Gate of Hell, Happy Halloween Anniversary

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Gate of Hell (original title Jigokumon) which premiered on October 31, 1953, in Japan, is a story of three people, Moritoh Enda, Wataru Watanabe and his wife Kesa and at its heart it is a morality tale, and reminds me greatly of John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, published in 1947 contemporaneously with the release of Film Asociados Mexico-Americanos production of La perla. Of course the stories are completely unrelated in context or continuity, yet, they derive their ethics from the same universal ideal that avarice, lust and envy in control lead to the death or hurt of those we love. In La perla we hear the narrator say: “This is a story that old men tell to children. They aren’t sure where it happened or when”. This introduction shortly translates Steinbeck’s words that describe these universal tales of morality: [1] “because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind. And, as with all retold tales that are in people’s hearts, there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things and no in-between anywhere. If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it.”

Likewise, Gate of Hell tells us a story of good and bad, choices gone wrong and the stamping out of love. Unlike The Pearl, Jigokumon allows the viewer some reprieve, for Kesa sacrifices herself because of her love for her husband. In The Pearl, no such redemption is allowed, only the learning of the moral of the story, as we see mother and father send the pearl back to its birth place, in the sea; they cannot tolerate to keep the very thing that cost the life of their baby. In The Pearl the crux is an object, in Gate of Hell the bottom-line is the objectifying of Kesa. Both stories lead to death, both tales conducting to a resolution of renunciation of the driving force of envy, greed and lust; in my opinion a story that can never be told enough, because daily we see the sad results of greed, envy and lust in personal stories and sometimes on a national, regional or global scale.

Gate of Hell won an honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, (the category of Best Foreign Language Film with nominees had yet to be established); wrapping up this cautionary tale in a beautiful wardrobe, Sanzo Wada (color consultant) won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Color.  But, many plaudits for Shima Yoshizane, costume design, Kosaburô Nakajima, set decoration and Kisaku Ito for art decoration, are deserved. This is a gorgeous film, colors and textures come to life by the hand of cinematographer Kôhei Sugiyama, while veteran director Teinosuke Kinugasa brought to bear a corporate accounting of the loveliness of this movie; extracting from his cast (and crew) performances that work on many levels simultaneously.

The lead acting troupe of Kazuo Hasegawa (Moritoh), Isao Yamagata (Wataru) and Machiko Kyô as Kesa worked wonderfully together, with Yamagata (Seven Samurai, 1954) as a standout in his compassionate and thoughtful portrayal. Miss Kyô (Rashomon, 1950) was, as always, complete, filling each scene with her considerable talents. Mr. Hasegawa brought pride, an overblown sense of self to Moritoh, which is exactly what was needed for this warrior-character.

If you have not seen Gate of Hell, then you are in for a treat, if you have, then isn’t it time to see color come to life again? I think the following is as true today as when first written regarding Jigokumon: “OUT of Japan has come another weird and exquisite film—this one in color of a richness and harmony that matches that of any film we’ve ever seen.[2]” Gate of Hell is available online for streaming by numerous providers, and on DVD or Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.

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By C. S. Williams


[1] The Pearl, by John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1947, page 1

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