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REVIEW – Gate of Hell (1953)

December 6, 2012

GateofHellFilmJuice have my review of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s historically significant samurai drama Gate of Hell. I use the term ‘historical significance’ somewhat guardedly as it is one of those pieces of critical terminology which, though apparently quite bland and benign, actually contains a number of harsh judgements.

When people describe a film as being ‘historically significant’, what they generally mean is that watching it allows one to gain a better understanding of the evolution of a particular art form. For example, Jaws has enormous historical significance as Spielberg’s combination of accessibility and technical brilliance provided a blueprint for populist American cinema that continues to shape the films we see in cinemas today. To put it even more crude and reductive terms: You need to see Jaws in order to understand the transition from 1960s Hollywood to 1980s Hollywood.

While Jaws remains a great film, its greatness actually has very little to do with its historical significance. In fact, saying that a film is historically significant in no guarantees that it will make for enjoyable viewing now. Some works enchant with their timeless technical brilliance, others enchant by being of a particular cultural moment and while those cultural moments may linger in our cultural consciousness, it is often hard to experience a historically significant work in the way that made it historically significant to begin with.

Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell is a historically significant film in so far as it is not only a Palme D’Or winner and the first Japanese colour film to be seen outside of Japan, but also one of the first generation of Japanese films to find a European audience. In fact, Gate of Hell was considerably better received in Europe than it was in Japan for reasons that seem pretty obvious to me in hindsight. The main problem is that while the film opens as a visually striking ode to the chaos of war it soon changes into a rather underwhelming (and in some ways quite sexist) costume drama about the constraints of honour. As I put it in my review, this latter section is:

Underwritten, under-directed and spoiled by the concussive brilliance of its opening section, the film fizzles and fades when it should ring the bells and light the fires.

One for scholars and historians rather than modern film fans but the chaos and colour of the opening section does go a surprising way to redeeming it.

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