Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/18/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Written and directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa and based on the play by Kan Kikuchi, Jigokumon (Gate of Hell) tells the story of a 12th Century samurai trying to marry the woman he had just rescued from an attempted coup only to realize she is already married. In response, he challenges the husband to a duel that would provide tragic consequences. The first Japanese film to be released internationally in color, it was considered to be one of the landmark films of the country winning several international awards. Starring Kazuo Hasegawa, Machiko Kyo, and Isao Yamagata. Jigokumon is a beautiful though haunting film from Teinosuke Kinugasa.
It's 1159 as a rebellion against the royal family is underway as they're about to attack the castle. Needing a decoy to distract the rebellion army, Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyo) plays the role as she is accompanied by many men including a samurai named Moritoh Enda (Kazuo Hasegawa). The distraction against the rebellion was a success though trouble has emerged when the royal family are captured. Knowing that his brother is part of the rebellion after betraying the family, he awaits word as he becomes a courier to General Kiyomori (Koreya Senda). In exposing a traitor who was trying to send word to the enemy, the rebellion is defeated as Moritoh in return wants the hand of Lady Kesa for marriage. Kiyomori grants the request but the problem is that Lady Kesa is married to an Imperial guard named Wataru Watanabe (Isao Yamagata).
Realizing that it's up to Lady Kesa to make the decision, Moritoh tries to get her to decide him but comes no answer despite Kiyomori's presence. Moritoh signs up for a horse race that Wataru is participating as Wataru is aware that he must beat Moritoh to defend the honor of his wife. Instead, the outcome isn't want Wataru got but Moritoh still isn't satisfied as he was rejected by Kesa. Moritoh decides to take manners into his own hands by waiting for Kesa to come out of her house and later, threatening her aunt to death. Kesa comes to check on her aunt as she meets Miritoh who just wants her as she refuses as he makes more threats that would lead to a tragic consequence for all involved.
The film in a lot of ways is about honor and the code of the people involved. For Moritoh, he's a man who has fallen for a woman he had helped save for the good of the royal family. Expected, he's to be rewarded but the fact that Lady Kesa is married means his request can't be granted. A man of his stature, a samurai, must be denied and ask for something else but instead he doesn't. Therefore, his demands to be with the married Lady Kesa not only makes him look bad but also Lady Kesa. For her, the role of a wife means absolute devotion and loyalty to her husband. Plus, her husband is a man who is good-natured, honorable, and knows his place. He also loves Lady Kesa and is willing to do anything for her. Lady Kesa however, because of Miritoh's advances and the presence of Kiyomori, she has become humiliated and filled with shame for putting herself and these men around her in such a position.
Writer/director Teinosuke Kinugasa definitely plays up to the film's themes about honor and the roles people play in 12th Century Japan. The first two acts are told brilliantly as the film's direction is told in a theatrical setting. Since it was based on a play, the film has the feeling of a play with amazing set designs and intimate camera shots. For some of the film's scenes with lots of action and drama, there's tracking shots and camera movements to help intensify the drama. It all goes well in the first two acts but by the third act of the film. The story kind of falls apart as audiences have an idea of what's going to happen. It loses some momentum while the characters become more sentimental over what happens in the end. Though the theme of honor and its code are still intact, there's not much sympathy for the characters involved with the exception of Wataru in some respects. Yet, his answer reveals a true persona that brings more question than answers. Despite the flaws and familiar plot points of the film, Teinosuke Kinugasa does create an interesting study of character and themes in an entrancing yet harrowing drama.
Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama does spectacular work with the usage Eastmancolor film stock to create a film that looks gorgeous but also eerie in its colorful cinematography. While it has some of the lush look of the early films of color of the 1940s and early 1950s, it's approach to lighting for the nighttime, exterior shading and interior scenes are set up wonderfully while the daytime scenes are awash with beautiful scenery of the beaches, mountains, and such in great detail with some grainy work mixed in. Editor Shigeo Nishida does excellent work with the film's editing with the use of dissolves, straight transition cuts, and fade-outs to flesh the story out structurally. Production designer Kisaku Ito and art director Yoshinobu Nishioka do great work in the set designs for the home of Wataru and Lady Kesa in its traditional Japanese structure along with the home of General Kiyomori.
Costume designer Sanzo Wada, who was also the color consultant, does amazing work with the costume design from the lavish, gorgeous robes Lady Kesa wore including the empress' robes. To the clothing the men wear to display their roles of power and such. The sound work by Shyohe Miyauchi and Yukio Umihara is excellent in the way the action scenes are captured along with the suspenseful sounds of footsteps walking around the home of Wataru. The music by Yasushi Akutagawa is a mixture of soothing orchestral arrangements to display the film's drama along with traditional sounds of Japanese music with loud percussions, drums, and harp-like instruments to play up the film's melancholia.
The cast is excellent with some small performances from Yataro Kurokawa, Kotaro Brando, and Masao Shimizu as samurai warriors and Michiko Araki as one of Lady Kesa's lady-in-waiting. Koreya Senda is great as General Kiyomori, a devious general who helps Moritoh into getting what he wants as he abuses his powers to humiliate Lady Kesa. Isao Yamagata is excellent as Wataru Watanabe, a man who is loyal to his wife and loves her but isn't the strong warrior some perceived to be as he finds himself being confronted by Moritoh. Kazuo Hasegawa is very good as Moritoh, a brave samurai warrior who shows great courage only to be denied of his reward. Hasegawa proves he can powerful but his character becomes somewhat of a pathetic, desperate figure who just doesn't get it. Finally, there's Machiko Kyo in a fantastic performance as Lady Kesa. A woman torn between her devotion to her husband and the pressures from those superior to her. While her character does delve into melodrama at times, what she does with the character in relation to her code of honor is still powerful as it's a great performance from the actress.
Despite some flaws along with some missing subtitles and a very old film print, Jigokumon is still an excellent film from Teinosuke Kinugasa. With some excellent performances from its cast along with some great technical work in its cinematography, set designs, costumes, and music. It's a film that proves a great historical point of view of post-war Japanese cinema as it is introduced to color. While it has a familiar plot and a flawed third act, Jigokumon is still a film worth watching that provides some great insight into the theme of honor in a country as unique as Japan is.
(C) thevoid99 2011