Tag Archives: jidaigeki

My thoughts on: Gate of Hell (1953)

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Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) is a 1953 jidaigeki film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. It was restored and released on DVD by the Criterion Collection in 2013. The film tells the story of a samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) who falls in love with a married woman (Machiko Kyō).

I’d honestly never heard of this film before a few weeks ago, so when I found a copy of the film at the local bookstore, I decided to buy it and give it a try. I’ve since learned that this was the first Japanese color film to be released outside Japan and it won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Unlike other jidaigeki I’ve seen which are set in the Edo period (1603-1868), Gate of Hell is set during the Heiji Rebellion in 1160. When the palace is attacked by rebels, Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa) is assigned to protect Lady Kesa (Machiko Kyō) who is acting as a decoy for the queen. Morito is clearly smitten by the beautiful lady, and when he is offered a boon in return for his loyal service, Morito asks for Kesa to be his wife. There’s just one small problem: Kesa is already married! Morito refuses to give up however and continues to obsess over making Kesa his, despite the lady making it pointedly clear that she is not interested in him.

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The story definitely plays with your expectations as to who the hero of the story is. Initially, Morito is presented as a heroic figure who refuses to give in to treason and defends Kesa as best he can. But once he’s informed that Kesa is already married and he can’t have her, Morito changes from possibly being a hero to a selfish, unreasonable creep! And what makes the story worse is, for most of the film Kesa seems to be the only one who understands just how much trouble Morito is! Wataru, her husband, and the other court officials seem convinced that all of this will blow over once it sinks in with Morito that Kesa does not love him back, but if anything it makes his obsession with her even stronger.

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The film contains some beautiful scenes of Kesa playing the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. The one I’d like to highlight is when Morito is given one chance to pour out his heart to Kesa and see if she returns his feelings. She is playing the koto when Morito comes into the room and though he asks her to stop playing (so he can talk), she makes her feelings clear by refusing to stop and playing more and more elaborate music that only ends when Morito smashes the instrument.

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I’m mostly satisfied with how the film ends, though part of me believes Morito should have paid with his life. Let me explain: the story comes to a head when the samurai corners Kesa at her aunt’s home and gives her an ultimatum: either Kesa goes with him or he will kill her husband, her aunt and even Kesa herself. Seemingly defeated, Kesa agrees and a plan is set: Kesa will blow out the light in her husband’s room at midnight, which will be Morito’s signal to run in and kill him. But it’s really a trick, Kesa gets her husband to sleep in her room while she lays down in his. Thus, Morito kills her, removing Kesa from his grasp forever. But instead of getting killed by her husband or even being hauled away for a trial (because he killed an innocent woman for crying out loud), he’s spared because killing him “won’t bring Kesa back.” And so Morito cuts off his top knot and vows to become a monk. I sort of understand why Wataru didn’t kill him, but I still would have liked to see him be punished somehow for killing Kesa (and no, I don’t think losing his samurai status is punishment enough).

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The colors in this film are absolutely beautiful, Kesa’s kimonos draw your eye no matter where she is in the shot. There’s also a fabulous horse race scene that is fun to watch. All in all, Gate of Hell was a good purchase and is a worthy addition to my collection of Criterion films.

Have you seen Gate of Hell? If you have, let me know what you thought about it in the comments below and have a great day.

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Film/TV Reviews

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My thoughts on: Harakiri (1962)

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While browsing through Criterion films at the bookstore, I came across a copy of Harakiri (1962) (directed by Masaki Kobayashi) and realized this was a film I’d neither seen nor heard of before (and it sounded really good). Fortunately, my library had a copy I could borrow and last night I dove in headfirst and discovered a tragedy in every sense of the word.

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Harakiri is set in 1630 during the Edo period (the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate). It starts simply enough with a ronin named Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) approaching the Iyi Clan to formally ask permission to perform harakiri (ritual suicide) in their forecourt as he is tired of living in abject poverty. As it turns out, he is not the first ronin to have approached with this request. Some months prior, another ronin, Chijiiwa Motome had come with the same request. The problem is, at this time, many ronin were approaching various lords to make this request in order to receive alms to make them go away. Fed up with this practice, the Iyi Clan forces Motome to perform harakiri, even though it’s revealed his swords are only made of bamboo.

