Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Sadao Yamanaka, 1935)

million ryoSadao Yamanaka had a meteoric rise in the film industry completing 26 films between 1932 and 1938 after joining the Makino company at only 20 years old. Alongside such masters to be as Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, Yamanaka became one of the shining lights of the early Japanese cinematic world. Unfortunately, this light went out when Yamanaka was drafted into the army and sent on the Manchurian campaign where he unfortunately died in a field hospital at only 28 years old. Despite the vast respect of his peers, only three of Yamanaka’s 26 films have survived. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (丹下左膳余話 百萬両の壺, Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo) is the earliest of these and though a light hearted effort displays his trademark down to earth humanity.

The plot turns on the titular one million ryo pot when the local feudal lord inconveniently discovers that an ugly vase with a weird monkey pattern is actually a hidden treasure map just after he’s palmed it off on his younger brother as a kind of family heirloom. The brother, Genzaburo, is both angry and insulted that his vastly wealthy brother has given him such a worthless gift rather than the money which he feels he is owed. An underling is dispatched to try and get the pot back but Genzaburo is so annoyed about it that the pot gets sold before he finds out its value. The peddlers who buy it don’t know either so they give it to a little boy to keep his pet goldfish in. Eventually the boy comes into contact with Tange Sazen who is a popular character of the time known for the scar across his eye and lack of one arm. Round and round the pot goes but where it stops, no one knows – though in the end, it’s not the pot or even the treasure that really matters.

There’s something quite amusing about the central irony that this whole mess started with a stingy rich old man accidentally cheating himself out of a vast amount of money that he really didn’t need in the first place. Genzaburo does seem more like the impoverished and subjugated kind of samurai, but still he’s not exactly starving and has a large staff to support him. His concern is more with the humiliation he feels in the way he is treated by his brother. Truth be told, Genzaburo is a feckless and clumsy man who knows he has little talent or ability and continues to sulk about it. He’s even subjugated by his wife at one point after she discovers how much time he’s been spending at the local geisha house leading to another embarrassment when he tries to sneak back in late at night and is beaten up by his own servants who assumed he was a thief.

Indeed, Genzaburo repeatedly utters that finding the pot could take ten or twenty years – like a noble quest for justice! The truth being that he loses interest in the idea of actually finding it because it would mean an end to his life of “looking for the pot” which allows him to spend all his time shooting arrows with the ladies at the bar. In essence, Genzaburo is the harmless, childish kind of second tier samurai who complains about harsh treatment and lack of status but at the same time enjoys a life of leisure, indulging his personal whims and ignoring his feudal responsibilities as well as his family home.

Tange Sazen, by contrast, is well known from various other kinds of media as a loose cannon swordsman and wandering ronin gambler but here he’s more of a gruff but goodhearted ne’er do well. He seems to be in a fairly solid but perhaps unofficial relationship with the no nonsense owner of the archery-parlour-cum-geisha-palace, Ofuji, and together (more or less, after a lot of arguing and refusing) they take in the orphaned little boy, Yasu, who, unbeknownst to all, is keeping his prized goldfish inside the very pot which everyone is looking for. In fact, Genzaburo and Tange Sazen have been sitting next to it all along but entirely failed to notice.

This is just one strand of the film’s deeply felt humour as everyone fails to see what is staring them right in the face. Yamanaka proves far ahead of his time employing comedic techniques including frequent uses of what would later become know as a “bicycle joke” in which a character swears they’ll absolutely never do something only for the film to cut to them doing exactly that. Tange Sazen and Ofuji bicker endlessly – particularly about Yasu whom they’ve both become quite attached to despite their claims to the contrary. In addition to the frequent wipes and dissolves, Yamanaka’s direction is resolutely forward looking and inventive which, coupled with a more naturalistic acting style, lend it an oddly modern air for a film completed in 1935. Humorous and heartwarming with a little social commentary thrown in, Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is a wonderfully put together ensemble comedy which still proves hugely entertaining eighty years later.


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