Time has deflated the reputation of certain films. When originally released, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Jigokumon, from Kan (Hiroshi) Kikuchi’s play Kesa’s Husband, won the top prize at Cannes, and the Oscar and the New York critics’ prize as best foreign-language film. Today, it is indeed difficult to grasp that it was regarded as superior to another 1953 Japanese film released in the States in 1954: Kenji Mizoguchi’s enduring masterpiece, Ugetsu monogatari. (Ozu’s Tokyo Story opened in New York nearly two decades later.) Nonetheless, Kinugasa’s film, a fusion of historical fairy tale and melodrama, is enchanting and, ultimately, very moving.
In 1159, the Heiji Rebellion is underway; Lady Kesa volunteers to impersonate the Empress so that the latter may escape. Moritoh Enda falls in love with the imposter he is guarding. Upon discovering she is married, he impresses her into a plot to kill her spouse; but Lady Kesa, again play-acting, fatally substitutes herself for her husband, remaining as loyal to him as she is to the royal family.
We have here, then, two competing versions of love, one selfish, the other unselfish—and, ultimately (for these are not the same thing), selfless. Moreover, secretly, under the duress of the pressure that Moritoh applies (which includes, at one point, threatening her life as well as her husband’s), Lady Kesa finds a way to carve a path of self-determination. Her loyalty is not feudally imposed; it is her choice.
Thus Kinugasa’s film reflects the concerns of its own time, the 1950s, when the outcome of the war wobbled Japan’s traditional patriarchy. Many have missed this important dimension, perhaps because the film formally weds radicalism and tradition. The opening, with its sweeping sense of chaos, exactly follows a traditional ploy for announcing a story: the opening and unrolling of a scroll.
However, it is for two other things that the film remains most famous. One is the superlative acting of Machiko Kyô as Lady Kesa, which drew commendation from the National Board of Review for its modernization of traditional Japanese acting. The other is Kohei Sugiyama’s color cinematography. Indeed, Kinugasa and Sugiyama prove themselves inspired collaborators. One example: the swordfight on the sand by the blue sea. Following a startling blow of the sword right into the camera and a quick cut, the victim falls face down, and with a dissolve the greenish waves, superimposed, cover the bloodied corpse: a momentary soothing of the violence; a consignment of the body, and of the conflict that took its life, to the lamentable history of Japan, of the world, of the universe. Time thus yields to timelessness, expressing—obliquely though rendingly fully—the hope that all the wounds inflicted on Japan in the Second World War, and on everyone else, will similarly wash away. Yes, the photography is gorgeous; but, quite beyond that, Jigokumon achieves moments of real visual poetry.
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