Portrait of Hell (1969)
Nicholas Driscoll
September, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

I picked up Portrait of Hell on a whim, purchasing the DVD as a former rental and knowing absolutely nothing about the film except what the box deigned to tell me, which included the movie in AnimEigo's Samurai Cinema line. Having seen only a few "samurai" films from Japan, I was eager to expand my chanbara diet, and I was thoroughly amused that the back included the warning: "Contains violence, philosophy." It wasn't until some months later that I actually watched it, and I was looking forward to seeing why this philosophy was so offensive.

I was expecting something depressing, and boy howdy did I get it.

Calling Portrait of Hell a samurai film is misleading, as samurai and swordplay have little bearing on this character study of two proud, morally depraved individuals. Lord Hosokawa (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is a mighty ruler in the Heian period of Japanese history, which ran from 794 to 1185 AD. Hosokawa is a corrupt "Paramount Lord," his subjects suffering terribly under his oppressive reign as he lives in luxury and indifference. Nevertheless, Hosokawa takes pleasure in the arts and employs a great Korean artist who has been given the Japanese name Yoshihide (Tatsuya Nakadai)—as with many other Korean immigrants, his real name has likely been forcibly abandoned for the convenience of the Japanese. Yoshihide is a phenomenal artist, yet a brooding and capricious one who insists on enlisting his formidable talents in the production of grotesque art depicting the suffering of the repressed masses—a practice which does not please the Paramount Lord, who prefers to believe that his subjects adore him. Hosokawa wants Yoshihide to pursue beautiful art, and in that spirit presses him to paint the walls of a nearby Buddhist temple as a mural depicting heaven. Yoshihide insists the task is impossible; he can only paint what he has seen with his own eyes, and he certainly hasn't seen paradise in this world.

Yoshihide has a daughter, the beautiful, young Yoshika (Youko Naito)—like Yoshihide, she must go by a Japanese name. Yoshika has fallen in love with one of Yoshihide's Japanese apprentices, but when the cantankerous artist discovers their relationship, he banishes the apprentice and insists that no man can ever have his precious daughter—especially, one would presume, no Japanese man. The fate of his daughter, however, is out of Yoshihide's hands; though he tries to lock her away, she escapes and is captured by Lord Hosokawa, who is instantly attracted to her. Accustomed to taking whatever he wants, Hosokawa claims Yoshika as another member in his harem of concubines, much to Yoshihide's horror. The artist pleads for his daughter's release, but the lord will have none of it—she is his now, and the lord will enjoy her as he sees fit. Yoshihide won't leave the matter alone, however. Again and again he pleads with the lord for his daughter's return, and the lord, tired of this harassment, changes the subject back to the proposed mural of heaven. Yoshihide says he wants to paint a mural of hell instead, and, in a fury, Hosokawa gives Yoshihide permission to do so, believing it impossible because the artist cannot see the real hell any more than he can see heaven. Thus, Hosokawa proclaims that if Yoshihide can truly capture hell in his painting, Yoshika will be released to him. Yoshihide clings to that promise, and a battle of ferocious pride and indomitable wills begins as Yoshihide endeavors to witness the reality of hell with his own eyes, at any price.

Portrait of Hell is written from a Buddhist perspective by Rashomon scribe Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and therefore many of the central concepts, such as the Buddhist ideas of heaven and hell, will not be clear to many western viewers; they are not particularly clear to me despite the fact that I've been reading about Buddhism the last several weeks for a Christian study group I am a part of. (The academic texts I've been relying on have made little mention of Buddhist conceptions of "heaven" and "hell" as such, focusing more on the teachings of nirvana and samsara, the history of Buddhism, and the major branches of belief.) The central idea of Portrait of Hell seems to be that the truest hell exists in this life that we live, and it is a hell of our own making. Buddhism relies on a strong formulation of the origin of suffering, which Buddhists explain is a result of the strong attachments and desires we develop in this world; peace and ultimately the goal of nirvana (which might be explained, very simply, as a cessation of all desire and feeling) are only possible through the careful process of eliminating desires through meditation, strict application of a list of rules, and studying and living the teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha. (This, of course, is a gross simplification.) Therefore, the lives of Hosokawa and Yoshihide are lives of escalating torment. Hosokawa is trapped by his insatiable lusts and desires; he lives a life which ultimately derives pleasure through the suffering of others, those oppressed under his rule and who supply him with money and luxury—a livelihood which would build up a lot of negative karma. Despite Hosokawa's essentially carefree existence, however, his selfish deeds come back to haunt him—quite literally, as the ghosts of those he has wronged appear to him in his nightmares.

