Twelfth century Japan was a land of serene beauty. Delicate white temples rose out of quiet lakes, and low, clean houses graced the green countryside. But the serenity was an illusion, for the men who ruled this paradise reigned with violence. Gate of Hell, one of the most beautiful films of recent years, reveals both the violence and the calm of Japan bathed in a sea of lovely colors.
The color shots which won the picture an Academy Award for the best foreign film of 1954 and a Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival were designed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, the director, and Sanzo Wada, his color adviser. They posed each seene with the care of the Japanese artist who spends hours arranging a few leaves and a flower into a composition of harmony and meaning. Whether the camera peers out between the spokes of a wheel at a moment of battle, or whether it regards the almost abstract lines of Japanese architecture, the eye always has enough time to appreciate the conscious beauty of the subject. The film thus breathes a calm spirit which not even the turbulence of the story can break.
Based on an ancient legend, the plot explores a soldier's attempt to win love in the same way he won honor; by force. The warrior, a brave but bestial knight named Moritoh, is struck with an insane desire for a noblewomen, Lady Kesa. Finding that she is already married, he can only answer her love for her husband with threats of bloodshed. The final victory of love over violence is inevitably tragic.
The story, which might well have served as the vehicle for a thriller full of blood and thunder but empty of any artistic value, is never exploited deeply for purely emotional impact. Much of the film's restraint springs from the acting of Kazuo Hasegawa as Moritoh and Machiko Kyo, already known to American audiences for her part in Rashomon, as Lady Kesa. They are content merely to suggest love by the slow movement of a hand, and desire by a grimace that lasts only for second. Where a Western actor would shriek, they merely tremble.
Despite the quiet power of the actors, the rainbow of colors which envelopes the scenes of Japan and the photography which captured them give the film its true distinction. Through the efforts of the director and his color adviser, Gate of Hell proves what few Western pictures have ever hinted: that the camera's eye for detail and motion and the artist's eye for design and color can work together to produce a work of visual as well as dramatic impact.