Gate of hell: the crazy love of a samurai in medieval Japan

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The gate of hell the Jidaigeki genre

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Gate of hell (original title Jigokumon) is a 1953 Japanese film of the jidaigeki genre. Jidaigeki is a genre of Japanese film that refers to period drama films, especially the Edo era in Japanese culture. That is from 1600 to 1870. The Gate of Hell is set even earlier, in the era of medieval Japan called Heian. 

The Jidaigeki genus it is set among the people and tells the life of peasants, artisans and samurai, and how they relate to local princes. This genre of films often show chambara, sword fights, and use a number of conventions in plot and character development. 

Gate of hell: plot of the film

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It is not the case of Gate of hell which cannot be defined at all as a film of cliché. Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, it tells the story of Kazuo Hasegawa, a Samurai who falls madly in love with a woman, Kesa Machiko, and who wants to marry her at all costs. 

The film begins during the Heiji rebellion: the local prince has moved away from his territory and two warriors take the opportunity to attack the castle and conquer it. 

Kesa volunteers to disguise herself as the daimyō’s sister, and Samurai Kazuo is tasked with taking her out of the fiefdom. The couple is saved from a bloody battle. Kesa passes out and Kazuo wakes her up with a splash of water. This is how the samurai, with love at first sight, falls in love with the woman. 

The problem is that the woman is already married and in the strict Japanese culture of the time it is absolutely not possible to have a woman who already has a husband. Furthermore, the woman is not attracted to the Samurai but is faithful to her husband, and has no intention of betraying him. The only feeling he feels towards the Samurai is fear. 

Kazuo in fact, he is not a normal type. Already from the beginning of the film we perceive signs of mental imbalance. He reveals himself to be a violent man, dominated by a sudden passion and desire, which destabilizes him to the point of completely losing his balance. 

Gate of Hell is the story of a sick and violent passion, which many men insist on calling love. It can be a great inner emptiness or a strong erotic attraction, but this type of passion is definitely not love. 

Style and direction of the movie

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Shot in the 50s in eastmancolor with an amazing photograph and costumes Gate of Hell is a real pictorial jewel, a delight for the eyes. At the opening scene of the sacking of the village, dialogues alternate between the samurai and the prince of the village in which he reveals his amorous passion, mocked by the men present.

The direction is perfect, and effectively dares essential dialogues, privileging acting and over the top facial expressions. But the director’s true mastery comes in the memorable final sequence, when after a series of complications, the suspense and tension becomes extreme. 

It is a long, totally silent scene in which the author of the film manages to film the invisible: the leaves of the trees caressed by the wind in the woman’s courtyard, the curtains of the house that move, immobile objects, gazes in the dark.

With this language the director manages to make the viewer perceive the invisible evil that is about to manifest itself, almost like an evil spell. The tension becomes unbearable and in some ways recalls the finale of George Clouzot’s French film Les diabolique


Yes, because in fact it is a diabolical possession. The samurai slowly loses the light of reason during the development of the film, until he is totally possessed by a destructive force. 

The beauty of this film is probably its refinement, the ability to tell the visible world with an underground flow of invisible passions. In Japanese and Far Eastern culture it is not common to express one’s emotions externally. But they can flow hidden like a rushing river and suddenly explode. 

Violent passions boil behind the surface of precious silks, formality, dignity, self-discipline and sublime aesthetic harmonies. The very essence of ancient Japanese culture is condensed in this film, which can be defined as one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema

The Gate of Hell won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954 and two Oscars for costumes and photography. He also won a New York Film Critics Circle award in 1954 and the Pardo d’Oro at the Locarno International Film Festival. 

The violent passion of the samurai

Can a violent passion like the one in the film Gate of Hell be defined as love? What is often called love at first sight and which starts a kind of love obsession? 

The truth is that if there is passion in love, it becomes hell, the hell into which the samurai protagonist of the film sinks. If there is attachment in love, love becomes a prison.

The only true love that can uplift and improve our lives is love without attachment. The kind of love that is like a warm spring wind, and not a devastating fire that burns and destroys. 

The violence and the arrogance with which Kazuo absolutely wants to have Kesa is the cause of a huge ego. The samurai wants to possess the woman as an object at any cost. When one tries to bind a person to oneself with violence, no true love can exist. 

But even if you don’t use violence and lock a person in a gilded cage between ease and comfort, you will get the same result: no matter how precious the cage is and full of jewels, love will disappear. This is what happens to many rich men who use their power to win beautiful women: they find themselves in empty relationships. 

But Kazuo uses the worst way, that of violence. The violence of a beggar who begs for love from a woman who is unwilling to give it to him. A great humiliation for a warrior that leads him to lose his dignity towards himself.

Love and freedom, passion and suffering

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Love is one of the most mysterious phenomena in life. On the one hand it can lead you to bliss and freedom. On the other hand, Gate to Hell opens wide for you. It frees our soul, on the other hand it seems to set in motion the harsh law of Karma. Depending on how we seek and perceive it, love can change our life. 

If you exchange love for a violent sexual passion, with the need to fill an inner void and the need to possess the other person, then you will have a hard time recognizing true love. You recognize true love because it gives you stability and balance. Life becomes lighter and more meaningful, it becomes almost a continuous meditation. 

On the other hand, if your relationship causes nothing but a series of problems and suffering then there is something wrong. Perhaps jealousy and the desire to possess poison him. Maybe it’s not true love, it’s just an erotic desire that you have hidden behind a facade of respectability and transformed into a stable relationship. 

Love that overcomes jealousy, possessiveness and instincts can take you much higher, to a place where feeling and spirituality can meet, where two souls can walk the path of life together. 

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