Yoshihide, meanwhile, isn't much better. Though he recognizes the suffering around him, rather than work to solve the problems of society, he wallows in the grotesque, in a sense developing a bizarre attachment to torment itself as a means of developing striking art. His strongest desires are selfish, too, and, like Hosokawa, he is trapped by them—whether in the attempt to keep Yoshika to himself (though never truly caring for her or her wants and needs), or in the obscene drive to "win" over Hosokawa even after Yoshika's fate is sealed. Yoshihide's fight for perceived victory furthers the victimization of the lower classes, as he actually tortures one of his assistants in his attempt to visualize hell, thereby increasing the suffering of others for his own twisted desires.

Whether all of this is particularly interesting or worth viewing depends very much on the tastes of the consumer, and considering the two protagonists are both extremely unpleasant individuals on a path of self-destruction, the appeal for this movie is severely limited. Suffice it to say, the ending is not a happy one, and neither is much of anything else throughout the story. This is not a feel-good movie, and while it may have some redeeming social value (it certainly doesn't glamorize violence!), it's hard to imagine many people outside of the most open-minded J-film enthusiasts and followers of high film in general really enjoying it. The story itself has its problems as well; some of the editing becomes confusing, and Anthony Romero, in his review, discussed the problems in the film's focus as the societal ills, so prominently addressed in the first half with the rebel uprising and the death of the old man, are largely dropped for the second half. Secondary characters, even Yoshika, are only lightly sketched while the story focuses in on the demented protagonists. Still, even with all that said, the central performances are impressive and compelling enough to warrant a viewing.

The real standout here is Tatsuya Nakadai as Yoshihide. Nakadai, a veteran from such notable films as Sword of Doom (1966), Yojimbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962), and who would go on to star in Ran (1985), turns in a phenomenal performance as the troubled, troublesome artist. Nakadai rarely fails to impress, from his grim monotone when addressing Hosokawa, to the escalating desperation and emotional paroxysms that so come to characterize the character. Kinnosuke Nakamura, who would have a lot of practice in period pieces playing legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, holds his own as the corrupt lord, projecting boastful arrogance and capricious power very well, though it's hard to imagine why he puts up with Yoshihide's insubordination as much as he does. Ultimately Nakamura's performance is believably despotic, flagrantly evil, a character captured by his own corruption. Next to Yoshihide and Hosokawa, the minor characters barely make an impression except as woeful victims, like the screaming tortured assistant or Youko Naito's unfortunate Yoshika, whose role is mostly to lament her lot in life.

The production values of the film are also somewhat uneven. Costumes look great, at least to my eye, but some of the special effects are weak, in particular the instance near the beginning wherein a bull tramples a poor old man. The look of this film, on the other hand, is fairly unique from what I've encountered in Japanese cinema. Clearly most of the movie was filmed on sets, including outdoors sequences wherein the matte paintings are obvious and the nature clearly artificial. The very artificiality envelops the film in a sense of surreal stagey-ness. This may strike some viewers as cheap and hokey, but I felt that it actually lent the film a unique tension that underscored the disconnection from reality that the protagonists exist within.

Music by Yasushi Akutagawa is appropriately old-fashioned, with almost tribal beats in some of the early themes and more or less standard eerie discordant strings strengthening the feeling of doom and horror that prevailed throughout the film. Nothing was particularly memorable about the score, but it functioned well with the themes of the story.

Make no mistake, Portrait of Hell is an unpleasant film, but it's meant to be. As silly as it may sound to warn viewers of depressing philosophy, I can see the rationalization here. Filmgoers craving likable heroes and pleasant escapism won't find that here. That said, Portrait of Hell wasn't made to be fun. As a story produced for a particular audience accustomed to dark plots with a Buddhist moral core, Portrait of Hell is painted well, albeit with a few awkward imperfections and limited scope. Forgiving viewers looking for a different kind of film experience with fine and fiery performances at its center will be well rewarded.