Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)
The 1950s in Japan were a great time for costume dramas. Witness Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), Teinosuke Kinugasa's multi-Western-award-winning (Oscar: Best Foreign Film and Best Costume Design, New York Film Critics' Circle: Best Foreign Film, BAFTA Best Film, Cannes Grand Prize) flick about obsessive love and its inevitable end.
Moritoh (Genji Monogatari's Kazuo Hasegawa) helps put down a revolt, and is rewarded with anything he desires. What he desires is the beautiful Kesa (Ugikusa's Machiko Kyo), but he finds out that Kesa is already married to another samurai, Wataru (Isao Yamagata of The Seven Samurai). This knowledge doesn't faze Moritoh in the least; he sets about trying to win Kesa's love by proving himself a better warrior than her husband.
It is a good film, but it could have been a better one. Midnight Eye's summary of the film says that "Kinugasa himself was fully aware of his picture's dramatic weaknesses, and blamed intervention from his producer, an under-developed script and a rushed working schedule due to a release date fixed in advance. Whilst impressive in its performances, and the ambition and scale of its production, with a little more attention to plotting, one gets the feeling that it could have been a truly great film." This is quite the case. While it is undeniably a stunning picture, even by today's standards-- the rather primitive film stock (this was Japan's first color film) does nothing to mask the intricacy of the set design, the brilliant, almost expressionist color scheme, or Kinugasa's excellent eye when it comes to action scenes-- the plot is presented in almost stop-motion fashion, with one excellently-acted scene after another, but nothing to tie them together.
This does not, by any means, mean you should avoid this movie. Any film containing Machiko Kyo, possibly the single most beautiful actress working in filmdom in the 1950s, and certainly one of the handful of the most talented, is well worth watching. Hasegawa makes Moritoh into a figure who is less frightening than pathetic, a man who is driven solely by his demons, who has entirely lost his soul to obsession, while Yamagata plays Wataru as a blissfully ignorant chap who is given every opportunity to see tragedy rushing towards him, but refuses until it's on his doorstep staring him in the face. It could have been great, but because it's not doesn't mean it's not good. ***