The narrative of a once lost film now found and properly restored has always got me to watch the film. Every single time. Gate of Hell was one of those films where I heard about the restoration process before I even knew the plot. One of the first all color Japanese film, the color process over time faded into nothing, leaving the film a pale comparison of its former glory. The people who restored this film did it perfectly. You can see how the director took complete advantage of the color palate, making the women and men’s traditional garb stand out among the traditional Japanese houses. Each color pops and gives off a lasting presence that stays with you. For instance towards the climax of the film, the moon reaches its apex in the sky. The royal blue of the sky accentuated by the golden orb glowing in the middle is breathtaking. But was this mastery of color worth it for this type of story?
This story has its roots in traditional Japanese theater. A classic love triangle, one man (Morito) wants a woman (Kesa) who is already married to another man (Wataru). This man’s love for her consumes him and forces him into tragic circumstances. He is brutal and demanding; she is quiet and unassuming. She resists his affections; he forces them on her. She never once betrays her husband whom she seems to love very much. The husband is calm and naive. He has no idea how far the samurai’s love for his wife has taken him. This is of course his downfall.
The story seems on the surface to be a simple tale of lust and love. Underneath the surface, the director comments on many themes at once, all of which were still plaguing Japanese society at the time. The first and most overt theme is the role of women in society. A Japanese woman is expected to be demure, placating and always submissive to the male counterpart. Although the woman would have been in control of this situation had it taken place anywhere else, she feels like she only has one course of action due to the constraints of her society at the time. Another theme would be warrior versus intellectual. Within its recent history, Japan rose to be a military dominant and then fell with such a crashing and devastating blow. During this time they took being a warrior as being one of the highest callings. Everyone knows what a kamikaze is and for good reason. These men who sacrificed their lives in order for Japan to have an upper hand in battle, shows echoes of a samurai way of life. But they also were very aware of the great gifts given to them either physically or spiritually once they put themselves in harm’s way. Morito put himself willingly in harm’s way and as his reward he wants what normal people cannot have. Wataru on the other hand represents the intellectual. He preaches caution, virtuous behavior and logic. It is logical that no man can take away another man’s wife unless he is willing to give her up, so he does not see Morito’s true threat. Just like the intelligentsia of World War II were unaware of the power of nationalism.
I think this film is worth watching not only for the color process, but also for the many things it says about Japanese society, both ancient and current. If you are not used to samurai films, then you will probably have a rough go of it, but I want you to challenge yourself. Pay attention, learn why the actors portray these characters like they do and you will learn more about the history of Japan then you think you would.