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The scene where Motome slowly kills himself is incredibly painful to watch. The way it’s put together, you literally feel every thrust of that dull bamboo blade as he thrusts it into himself. To compound the nightmare, the clan has determined that his suffering will not end by beheading until he has thoroughly ripped himself open (it’s made clear that they could have beheaded him straight off, so they’re choosing to make him suffer).

All of this is related to Hanshirō   in an attempt to make him reconsider his request, but the ronin will not be denied. Once he’s settled for the ritual, then the full tragedy comes out.

It turns out that Motome was Hanshirō’s son-in-law, married to his only daughter Miho. They had a son named Kingo and lived happily for a while, even though they were very poor (Hanshirō lost his master and thus his living to harakiri some years prior). Then, in quick succession, Miho becomes ill and not long after so is Kingo (both die not long after Motome’s body is brought back). Motome is unable to find work as his status as a samurai makes him ineligible for common labor but none of the clans are hiring ronin since there have been no wars for many years. Desperate (and having already pawned his blades for money to help his wife and son), Motome departs one day saying he knows of a way to get more money to pay for a doctor, but he never comes back alive.

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Your heart will break watching Motome struggle to find ways to support his family. If I understand correctly, samurai are considered to be “above” manual labor, which is why Motome is stopped every time he approaches a work site. He also can’t openly beg for money because that’s considered shameful as well. In effect, this family is completely screwed over by the system, small wonder that Motome resorted to asking to commit harakiri in the courtyard as a means to get alms (a practice that he had previously, in better times, said was shameful and only done by the worst kind of person).

Hanshirō’s point in relating all of this is to point out that no one should criticize another for doing something out of desperation. After all, what would you do if you were in their place? Unfortunately, Hanshirō’s lesson falls on deaf ears as the clan firmly believes they did nothing wrong. In fact, they’re so insulted by the ronin’s words that it’s decided they’ll kill him and not let him commit harakiri after all. This leads to an amazing sequence where Hanshiro fends off dozens of samurai as he moves through the building. There’s one or two strikes and then everyone freezes, but you can see them analyzing each and every move. It’s almost like watching a Mexican stand-off: at various points, though they outnumber him, the clan’s samurai stand frozen because Hanshiro has them in such a way that if any of them make a move, he can kill them. Tatsuya Nakadai is mesmerizing in this scene: you can tell he truly wants to die, but since the clan wants to make it difficult, he’ll take as many of them as he can with them.

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Though Hanshirō is brutally killed at the end (with guns no less, they couldn’t even kill him with swords), I do think one person learned something from this, even if he won’t admit it. Saitō Kageyu, the senior counselor for the clan, is seen with a very ponderous look on his face while Hanshirō is being pursued and killed. I believe that Hanshirō’s words did have an effect on him, and maybe he is starting to believe that the system is broken. In fact, after learning that one of the samurai who participated in forcing Motome to kill himself has also committed harakiri, he instructs a messenger to order the other two participants to kill themselves also, adding: “Send a squad of men to make sure it is done.”

Ultimately (and this may be the greatest tragedy of all) nothing seems to change as a result of Hanshirō’s actions. The courtyard is cleaned, all signs of the fight are removed, what was the point of all of this? Maybe the point is there IS no point, sometimes sacrificing yourself to prove a point accomplishes nothing. That, at least, is my thought as I consider the ending of a very moving film.

If you’ve seen Harakiri, what did you think about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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Film/TV Reviews

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My Thoughts on: The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

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Since the first time I watched Throne of Blood (1957) I have been a huge fan of the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), particularly his work in jidaigeki or “period dramas.” For the past several years I’ve been working on viewing as many of these films as possible and from the start I knew this would have to include The Samurai Trilogy, a trio of films that dramatize notable incidents in the life of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), arguably the greatest swordsman to ever live. I received the set as a present last year for my birthday, but due to real-life circumstances, I wasn’t able to finish it until last night.

