable shape that I wondered if that was because nothing better existed. I wasn’t far from wrong: Gate of Hell had been photographed via a single-strip Kodak process, Eastmancolor, that faded badly over time. Fortunately the studio, Daiei, had prepared a three-strip separation master — separate black-and-white negatives for each color channel — that preserved well. This process was later used by many others, e.g., MGM for their Metrocolor system (2001: a space odyssey), and when combined with digital technology, one could easily produce a remaster that outstripped the original. It also helped when the film being restored was something that had more than imagery in its favor.
Against the backdrop of 11th-century Japan's turmoil, Morito rescues Lady Kesa from usurpers to the throne.
Gate of Hell is set in Japan's late Heian period, when a decadent nobility was being slowly pushed aside by the rise of a warrior class. A rebellion is under way, with the emperor and his retainers under attack. Among those protecting the emperor is a “country bumpkin” samurai, the fiery Moritō (Kazuo Hasegawa), who provides protection for a lady-in-waiting, Kesa (Machiko Kyō), sent away from the besieged imperial palace as a decoy to draw fire. Moritō not only risks his neck to save Kesa, but discovers his own brother is among the turncoats, and is forced to cut him down as well. (Better his loyalty to his lord than even his own blood ties, a virtue routinely cited as one worthy of a samurai.)
The uprising is quelled and both Moritō and Kesa return home. When the emperor brings Moritō in front of him at court to praise him and offer him any reward he desires, his answer is immediate: he wants Lady Kesa. There’s only one problem: she’s already married. Her husband is Wataru (Isao Yamagata), an imperial guard, and from there scenes together we can see how he is as gentle and humane as Moritō is upstanding and gutsy, and how husband and wife are deeply devoted to each other. This is not a case of a woman trapped in a loveless or brutal marriage, and that makes Moritō’s righteousness all the more impotent. For all that he went through for her, he feels owed her. What did this other man do to deserve her, other than be in the right place at the right time? Did he risk his life? Suffer the pain of seeing his own brother turn traitor and have to slay him?
What happens next is obvious enough, but handled with a subtlety and a delicacy that might not have shown up in another film. Moritō tries to win Kesa over to his side, at first by demonstration, then by emotional blackmail, and finally by force. He enters a horse-racing competition where he beats Wataru handily, but then in the celebratory dinner afterwards, allows himself to entertain the possibility that Wataru threw the match and handed him a win just to mollify him. He will look for any reason to paint the other man in a bad light. He approaches Kesa directly and confesses his feelings, but she refuses to listen — and for good reason. She thought well of Moritō before, but the depth of his obsession has made it impossible for them to so much as sit in the same room without her feeling uneasy. This leads Moritō to the final phase of his obsession, where he blackmails Kesa into allowing her husband to be killed so that he might finally be able to take her. She agrees, but Moritō — and Wataru — underestimate her capacity to do the right thing in the face of evil.
What is remarkable about the film is how Moritō never seems to us to be a complete villain, even though his actions should paint him as one. We follow him from early enough on to see that his belief in himself is absolute. He is willing to do what he must — even kill his own brother — to make things right; why should this be any different? We lament his decisions rather than revile them, because they take what was once a fine man and debase him in a way he is himself completely unaware of. The only person who can see how far he is falling is Kesa herself, who exists in Moritō’s eyes not as a person but as a conquest, a reward, a thing to be claimed for his good deeds. We see her very differently, especially when she elects to protect her husband from this man — something her husband should not be protected from in the first place, but that is only something we the audience can understand. Lucky us.
Gate of Hell is primarily an actor’s piece; remove the political and historical aspects of the story and you have a three-character love triangle that could be done on an empty stage. It helps that each of the major roles is occupied well. Hasegawa, a veteran of some three hundred-odd films in his thirty-plus year career (including the 1958 version of Chūshingura, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers, and the outstanding An Actor’s Revenge*), brings to mind another veteran of samurai cinema, Kinnosuke Nakamura. In other roles Hasegawa was a rake or a dandy (e.g., the 1951 Tale of Genji), but here he was a vessel of wounded pride which the slightest of jostlings would break open. In some closeups his eyes are bloodshot with rage, and I wondered if that was opportunistic or a case of an actor reaching "Ze-ami’s ninth level", where his acting had surpassed his own intentions.
The other major role, Kesa, is filled by none other than Machiko Kyō, she who embodied dangerous feminine allure in not only Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon but also Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (where the exact nature of her role is actually a plot point). Here, she is the embodiment of a particular Japanese type — the yamato nadeshiko, the good and faithful woman who must also remain strong in the face of life’s adversities. Much of her acting here is physical; she uses the slightest change of facial expression or turn of her body to suggest things that in another role, from another actor, would have been done with lines of dialogue or broader gestures. She did much the same thing in Rashōmon, but to entirely different effect; put the two performances side by side and see how the same actress can take what might superficially seem like the same role and play them entirely dissimilarly.
And then there’s the director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, not well known even amongst Japanese cinephiles but with more than a few striking accomplishments to his record. Among them was the early, avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness (1926), thought lost to history entirely but recovered and restored in 1971 to great acclaim. Gate of Hell, made nearly thirty years later, garnered him the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1954 and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (which Rashōmon had picked up three years before as well). The superficial explanation for its success is that it was a dazzling-looking, appropriately exotic foreign film, one suitable for the tastes of international audiences — a criticism also leveled at Rashōmon, which received mixed reviews at home.
It’s not as if there is nothing to say about how gorgeous the film looks — doubly so now in its remastered version, where the level of detail and riot of color in every shot are dazzling. The framing of shots and the use of lighting are ingenious: the first sequences use a subtle three-quarter perspective angle to remind us of the picture scrolls used in the opening credits. A moment where Kesa’s robes seem to glow in the dark from ambient candlelight is masterful. It’s a vital reminder of how color films from the past were in color, and how most movies today have such boring visual palettes no thanks to the overzealous use of digital grading (which biases everything to look either teal or orange). But there was a lot more at work here than just the use of a gaudy new visual technology: it was in the service of a story with the simplest of surfaces, but with depths that resonate beyond its time and place, whether that is the 1160s or the 1950s.