“Gate of Hell” – A.J. Hakari

I’d hate to think most of what people know about Japanese culture comes from samurai movies. Japan’s cinema is a varied and colorful one, though the proliferation of samurai flicks might lead some to believe all people did in medieval times was slash each other up for kicks. But that’s not to say these films are without merit, as a select few transcend mere swordplay and choose to focus on meatier thematic elements. 1953’s Gate of Hell is just such a picture, one in which very few swords are drawn, though when they are, the filmmakers guarantee you’ll feel their effects long after the end has come and gone.

Gate of Hell takes place admist the drama and intrigue of the Heiji Revolt. Rebel forces are slowly taking over, and safe passage is needed to ensure the royal family makes it out alright. Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo) takes it upon herself to impersonate her mistress, with hot-headed samurai Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa) assigned to watch over her. The ruse leads to the rebellion’s eventual downfall, and for his brave deeds, Moritoh is promised any reward of his choosing. What he wants is to spend the rest of his days with Kesa, but unfortunately, it’s a no-can-do request. Kesa is already married to the noble Wataru (Isao Yamagata), though that doesn’t cut any ice with Moritoh. His obsession with Kesa consumes his soul, allowing it transform into a fatal attraction that leads Moritoh towards an inevitable but tragic end.

As you might expect, Gate of Hell deals quite a bit with honor, duty, and similar themes that are no strangers to the samurai genre. But what you might not anticipate is how critical director Teinosuke Kinugasa is of such ideas. This isn’t a story that accepts limitless honor at face value and spends the whole running time trying to convince you how right it is. Instead, Kinugasa stirs the pot by placing the characters in a position that tests the unwavering devotion to their beliefs, molding a solemn story out of what happens thereafter. The drama comes from how the primary players interact with each other, all working to enforce their own agenda in one way or another. At the heart of the story is Moritoh’s desire for Kesa, which isn’t borne out of romantic feelings so much as it is out of his own selfishness. He sees her as little more than something that’s owed to him for his heroic actions, and he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. Kesa’s marriage to Wataru only gives Moritoh reason to assert himself and try even harder to save face, to prove himself more worthy of having the maiden at his side.

Gate of Hell dives headfirst into the dark side of honor, showing the catastrophic effects of what happens when people refuse to live and let live. But while it’s a tale that could easily wander into a melodramatic bog, Kinugasa displays a concise grasp on the state of the story and characters at all times. Hasegawa plays the part of Moritoh with one part tragedy and about two parts piss and vinegar. It’s clear that Moritoh is one mean mother (even randomly kicking a puppy in one scene), yet Kinugasa executes his character arc in a way that you’ll sort of feel sorry for him at the end. In addition, Kyo’s Lady Kesa is no shrinking violet, playing up her sexuality and exploiting Moritoh’s obsession with pitch-perfect subtlety, until she realizes too late the consequences of her actions. Their torrid drama (in which Wataru remains the only truly honorable figure) is given an artistic enhancement thanks to the lush costume design and effective cinematography, both revolutionary for their times and just as beautiful to soak in today.

Fans of Throne of Blood’s teeth-gnashing intensity or the epic thrills of Seven Samurai may find Gate of Hell a little too subdued for their tastes. Nevertheless, it’s an exemplary period drama that combines deft storytelling tactics and eye-popping style to great effect. At a mere 86 minutes, Gate of Hell compacts just the right amount of physical and emotional intensity in one swift, flawless package.

Rating: ★★★★

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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