Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Gate of Hell (地獄門 (Jigokumon)

(Japan, 1953)

Hey, look, I was able to copy and paste Japanese ideograms! This was the 7th film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Wiki informs me that it is a Jidaigeki film, which means “period drama.” These are most often set in the Edo period, 1603 to 1858. Quite a long period! This one, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, happens quite a bit earlier, in 1159. Lots of warring factions all over Japan. During a battle that is going badly, Kesa volunteers for what seems a suicide mission, riding in the queen’s carriage so the real queen can slip away. But the samurai Morito manages to make their escape.

Unfortunately, he becomes so smitten with Kesa that he simply must have her, no matter what, even though she is happily married to Wataru, a man so decent he won’t even whip his horse in a race, thus losing to Morito. In his desperation Morito threatens to kill Wataru, Kesa’s aunt, and Kesa herself if she doesn’t give in to him. She appears to agree, but arranges it so she is sleeping alone in Wataru’s bed when the coward comes slinking in, his mind set on murder. He kills her, then discovers his folly. He wakes Wataru and humbles himself. He only wants to die … but he doesn’t seem to have the stones to do it himself, as an honorable samurai should. He pleads with the desolate widower to chop off his head. Wataru elects to let him live, so he will have to confront his horrible act for the rest of his life. Morito vows to become a monk and start his life over.

Is it just me? I understand Wataru’s reasoning in that, for an honorable man, life with such a dastardly deed weighing on his conscience would be a much worse punishment than death. But is Morita honorable? I sure don’t see it. What’s to stop him from, five or ten years down the line, just saying “Fuck this! She wasn’t all that great a girl. I’m outta here.” Oh, well, I guess Wataru doesn’t really need to think about the piece of shit, he will spend the rest of his life mourning Kesa.

… and asking himself yet again, Why didn’t she bring this problem to me? Which is the first thing I thought, too. Then the two men could battle it out, and if Morita won, she could kill herself then. If Wataru won … problem solved. It seems pretty obvious to me. Maybe it’s just a Japanese thing.

The film is in blazing color, which was rare in a Japanese film in those days. There is a huge battle scene at the beginning, thousands of extras all dressed in bright colors. There is an exciting horse race in the middle.

When I look at a film set in this time period I always contemplate just how very, very different Eastern and Western cultures were. Everything looks very clean here, and apparently it was in real life, while in Europe people lay down with pigs and shit in the street and even royalty didn’t wash more than a couple times a year. Japan is very westernized these days, but in 1159 and for centuries after that they lived in houses made of sturdy oak … and tissue paper. They had almost no furniture. They had no chairs. They slept on straw mats and rested their heads on wooden pillows. There was no decoration in their houses … and then they dressed themselves in silk kimonos of incredible beauty. So many of the scenes here are of large, plain rooms with two people sitting in the center, an explosion of color. I am a big fan of the Japanese esthetic of simplicity … though I could never live with it. My caves have always been hung with art and filled with bookcases and sofas and soft beds … I swear, if I had to lie down on the floor with a wooden pillow, I doubt that I’d ever sleep again.