While the samurai code of honour may now be familiar to most Westerners, the question of why a society would choose to shackle itself to such a harsh and unforgiving moral system remain somewhat mysterious.
While the samurai code of honour may now be familiar to most
Westerners, the question of why a society would choose to shackle itself to
such a harsh and unforgiving moral system remain somewhat mysterious. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gates of Hell is not only a winner of
the Cannes Palme D’Or and the first colour Japanese film to be seen in the
West, it is also an attempt to convey what it is like to be trapped between the
very human need for an ordered life and the equally human need to break free of
those inhuman structures the second they begin to impinge upon our happiness.
Gates of Hell opens with an
extraordinary and hallucinatory battle-sequence in which a group of rogue
samurai attempt to sack a large town. Shot from under carts, behind coloured
banners and through torn blinds, the streets are a torrent of colour and chaos
as garishly dressed courtiers struggle to organise resistance only to be
promptly stabbed and dumped in the gutter. Energetic to the point of outright
incoherence, these scenes do an absolutely terrifying job of capturing the
chaotic horror of war.
Out of this chaos comes a samurai
named Moritoh (Kazuo Hasegawa) who
volunteers to distract the enemy by pretending to rush the emperor’s sister to
safety. Having successfully conducted an imperial lookalike named Kesa (Machiko Kyo) to his family home,
Moritoh discovers that his brother is in league with the rebels. Horrified at
his brother’s betrayal of his rightful lord, Moritoh warns the emperor and
helps to turn the tide of battle against the rebels.
Order safely restored, the film’s
pacing slows down to an absolute crawl. Suddenly, the chaos of war and the
speed of battle are replaced with the deliberate elegance of the drama. Now
devoid of armour, Moritoh is summoned before the emperor who promises him
anything his heart desires.
Immediately, Moritoh responds that he wants nothing more than the hand
of the imperial lookalike he helped to safety. The only problem is that Lady
Kesa is married and completely unwilling to abandon her husband.
On one level, Gate of Hell is a
story of hypocrisy in that Moritoh turns his back on his brother as a matter of
honour despite being willing to abandon his honour in order to get his hands on
Kesa. However, while there is no
denying that Moritoh is a hypocrite and a monster, the true moral heart of the
film beats in the chest of the stony-faced Kesa who refuses to countenance
leaving her husband regardless of how she feels or how unreasonable Moritoh
becomes. Moritoh may shed his honour in the process of hounding Kesa to her
death but the really interesting question (on which Kinugasa is frustratingly
silent) is how Kesa feels as a woman from humble origins who has honour and
desire thrust upon her from above and without.
Gate of Hell is an interesting film
on both a thematic and technical level but once you move beyond the opening
section it is hard not to feel a little underwhelmed as the film either lacks
the attention to detail requires to sustain an intelligent drama or it lacks
the sustained visual impact to make that lack of depth a moot point. Underwritten,
under-directed and spoiled by the concussive brilliance of its opening section,
the film fizzles and fades when it should ring the bells and light the fires. Takashi Miike’s utterly merciless
samurai drama Hara-Kiri: Death of a
Samurai was not an unproblematic film but when Miike sets out to show the
trouble a code of honour can get you into, he delivers the goods on time and
without you having to go to the sorting office to pick it up after work.
As we have come to expect from the
Masters of Cinema line, Gate of Hell comes fully restored in a style that does
credit’s to the film’s ground breaking and eye-catching use of colour. There are no real extras on the disc
itself but the traditional booklet has a pair of interesting essays by Philip Kemp and (somewhat surprisingly)
Carl Theodor Dryer who directed the
excellent and recently re-released The
Passion of Joan of Arc.