Gate of Hell (1954): Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Oscar-Winning Best Foreign Language Film

Written and directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, and boasting imagery by Kohei Sugiyama, Gate of Hell is a dramatically compelling romantic feature, set in the twelfth century.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Jigokumon poster.jpg

Original Japanese poster

When a samurai demands a nobleman’s wife as a reward, the latter kills herself. The famous Japanese actress Machiko Kyo renders such an emotionally touching performance and the visuals are so striking that the whole feature inspires a sense of awe about the possibilities of cinema.  Dialogue is kept to a minimum and, arguably the most forceful sequences are silent.

During the Heiji Rebellion in 1159, the samurai Morito desires the Kesa, but she is married to Wataru. Morito decides

Determined to get rid of his rival, he makes Kesa explain to him how he can kill her husband while he sleeps. Kesa provides precise instructions, yet when Morito follows through on her plan it is Kesa who gets killed.

Morito understands that Kesa has sacrificed herself because she was determined to save Wataru’s life and her honour.

Oscar Awards: 2

Costume design (Sanzo Wada)

Honorary Award: Best Foreign Language Film


Directed, written by Teinosuke Kinugasa
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Music by Yasushi Akutagawa
Cinematography Kōhei Sugiyama
Edited by Shigeo Nishida

Production company: Daiei Film

Distributed by Daiei Film

Release date: October 31, 1953

Running time: 86 minutes

Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, 1947-1956

In the entire history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, only a few foreign‑language movies have been nominated for the Best Picture.  Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece, Grand Illusion competed for the 1937 top award, but that was before the creation of a distinct category for the Best Foreign-Language Picture.

Officially, the first winner in this category was La Strada in 1956, which helped established Federico Fellini as one of the most important European director.  Anthony Quinn, as Zampano, an itinerant strong man, and Giulietta Masina, as the young woman he buys and abuses as his clown and servant, gave memorable performances in a film that was also nominated for its Original Screenplay (by Fellini and Tullio Pinelli).

Prior to the creation of a separate, legitimate category, the Academy recognized several foreign films with an Honorary Oscar, beginning with Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realistic movie Shoeshine, in 1947.

Academy leader and board member Jean Hersholt held that “an international award, if properly and carefully administered, would promote a closer relationship between American film craftsmen and those of other countries.”  The citation for De Sica’s Shoeshine read: “The high quality of this motion picture, brought to eloquent life in a country scarred by war, is proof to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity.”

The following films were singled out for Special Award before the foreign-language category was created:

1947                Shoeshine (Italy)

1948                Monsieur Vincent (France)

1949                The Bicycle Thief (Italy)

1950                The Walls of Malapaga (France-Italy)

1951                Rashomon (Japan)

1952                Forbidden Games (France)

1953                No citation

1954                Gate of Hell (Japan)

1955                Samurai (Japan)

Most of the honored films had received theatrical distribution in the U.S. and came from established national cinemas, such as the French, the Italian and the Japanese.

All the movies singled out by the Academy were directed by name filmmakers, such as Italian De Sica (Shoeshine and Bicycle Thief), Japanese Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai), fellow-Japanese Teinosuke Kinugasa (Gate of Hell), and French Rene Clement (Forbidden Games).