Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#653: Gate of Hell

(Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Gate of Hell is most noteworthy for its visuals. As one of the first color films to be exported from Japan, the movie takes full advantage of its format by presenting costumes and sets that positively glow in vivid HD. The impact of these visuals has not been lessened by countless followers: the film's design aesthetic is even more impressive than the recent Criterion release The Ballad of Narayama, and ranks with Kwaidan as one of the most impressive uses of color I've seen out of Japan. I watched the film on Hulu, but I'm sure it looks even more spectacular on blu-ray.

Despite being overshadowed by the imagery, the film's story happens to be pretty intense and engaging. The combination of a truly fascinating political feud which emerges from the scandal and the descent into madness of the protagonist, who had previously seemed so selfless and rational, makes the movie gripping and almost archetypal in its depiction of the samurai mindset.

One interesting question is how much Morito's actions in the last act of the film are actually the result of his descent into obsessive love as opposed to insecurity at his embarrassment. The emperor and his court spend a lot of time ridiculing Morito and trivializing the predicament instead of cutting it off before it has time to fester. The fact that Morito didn't know the woman was married makes his initial intentions more pure and his later actions (after he has already been laughed at) less clear.

In some ways, Gate of Hell reminded me of Dangerous Liasons. There is a cynicism pervasive in the high classes here that dehumanizes the three people who are actually forced to deal with the love triangle at the center of their entertainment, and while Morito certainly symbolizes the potential for evil within the masculine and militaristic tendencies of the samurai (which per usual is a stand-in for Japanese culture as a whole), the men who surround the core characters seem to be portrayed in a light that is even more damning. This exploration of what is essentially male gossip might not help Gate of Hell achieve with its story what Kinugasa achieved visually, but it makes Gate of Hell a great watch, and more than just a pretty face.

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