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.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (血槍富士, Tomu Uchida, 1955)

Bloody Spear Mount Fuji posterThere was a reason that the occupation authorities were suspicious of period films, but the jidaigeki of the post-war years are not generally interested in nationalistic pride so much as in interrogating the myths of the samurai legacy in order to pick apart the compromises of the modern era and the follies of the immediate past. Tomu Uchida had been among the most prominent directors of pre-war cinema but left to join the Manchurian Film Cooperative in 1942, remaining in China until 1953. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (血槍富士, Chiyari Fuji) was his “comeback” film, brought into existence through the good offices of fellow directors Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Daisuke Ito who had been the pioneer of samurai movies in the silent era. Like the later films of Masaki Kobayashi, Uchida takes aim at the hypocritical falsehoods of the samurai order and at a series of still prevalent social codes which oblige one human to oppress another in order to avoid acknowledging the fact that one is oneself oppressed.

Ironically enough we begin on the road to Edo as a goodhearted but compromised samurai, Sawaka (Teruo Shimada), makes the journey to the capital to make his name with a precious teacup in tow. He may be a samurai, but he’s making this lengthy journey on foot and accompanied by only two retainers – veteran spearman Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka), and manservant Genta (Daisuke Kento). While on the road, the trio come across various other travellers including a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a cheeky orphan who wants to be a samurai, and a melancholy father and daughter en route to visit a relative in the hope of financial assistance. There is also a notorious bandit on the loose going by the name of Rokuemon, which is one reason that the “recently wealthy” miner Tozaburo (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) is arousing suspicion with local law enforcement.

In contrast to many a jidaigeki epic, the travellers on the road to Edo are mostly good people if wise enough to be wary and on the look out for trouble. Genta and Genpachi have been given strict instructions that Sawaka is not to drink during the journey. Though he’s a nice enough soul when sober, Sawaka is a mean drunk with a tendency to start random fights and his mother doesn’t want him messing up his big chance by causing trouble on the road. This maternal solicitude can’t help but annoy Sawaka who overhears Genta complaining to a servant at the inn as he enjoys a quick glass of solo sake in the kitchen. There may be a sword on Sawaka’s belt, but he’s a middle ranker at best – something rammed home to him when the party is held up by a roadblock which turns out to be solely caused by three elite samurai having a picnic who wish to enjoy the view uninterrupted. Later he grips the handle on his sword in rage and desire to help a young woman in trouble before his hand begins to slip as he realises how little power he really has. The only thing to help her was money, and money is something Sawaka evidently does not have.

Sawaka’s “power” is entirely illusionary and dictated by the complex hierarchies of the samurai era. Breaking all the rules, he considers selling his “priceless ancestral spear” to get money to help the girl, but is told that the spear is a fake and hardly worth anything. With the help of the plucky little boy Jiro, Genpachi helps to apprehend a wanted criminal but it’s Sawaka who gets a commendation – something which causes him not a little consternation but his attempts to transfer the praise onto the rightful parties falls on deaf ears. In any case, the reward is just a piece of paper filled with more empty words and not much practical use to anyone. A fake spear begets a fake reward, he quips, becoming ever more disillusioned with the rights and responsibilities of the samurai order while somewhat romanticising the lives of the “ordinary” who might be more “free” in one sense but then Sawaka is never going to worry about being hungry or have to think about selling his daughter to avoid certain ruin even if he resents the ways in which is social class obliges him to affect coldheartedness.

Sawaka’s rejection of “samurai” values eventually leads to his downfall when an invitation to a servant to join him at his drinking table as an equal provokes outrage in a fellow nobleman who feels his own status threatened by this genial act of meaningless equality. Sawaka’s attempts to insist that he and his servant are both human beings only makes things worse and it doesn’t take long to figure out that he has picked the wrong battle if what he wanted was to strike a blow at samurai hypocrisy. Sawaka himself is no innocent in this game, terrorising a trio of peasants simply because one of them had an interesting nose and the drink was in him. Sawaka’s servant eventually pays the price for his mistake, bearing out his earlier frustrations with the chain of “shadows” that defines the samurai order and seemingly has no end.

