In one chapter of the Heiji Rebellion, Lady Kesa serves as both the Trojan Horse and the Helen of Troy figures. The lady-in-waiting bravely volunteers to impersonate her mistress in the hope she can lure away the attacking Minamoto clan. However, her courage inadvertently causes her samurai escort to fall recklessly in love with the married noblewoman. Tragedy is inevitable in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Academy Award winning Gate of Hell, which screens this coming Friday as part of the Japan Society’s Monthly Classics series.
When Lord Kiyomori, the warrior-monk leader of the ruling Taira clan is away from the palace, the Minamoto forces target the emperor. Initially, their attack seems so well timed, many turncoats join the Minamoto, including Morito Endo’s opportunistic brother. Remaining faithful to Kiyomori and the emperor, Endo guards the Lady Kesa’s decoy carriage, allowing the real emperor and empress to slip out the back gate. Meeting Lady Kesa later after the tides of battle have turned, the roughneck Endo is struck by her courage and grace.
In fact, Endo is so smitten, he asks Kiyomori to arrange their marriage when the general ceremonially rewards his loyal warriors. Kiyomori is willing enough until he learns thee good Lady is already married to the high-ranking Lord Wataru Watanabe. Much to his own appalled surprise, Endo continues to press for the favor granted in haste. Kiyomori tries to arrange some cooling-down meetings, but they have the opposite effect. Endo is obsessed with Lady Kesa and will resort to any sort of dishonorable violence to possess her.
Produced two years after Carmen Comes Home, Gate of Hell was the first Japanese color film to screen widely internationally. Again, this was definitely a case where Kinugasa got his money’s worth of Eastman Color. Ironically, the vivid hues of the Kodak process were very nearly lost to posterity, but they have since been restored to their original vibrancy. There are indeed some visually striking, exquisitely crafted scenes, such as the use of scroll paintings and outfits so lush they garnered an Academy Award for best color costume design (in addition to the then equivalent of the best foreign language Oscar).
The legendary Machiko Kyō is at her most ethereal as Lady Kesa. She seems like she is as much orchid as she is woman, yet her character is proactive rather than passive. In a way, the overly enflamed Endo is nearly as piteous a figure. Kazuo Hasegawa duly expresses all the compounded insecurities of a provincial samurai with a treasonous brother. The blue-blooded effeteness of Isao Yamagata’s Watanabe completes the perfect storm of tragedy.