Each film focuses on a major event (or major series of events) in the swordsman’s life:

-In Samurai I, Musashi is a young man named Takezo who dreams of finding wealth and glory far away from the humble village he lives in. His best friend Matahachi also shares dreams of glory and is engaged to Otsu. After being caught on the wrong side of the battle of Sekigahara (which led to the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for nearly 300 years), Takezo and Matahachi are branded outlaws and go on the run. While Matahachi is lured away to Kyoto by a widow and her daughter, Takezo runs wild through the countryside until Takuan, a Buddhist priest, lures him to Himeji Castle (on the premise that Otsu, who has developed feelings for Takezo, is imprisoned there). It’s a trap (of sorts): Takezo is locked into a room inside the castle that is full of books and told he will not be let out until he has bettered himself. Three years later Takezo is released and given the samurai name of Miyamoto Musashi.

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Though the film is just over 90 minutes in length, it’s paced in such a way that it feels much longer (such was my impression). Mifune is a delight to watch, as always, and his transformation from the wild Takezo to the stoic Musashi is so extreme you’d almost swear they were played by two different people.

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-In Samurai II, the story revolves around Musashi’s conflict with the Yoshioka school, as well as his struggle to fully realize what it means to be a samurai. Initially, Musashi believes that one only needs to be proficient with a sword (which he is), but again and again he is chided for lacking chivalry, compassion and affection. Without these, Musashi is merely a killer, not a samurai. During his journey, Musashi gains his first disciple, an orphan boy named Jotaro. Otsu is still in love with Musashi, but she’s not alone: Akemi, the daughter of the widow from the first film also fancies herself in love with the samurai, though at the moment Musashi himself claims to have chosen “the way of the sword” over the love of any woman. This film also introduces Sasaki Kojiro, another talented swordsman who seeks to build a name for himself by dueling and defeating only the best. He wields a massive longsword nicknamed “Drying Pole.” He badly wants to duel Musashi, but is willing to wait until the samurai has honed his talents further.

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I definitely liked this film more than Samurai I. Musashi’s conflict with the Yoshioka school was interesting, considering the students kept stopping the head of the school from meeting Musashi in a fair one-on-one duel. My favorite moments were whenever Musashi faced off with an opponent (or many opponents), sword at the ready. His movements are so precise and artful that I wish there were more moments like this. Koji Tsuruta (1924-1987), who played Sasaki Kojiro, was also a joy to watch. His performance is such that you’re never quite sure what the character is actually thinking.

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-The story concludes with Samurai III and recounts Musashi’s famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryu Island. At the start of this film, Kojiro is frustrated that, despite all his talent, he is still a ronin (a samurai with no master). To remedy this, he applies to become the teacher of Lord Hosokawa, a position that Musashi is also being recruited for. The two swordsman nearly duel one night, but under pressure to accept the offer to become Hosokawa’s teacher, Musashi leaves town and postpones the duel for one year. As a result, Kojiro receives the position and finally receives the status and luxuries that he has always believed to be his due. Finally the duel is set to be held on Ganryu Island. The pair face off on the beach and for a time seem to be equally matched. But then, in a move so quick I honestly can’t describe it, Musashi strikes the fatal blow and Kojiro falls dead. But Musashi takes no joy in the victory.

Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, or maybe it took a really long time for Musashi to get to the island, but I could’ve sworn the duel took place at sunset. But apparently it was sunrise because the sun kept getting higher in the sky as things went on (cause otherwise it’s a massive continuity error). I found myself pitying Kojiro as the story went on. It is made clear that this duel does not have to happen. Had he said so, Musashi would have happily continued living his life and Kojiro could have spent the rest of his days as an honored teacher and samurai. Kojiro’s downfall comes from wanting to be the very best swordsman in Japan, nothing else will do. One character summed it up perfectly when he observed “This man’s ambitions are too great.”

In conclusion, I greatly enjoyed The Samurai Trilogy, it is a must-see for anyone wishing to learn more about the great samurai films. If you’ve seen this trilogy, let me know what you thought about it in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film/TV Reviews

My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

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