|Directed by||Teinosuke Kinugasa|
|Written by||Teinosuke Kinugasa|
|Produced by||Masaichi Nagata|
|Edited by||Shigeo Nishida|
|Music by||Yasushi Akutagawa|
|Distributed by||Daiei Film|
Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is a 1953 Japanese jidaigeki film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. It tells the story of a samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) who tries to marry a woman (Machiko Kyō) he rescues, only to discover that she is already married. Filmed using Eastmancolor, Gate of Hell was Daiei Film's first color film and the first Japanese color film to be released outside Japan. It was digitally restored in 2011 by the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo and Kadokawa Shoten Co., LTD. in cooperation with NHK.
The film begins during the Heiji Rebellion in 1160. Lord Kiyomori "the Monk" of the Taira clan has taken his whole family on a pilgrimage to the Itsukushima Shrine. In his absence, the Cavalry Chief Yoshitomo of the Minamoto clan, and the Guard Chief, Nobuyori of the Fujiwara clan, attacked Sanjo Palace, the residence of former Emperor Go-Shirakawa in a coup. The samurai Endō Morito is assigned the duty of escorting lady-in-waiting Kesa away from the palace once she volunteers to disguise herself as the daimyō’s sister, buying the daimyō’s father and real sister time to escape unseen. The pair escape a bloody skirmish with their lives, and flee to Morito’s brother’s home, but Kesa is unconscious. Morito sprays her with water repeatedly to try to wake her, and in a last-ditch effort, feeds her water from his mouth, which rouses her. The pair are interrupted by a samurai who says he is with the Cavalry, one of the two groups who betrayed the daimyō. The hotheaded Morito immediately begins dueling the samurai, but Morito’s brother arrives and puts a stop to the duel. Morito learns his brother has also betrayed the daimyō, claiming “the world has changed since a day ago.” Morito is unconvinced to join his brother and betray his master, but the battle is over, and he returns to the gate in the aftermath.
At the gate, Morito learns that he is suspected of betraying the daimyō, and offers to bring the news of what happened to the daimyō to prove his loyalty. At great personal risk, he makes the journey, and beats the other samurai en route to deliver the message themselves. Morito succeeds in his task, and is chosen to ride with Lord Kiyomon to stamp out the insurrection.
After the coup has failed, Morito runs into Kesa again, pleased to see she is well. He is immediately transfixed by her, and asks her to visit his home for dinner, but she declines. Her aunt explains Kesa is expected at the palace, and Morito is visibly reluctant to part with her.
At the palace, Lord Kiyomon rewards the warriors who rode with him with one single wish. Morito asks him for Kesa’s hand in marriage, to which Lord Kiyomon agrees, but Kiyomon’s son informs them both that she is married to Wataru Watanabe, a samurai of the Imperial Guard. Morito asks for her hand anyway, and Lord Kiyomon declines, offering any other wish Morito has. He refuses anything else Lord Kiyomon has to offer.
Morito grows agitated, continuing to search for any way he can claim Kesa as his own. Kesa expresses concern to Wataru, worried she is culpable for Morito’s obsession with her. Wataru reassures her she has done nothing wrong, and promises to protect her. Relieved, Kesa relaxes.
Kesa is summoned to the palace to perform koto music for Lord Kiyomon. Kiyomon admires her beauty, and in doing so, begins to sympathize with Morito. He calls upon Morito and decides to give him a chance to compete for Kesa’s hand. Morito enters a horse race in which Wataru is competing, and nearly attacks Wataru at a “Forget the Race” dinner after the race is over, visibly disturbing everyone around him.
Upset, Morito tries to visit Kesa, who asks her handmaid, Tone, to tell him she was at her aunt’s. Morito, having met Kesa’s aunt before, heads to the home and discovers the lie. He threatens Kesa’s aunt, calling her a liar and proclaiming he’ll search the whole house for her. Her aunt convinces Morito Kesa isn’t there, and Morito has her write a note to Kesa claiming she’s sick and needs Kesa to come see her. Kesa receives the note, and, with some encouragement from Wataru, travels to see her aunt.
Morito ambushes Kesa at the home, getting her alone and threatening to kill Wataru, her aunt, and even Kesa herself if she denies him. Kesa collapses to the floor and says she will fulfill his heart’s desires. Coerced by his violent tendencies and unhinged behavior, and scared for her loved ones, she details a plan for Morito to kill Wataru and claim her once she’s widowed.
Kesa returns home, and gives her loyal handmaid, Tone, a gift. She asks for sake, then tells Tone to retire for the night. Kesa then spends an evening drinking with her husband, visibly shaken but unwilling to tell Wataru what is wrong. She plays the koto for him one last time, and the two retire for the night. An indeterminate time later, Morito sneaks across the grounds and into a bedroom, dealing a decisive killing blow to a figure beneath the blankets. Morito quails once he sees he has slain Kesa, begging her to forgive him. Grief-stricken, he hurries to Wataru and wakes him, begging him to cut his head off, since he has just killed Kesa. He says she sacrificed herself, resigned to the knowledge that Morito wanted her despite her own wishes. Wataru rushes to Kesa’s side, crying and asking why she didn’t trust him to protect her.
Morito kneels in the courtyard, cutting off his topknot and vowing to start over as a monk. Morito quietly leaves in the predawn light, walking back out of the castle through the gate of hell.
After the Japan Society sponsored a U.S. release of the film in December 1954, Bosley Crowther reviewed it for The New York Times. According to Crowther:
The secret, perhaps, of its rare excitement is the subtlety with which it blends a subterranean flood of hot emotions with the most magnificent flow of surface serenity. The tensions and agonies of violent passions are made to seethe behind a splendid silken screen of stern formality, dignity, self-discipline and sublime esthetic harmonies. The very essence of ancient Japanese culture is rendered a tangible stimulant in this film.
Gate of Hell won the grand prize award at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, a 1955 Academy Honorary Award for "Best Foreign Language Film first released in the United States during 1954", along with the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Color, and the 1954 New York Film Critics Circle Award for "Best Foreign Language Film". It won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival.
In the United Kingdom, Gate of Hell was released in 2012 on Blu-ray Disc and DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema line; the next year The Criterion Collection released it in the United States.