Ranking: #106/111

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa (Japan)

Genre: Historical Period Drama/Romance

Teinosuke Kinugasa has created here a great historical drama, richly filmed in Eastman colour, which has become a classical work of Japanese film art. Gate of Hell is a jidaigeki film, or period drama. It was the first Japanese colour film to be released outside Japan.

In the story, it’s 1160 AD, the 1st year of the Heiji era. The dramatic opening shows the storming of the Sanjo Palace during the Heiji rebellion, with mobile camera work thrusting the audience into the midst of the conflict. People are fleeing in panic.

The palace courtiers try to smuggle out the queen to safety. They decide to send out a double to distract the enemy. A noble woman, Lady Kesa, volunteers to be the double and a samurai, Kazuo Hasegawa, is appointed to escort her and protect her.

Later, the samurai, played with sustained intensity by Endō Morito, falls in love with the lady. Once the coup attempt has failed, a leading courtier, Lord Kiyomon, offers Hasegawa a wish in recognition for his bravery. The samurai asks to marry the lady he escorted. However, she is already married. This only increases the man’s unrequited passion. He becomes obsessive in the quest for her hand in marriage. Her husband is Wataru Watanabe, a samurai of the Imperial Guard. Hasegawa plots to kill him, while he is sleeping.

This attempt ends in tragedy because Lady Kesa decides to sacrifice her own life to save her husband and it is she who is under the blankets. When the assassin finds out what he has done, he asks the husband for forgiveness for his terrible deed. When this doesn’t materialise, Hasegawa decides to repent and become a monk. He realises his obsession has taken over his personality and destroyed his character. The dejected samurai leaves the palace through its “gate of hell”.

This is an atmospheric period drama, with stunning costumes. I love the balance between exterior and interior scenes throughout the film.  Gate of Hell is also a passionate, tragic love story, finely acted by Morito and Machiko Kyō as the noble Lady Kesa. Narrative tension is sustained throughout in a well-constructed movie worthy of its reputation within, and beyond, Japan.