Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Teinosuke Kinugasa | Jigokumon (Gate of Hell)

the “other” inside
by Douglas Messerli
Teinosuke Kinugasa and Masaichi Nagata (writers, based on the play “Kesa’s Husband” by Kan Kikuchi), Teinosuke Kinugasa (director) Jigokumon (Gate of Hell) / 1953, USA 1954

With the introduction of color film by Eastman Kodak that allowed a single strip film camera to carry three dye emulsions, producing a high level color, Japanese director Teinosuke Kingugasa created the first commercially produced color film in Japan in 1953. For a country that had lagged far behind American color films, it was a startling feat, displaying some of the deepest and richest colors in all of cinema, particularly in the Japanese medieval tale’s lavish costumes and sets, allowing the director to blend the colorful flourishes with rich woven textures. The film won the Cannes’ Palme d’Or and the Best Foreign Language Film at the 1955 Academy Awards, as well as the Academy Award for the Best Costume Design.

     But, as Stephen Prince writes in the liner-essay to Criterion’s DVD restoration of Gate of Hell, “although Eastman Kodak’s new film stock (5248) offered revolutionary cost savings…unlike those of three-strip Technicolor, its colors did not prove to be long lasting.” And within a few years Kingugasa’s great film had nearly disappeared.

     Fortunately the studio Daiei had made separation masters in black-and-white that record all the color information, and in 2011 was restored to its original beauty, the edition that Criterion has published.

     The story, for all of its spectacle, is startlingly simple. During the Heiji Rebellion of 1160, when the castle is attacked, warlords helped the emperor and the empress escape, in part by employing one of the empresses’ ladies in waiting, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō) to ride away from the Imperial Palace in her carriage. The ruse succeeded when the invaders, chasing after the carriage in hopes of capturing the empress, were rebuffed by the emperor’s supporters; in the midst of the battle the warrior, Morito bravely pulls the carriage out of harm’s way, steering it to his brother’s house nearby, allowing Lady Kesa, who in the fear of the moment has passed out, to survive.

      As Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) attempts to awaken the startled Kesa, he is possessed by her beauty, but is distracted by the return of his brother and others, whom he quickly discovers has gone over to the side of the rebels. Defending his position and continuing to protect Lady Kesa, he rebuffs his brother’s behavior. And when the rebellion has ended, the emperor(s)* restored to their rightful place, his brother is killed as a traitor. Visiting his brother’s memorial, sometime later, Morito once again encounters Lady Kesa and her aunt who have stopped also by the Gate of Hell, and two share a brief conversation.

     When Gen Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) awards his loyal warriors gifts of their own choosing, Morito asks that the General intercede on his behalf for a marriage between himself and Lady Kesa, only to discover that Lady Kesa is already married to the palace guard, Wataru Watanabe, a gentle and loving man. So possessed has he become, however, that he stubbornly refuses to accept any other award, and pursues the beautiful Kesa, against all advice, throughout the rest of the film, battling with Wataru in several ways, through a horserace, threats, and, finally, threatening Kesa and her aunt themselves, determining to kill Wataru in his sleep and claim his prize.  

     Terrorized by the now near-mad Morito, Kesa promises she will help with the murder of her husband, but cleverly manipulates him into her bedroom, while she moves into his. As Morito creeps in to kill her husband, he stabs Kesa to death instead, and, discovering, his horrible crime, confesses everything to Wataru, challenging the guard to end the warrior’s life. The wise and now suffering Wataru refuses—insisting that such an act can do nothing to restore his lover’s life. And the guilt-stricken and suddenly saner Morito abandons his sacred status, cutting off his chonmage (his queue of hair) to become a wondering monk. 

     Although this story is beautifully enacted by the central actors and stunningly visually presented it is its supersaturated colors and complex patterns, like the scrolls that tell this early story, that make Kinugasa’s work so memorable. So intensely saturated are the palace scenes that they create almost a sense of fantasy and disbelief. Although we want to define this attention to light, texture, and detail as a kind realism, we can only recognize it as being closer to a sort dream-state where things are never quite what they seem.

     And indeed, that psychological tension between what things outwardly seem to be and inwardly actually are is behind several of Kinugasa’s themes. From the very beginning we perceive that people are not always who they seem to be: Lady Kesa is not the empress fleeing the palace, Morito’s brother is no longer a loyal supporter of the throne. Although clearly loyal and brave, Morito is at heart a potential murderer and a selfish destroyer of marital bliss.

      But even here, in the seemingly deep love between Wataru and Lady Kesa, we can only wonder if things are precisely as they appear. Why has Kesa not herself told Morito of her marriage when he first kissed her at his brother’s house or when he verbally accosted her and her aunt at the Gate of Hell. Although the aunt seems friendly and kind, she is also, apparently, a kind gossipy old woman, spending far too much time telling Morito about her niece, even when Kesa herself attempts to demure and escape.

      After the horserace between Morito and Wataru, the later an experienced winner of the annual even, Wataru is accused by his fellow guards as having purposely lost. Did he, perhaps, inwardly doubt his wife’s version of events, resulting in his failure to whip on his horse to winning? Certainly, Wataru might have sought more explanation for his wife’s involvement with Morito in the first place.

     Although General Kiyommori attempts to dissuade Morito from his interest in Kesa, he still manipulates a meeting in the palace between the two. Even though Kesa is wary of events, why does she still chance the night-time walk to her aunt’s house? Even the truly noble and gentle Wataru cannot explain why his angelic Kesa had not come to him to tell him of Morito’s threats. Did she so fear his inability to deter Morito, just as he had lost the horse race, that she was willing to sacrifice herself?

     These questions and many others are (fortunately) never answered by Kinugasa’s film, for the very tensions between the inside and the outside of the selves in this culture are what create the most significant moments of this profound film. In such a beautiful world as the one the director has created before our eyes, it is hard to see the darker recesses of the individuals with whom he presents us. And we can only guess of the “other” inside each of these historical figures.

Los Angeles, September 10, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (September 2013).

*Historians tell us that during this period in Japan there were two emperors, one, hermetically separated, who made all decisions, the other living as a more available figurehead.

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