Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Japanese films like Rashomon and Jigokumon have been the surprises at recent International Festivals, and the high standard of these and the few other Japanese films presented abroad in late years lead us to suspect that more good films are being made today in that country than elsewhere in the world.
Here, for our evaluation, is Jigokumon - one of the first Japanese films to reach this country, a superb, artistic film, which was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1954. Made in a style altogether different from our ideas in the West, its slow, calm, exquisitely decorated narrative, the formal Kabuki style of acting and above all the magical colouring of its images combine to form a world of ritual and symbol.
The film was directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa who has specialised in historical films and has been working in the cinema since 1927. The story is not a legend but a true story relating to events in the 12th century and is presented with accuracy and fidelity. The greater part of the action of the film is well known to the Japanese public and all the players are extremely popular in their own country.
It must be realised that the style of their acting differs considerably from the Western pattern. “Since national custom demands that the face conceal emotion, the Japanese may meet the most terrible of situations with impassivity, or at the most a polite smile. Thus the acting evolved by the traditional Japanese theatre formalises and abstracts expression of emotion; it is either distilled to an almost invisible essence or, suddenly released in violent symbolic outbursts.”
The story begins in the first year of the Heiji era, 1159. Taira Kiyomori, who wielded the real power at that time in Japan, comes in a pilgrimage with his court to Western Japan. Minamoto Yoshitomo, general of the opposing faction, taking advantage of Kiyomori's absence, plots to overthrow him.
To this end Yoshitomo and his allies attack the Palace of Sanjo, the residence of the retired Emperor Goshirakawa, who favours the Taira clan. The Palace Guardian, to protect his charges, Goshirakawa and his younger sister, Josaimon-in, decides to plant ‘doubles' in order to deceive the attackers who desire to capture them as hostages.
A beautiful woman of the palace named Kesa voluntarily offers herself as a substitute for Josaimon-in. The warrior, Endo Moritoh, is ordered to protect her. Moritoh succeeds in escaping from the attackers and takes Kesa to his brother, Moritada. At this moment there arrives Rokuro, a warrior of the Minamoto clan. Moritoh learns from him that his elder brother has taken part in the rebellion.
Rokuro, seeing the cloak of the Court which Kesa is wearing, believes her to Josaimon-in and attempts to seize her. Moritoh and Rokuro begin a violent sword battle which is halted by Moritada, who then leaves, not wishing to enter into conflict with his own brother. Moritoh, now in love with Kesa, finds only her cloak - she has disappeared.
Moritoh now warns Kiyomori of the rebellion and eventually the rebels are subdued and their heads grace the Gate of Jigokumon. Moritoh sees Kesa again, at prayer in a gilded chapel, and inflamed with passion demands her as a reward from Kiyomori for his services in the recent wars. Kiyomori immediately consents but his reply is greeted with laughter on all sides as it is disclosed that Kesa is already married to Wataru, a warrior in the service of the Imperial Palace.
Moritoh obstinately pursues his demand to such an extent that he incurs the displeasure of Kiyomori. One day the ruler has the curious idea of inviting Kesa to the Palace to play the Koto harp, while Moritoh is present. The meeting has only the effect of heightening the grief of Kesa and accentuating the passion of Moritoh.
The time of the horse races on the banks of the river Kamo arrives and Fate decides that Moritoh, representing Kiyomori, shall be matched against Wataru, who represents the Imperial Palace. Moritoh wins the race and at the banquet given in the evening learns that friends of Wataru, half jokingly, accuse Wataru of allowing himself to be beaten at the plea of his wife, Kesa. Moritoh is furious and proposes a duel with swords. Wataru does not reply.
From this moment Moritoh is beside himself. To trap Kesa he persuades Kesa's aunt, under threat of his sword, to invite her to her house, pretending she is ill. Moritoh begs Kesa to abandon her husband and go away with him but she refuses, and he thereupon threatens to destroy Kesa, her husband and her aunt.
Realising that she must sacrifice herself, Kesa pretends to make a plan which will enable Moritoh to kill her husband while he is asleep, but instead takes his place and is herself stabbed to death.
Overcome with remorse, Moritoh seeks out Wataru and offers himself for death at his hands. Wataru, grief stricken, generously pardons Moritoh, who, after cropping his hair in ritual recognition of his guilt, departs through the gate of the temple in the morning mist to embark upon a religious life of repentance.
The production of this film in colour is the most perfect so far made in Japan, and to our Western eyes it will be indeed a revelation in the use of the most delicate pastel effects and a brilliant recreation of 12th century Japanese life.