Gate of Hell
I’ve mentioned previously that there is an expiration date on how long after I’ve seen a film I can wait before writing one of these essays. It’s simply a matter of losing the built-up context of thought that I had during and shortly after watching them. Slowly things begin to fade and what was a sharp idea becomes a bit more like a well worn pebble. This is, unfortunately, one of those times where I’m right on the edge.
Still, I’m going to soldier on and try to at least capture some of what I wanted to say about this film. I mentioned when writing about Chains, that one of my least favorite genres is “the sacrifices of women for men”. This is where a woman has to pay for the expectations and behavior of the men around her. It strips her of agency and punishes her for being a person. At first glance this might have fit into that genre, but instead it subverts it in some interesting ways.
This is the story of a turbulent period in Japanese history, where a coup attempt against the ruling emperor was defeated. During the coup Kesa, a young woman, was used as a decoy for the Empress, and Morito, a young soldier, was assigned to guard her. While sheltering from the danger Morito becomes enamored with Kesa, and afterwards when asked what he wants as a reward for his bravery, he names her hand in marriage as his desired prize. There’s just one problem, you know besides that no one was planning on asking her what she thought about any of this, and that problem is that she’s already married to another man.
Morito, who has been so “taken” by her, refuses to let that be the end of it, and essentially manipulates the situation while stalking her, in an attempt to get her away from her husband. All the while, her loving but clueless husband Wataru is tottering around “supporting her” but doing nothing to actually help with the situation. The governor who was asked for the favor, meanwhile, increases the drama for his own amusement. Things eventually and inevitably come to a tragic end for Kesa.
What makes this film so fascinating, and so much better than others in the genre I mentioned, is that her husband also learns a lesson at the end of the film. Morito, who was stalking Kesa, realizes how he was wrong, but mostly just because Kesa has shown her honor and devotion by allowing herself to be murdered. He will have to live with his guilt, but it’s hardly an impactful lesson. “Don’t try to force a married woman to leave her husband for you” is good advice, don’t get me wrong, but probably not widely actionable.
The lesson Wataru learns is much subtler and more valuable. He realizes that he never truly understood or stood up for his wife. Yes he loved her. Yes he “supported” her. Yes he even tried to make her feel better and believed her innocent in her situation with Morito. But, he never made her feel like she could confide in him. He never made her feel like he would deal with this other man, something that in the society of the time was only possible for him to do. He left his wife hanging out to dry, trapped between her love and duty for her husband and the toxic behavior of a stalker.
His realization is the meaningful one. He was the “nice” guy, the good husband, and yet he was also responsible for his wife’s inability to resolve the problems she was facing. It’s not, strictly speaking, his fault she’s dead, that remains the responsibility of her murderer, but it is his fault that he was a bad husband. It’s a valuable lesson for anyone in a relationship. Commiseration isn’t the same thing as support. We can all do better to make sure our loved one is never left hanging out to dry alone.