Genpachi is the embodiment of the good retainer, but he’s also a kind and sympathetic man who takes an interest in the lonely orphan boy and, to a lesser extent, the shamisen player and her little daughter. The four of them form a kind of makeshift family, but the samurai order destroys even this small slice of happiness as the road prepares to force them apart. Having bloodied his spear but had his act of rage “approved” by the powers that be, Genpachi emerges broken and masterless, his fatherly attentions to Jiro relegated to a literal instruction not to follow in his footsteps and never to become a “spear carrier”, a mere tool at the mercy of a cruel and corrupt regime. Uchida begins in comedy complete with a whimsical contemporary score but makes clear that his ending is inevitable tragedy only made worse by the superficial rubber stamping that neatly sanctions the hero’s moment of madness as one perfectly in keeping with his moral universe.


Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji is available on blu-ray from Arrow Academy with a typically expansive feature commentary by film scholar Jasper Sharp including a minor digression into the career of director Hiroshi Shimizu – another sadly neglected figure of pre-war/golden age Japanese cinema. Other on-disc extras includes a series of interviews ported over from the French release – though it is nice to have them, it’s a shame that they are presented with the hardcoded French subtitles blurred out and English ones placed over the top which is less than ideal but perhaps cannot be helped. First pressing also includes a booklet featuring a lengthy essay by James Oliver which duplicates much of the information from the commentary while also situating the film within the context of Uchida’s career and the wider post-war world, as well as a complete filmography both for Uchida’s directing and acting work compiled by Sharp.

Short clip from an unrestored version of the film (no subtitles)

Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Nobuo Adachi, 1949)

Invisible man appearsReleased in 1949, The Invisible Man Appears (透明人間現る, Toumei Ningen Arawaru) is the oldest extant Japanese science fiction film. Loosely based on the classic HG Wells story The Invisible Man but taking its cues from the various Hollywood adaptations most prominently the Claude Rains version from 1933, The Invisible Man Appears also adds a hearty dose of moral guidance when it comes to scientific research.

Once again the action centres around an esteemed chemist, Professor Nakazato, who has been working on a serum to render living things invisible. So far he has a sample which works on animals but is reluctant to move on to human testing as A) he hasn’t found a way to reverse the procedure, and B) there are some unpleasant side effects in which the subject becomes increasingly violent and irrational. The professor currently has two top students who are helping him towards his goal and, inconveniently, both have taken a shine to his daughter, Machiko. Half joking, the professor remarks that whoever can solve the problem first will win his daughter’s hand.

A business associate of the professor, Kawabe, is also interested in Machiko and also in the rights to the professor’s important new discovery. The professor, however, is a responsible man and refuses to sell it in case it falls into the wrong hands. Shortly after the professor is kidnapped by a gang of armed thugs who plan to use the serum to steal a set of diamonds known as The Tears of Amour.

There’s plenty of intrigue with various twists and turns to the original story which keep the viewer on their toes as they try to figure out who exactly is the invisible man and what he’s really after. Actually, the solution is sort of obvious and heavily signposted but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Kawabe is a moustache twirling villain from the get go and it’s obvious he has various things going on in the background but there’s more to the story than a greedy business man trying to manipulate everyone around him for his own gains. There’s also an interesting subplot in which the younger sister of one of the scientists is a top actress at the Takarazuka Review and turns out to have a connection to the Tears of Amour.

All of the classic B-movie hallmarks are here from the slightly ridiculous sci-fi jargon to the classic women in peril shenanigans as the serum starts to take hold and the Invisible Man becomes increasingly paranoid. There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so – so it would be for science as far as the film is concerned. According to the message at the film’s beginning and end, there is no scientific discovery which is innately “evil” but each is apt to be misused. It’s not difficult to see why this would be a popular, even essential, message in the Japan of 1949 and indeed it recurs in many films of this type including, of course, the original Godzilla. The professor takes responsibility for having invented something which, although not created with evil intent, has wrought such destruction on society but finds himself with nothing left to do other than apologise.

Director Nobuo Adachi uses a lot of classic silent cinema techniques such as dissolves and montages with a fair amount of handheld camera and some location shooting (though the majority of the film is studio bound). The special effects were supervised by Eiji Tsuburaya who would later become the founding father of tokusatsu and co-creator of the Godzilla franchise and are top notch for the time period. An enjoyably silly B-movie, The Invisible Man appears is a well crafted addition to the Invisible Man corpus and a fantastic example of Daiei’s post-war genre output.


This is an unsubtitled trailer but I wish all trailers were this much fun!