In ever smaller circles – Teinosuke Kinugasas “Jigokumon” (“Gate of Hell”)

by dropstring

A long-overlooked “minor” achievement of Japan’s Golden Age of Cinema in the early 1950s, Jigokumon (1953) was overshadowed by Kurosawa’s works. A filmmaker’s film, Jigokumon garnered praise ever since its release (starting with Carl Theodor Dreyer and not ending with Martin Scorsese, to name but a few) but only the late Criterion and Eureka releases have brought it to a larger audience. It tells a tragedy of mad love, loyalty and blemished honor in a rigid military society.

The Japan of the Heiji Rebellion in 1160 is the backdrop for a doomed love story. Morito is a loyal vassal and samurai to the emperor and in the military duty of General Kiyomori. He falls in love with Lady Kesa. But she is married to Wataru Watanabe, a high ranking minister, and their marriage is a happy one. Still, Morito cannot step back from his love: he is obsessed with her and over the course of things his behaviour takes a dark and twisted turn. He changes from the unlucky cavalier into a stalker willing to kill for his prey. SPOILER: In the end Lady Kesa sacrifices/kills herself to spare her husband’s life (and her aunt and, judging from Morito’s violent rage by this point, maybe some people more). Morito realizes his madness and overcomes it, but only over Kesa’s corpse. The grieving Wataru on the other hand doesn’t seek revenge on Morito. He feels that his wife couldn’t trust him enough to save her life, and that it is more of a punishment for Morito to live with the catastrophe he brought over the Watanabe family. Morito accepts his disgrace and becomes a ronin.

The film was adapted from a stage play by Kan Kikuchi, and director Teinosuke Kinugasa clearly shows his experience imported from the Kabuki theatre. The largest part of the movie plays out as a chamber drama and draws heavily on the stylization that is elementary to the Japanese stage. But this stylization is a mixed boon to the film. Though there is so much to commend in it (and one can really see why it came to such high honors), it can still be a jarring experience to watch. And just to complicate matters: the things the movie does best, are the things that keep it from a place next to the genre’s best.

One of the most important facts concerning  Jigokumon: it is Japan’s first exported color film. Why is it so crucial to start a debate of the film’s problems with this odd tidbit of technical information? Because Kinugasa turns his film into a sea of colors that sometimes borders on an outright attack on the viewers’ retinas. Shot with Eastman Kodak color technics, each frame is literally beaming from the screen. I agree with Scott Nye: one has to see it to believe it. The cinematography borrows heavily from medieval Japanese ukiyo-e art, starting with the Heiji monogatari as the movie’s historical point of attack. Most of it’s aesthetics stem from these paintings: the agressive colors, the clear lines and its depiction of the era in costumes and buildings. And Kinugasa, an expert in the creation of period pieces, does so wonderfully. Color symbolisms and codes are woven into poetic images. Where’s the problem? Though it may be partly intended by the director, this exaggeration of color distances the viewer from the plot’s emotional impact. The strong stylization turns the film into an abstract exposition of actions, that unfolds strangely remote from the audience.

In terms of plot structure this works against the story told. Kinugasa works his way from macro-level politics towards micro-level domestics. The exposition starts with one of the grandiose action set pieces: the rebel attack on Sanyo castle. Lady Kesa volunteers as a decoy for the empress and “royalist” Morito acts as her bodyguard. A flurry of decisions on the emperor’s future issues. Soon after we are told that Morito’s brother is one of the rebels. A hearty smell of high-level politics, conspiracy and treason seems to prepare a war-and-honor story. But most of the plot strands are cut short. The rebellion is put down via teichoscopy; the viewer is left with Morito turning towards Lady Kesa. And while Kinugasa still orchestrates one more action set piece (the masterly horserace sequence), the rest of the movie draws ever smaller circles around the triangle of the borderline sociopath Morito, strangely subdued Lady Kesa and shiny-good Wataru.

The plot’s motion is obviously inspired by traditional Drama tropes (Platonic Western standards and, as with Kurosawa, a lot of Shakespearean influence), yet turns them on their head. Morito, hero and anti-hero at once, is a good man led astray by his fatal flaw (not necessarily his love to Kesa, but possibly also a notion of misunderstood loyalty). One could even argue that the plot stages loosely adhere to classical dramatic structure. But where Greek or Shakespearean drama seek to link the private tragedy with larger-scale politics (think Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus, etc.), Kinugasa obliterates every hint of influence the events might have on affairs of state.

Oh well, I have to say it: I feel the slide into domestics is hampered by the film’s flamboyant spree of color. And what doesn’t help it either is the incredibility that comes with the dramatic action. Usually I try to take a story on eye-level (especially in drama, where action is mostly based on character decision, and not so much on physics or plot requirements) and accept it as the way the characters are. But Jigokumon fails to deliver his goods to full extent.  It is not so much Morito’s change of heart from romantic hero to violent stalker, but Kesa’s passivity concerning him. This whole story relies on her looking away and not spilling the beans on love-crazy Morito. And finally she prefers to sacrifice herself, instead of making Morito’s plans of murder public. While the Japanese society in neither 1160 nor the 1950s might have held the idea of emancipation very high, it still is hardly believable that a woman spirited enough to volunteer as a decoy for a rebel army, would stay that passive if lives are at stake. The only thing that partially eases the viewer’s leap of faith, is Machiko Kyô’s excellent acting. Her Kesa is restrained, but grants the occasional glimpse into an emotional abyss behind the facade. Too bad the script doesn’t support her too much.

Having said that, it has to be acknowledged that what the film delivers, it delivers perfectly well. One can see why the play of light and colors can be cherished. The cinematography (uncoupled from plot concerns) is fantastic. The framing of the single shots is top notch – especially in the last third of the movie, set in Wataru’s home. The cinematographer Kohêi Sugiyama structures and “restricts” the images by clever usage of the house’s architecture. Wooden beams double as limits to the actor’s performance space and create a miraculous depth in otherwise empty rooms. Sugiyama’s feeling for kinetics in the horse-race scenes is spectacular. The score and the on-screen music fits perfectly. The three protagonists are exceptionally well acted. Here is a lot to recommend, and if you can stomach the film’s flaws, this is a rewarding piece of art.

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