Portrait of Hell (1969)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (3.5/5)
January 16th, 2007 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Director Shiro Toyoda's gothic Portrait of Hell is certainly an interesting character study about two fairly contemptible men who find themselves at odds with one another. Due to the dark nature of the production, the film will certainly have its fans and detractors, yet individuals that have no problem with this variety of movie should more than enjoy what the picture has to offer, in particular the unique story and characters, while also some of the amazing acting performances found in the movie.

The plot of the film takes place in the Heian period of Japan, with the Fujiwara clan at the height of their political power. Unfortunately, the reigning Paramount Lord is all too content with his lavish lifestyle, regardless of the suffering of his subjects. The lord's current blight, though, comes in the form of a Korean artist named Yoshihide, whose talents are renowned yet his reputation for painting gothic work has made his patrons weary, including the Paramount Lord who wants him to paint the walls of the Muryojuin Temple to appear as a paradise. Yoshihide, stating that he has never seen paradise, refuses. Meanwhile, the artist's daughter, Yoshika, has been spending the afternoon with one of her father's pupil's named Hiromi, a revelation that enrages her father due to his student's Japanese heritage, as Yoshihide expels his student and locks up his daughter. Eventually, Yoshika escapes in pursuit of Hiromi. However, her hunt leads the girl directly to the palace of the Paramount Lord, who instantly falls in love with her and instead keeps the young girl at his residence. Yoshihide becomes miserable with this news, yet is powerless due to his daughter's resentment of him. The artist then brings the ruler a painting of one of his impoverished and dying subjects.

That night, the lord has a nightmare about the dying man, and the following day orders Yoshihide to the capital to personally destroy the painting. Afterwards, the capital becomes under siege from bandits, with Hiromi among them. However, the royal guard manages to completely annihilate the invading brigades. Hiromi's death is kept from Yoshika, though, despite Yoshihide's attempts to immortalize the passing through his art, for which the Paramount Lord destroys. Bothered by the dark nature of the artist's work, the lord then dares him to do a portrait of Hell, figuring he has trapped the artist as he has never seen such a place. Yoshihide, however, accepts. This enrages the Paramount Lord, yet he refuses to back out, even offering up Yoshika if the artist completes his task. This goads the man into torturing one of his young aids along with requesting that the lord allow him to witness the incineration of his majesty's carriage for “inspiration”. Annoyed at the obvious connection between himself, the carriage and hell, the lord arranges such an event, but with Yoshika inside. He figures he has finally cornered Yoshihide into admitting defeat, but instead the man turns the tables by insisting that the ruler wouldn't be able to follow through with the act. Unwilling to lose face, though, the lord announces the order, as the girl is burned alive with the carriage.

The story is, without a doubt, a very dark tale. The movie's lack of likeable characters and the demise of those the audience can sympathize with compound this rather bleak feeling too. The scene where Yoshihide tortures one of his aides for “inspiration” will probably be too much for a number of viewers. The story itself is kind of a mixed bag, though, particularly because it spends a good chunk of time trying to stress the poor state of the land and those who inhabit it. This builds up until the bandits raid on the Heian Capital, an event that causes Yoshihide to spell out the connection between the rise in these types of raids and the poverty in the area. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the story completely drops this angle and focuses solely on the two main characters from that point. From a theatrical angle, it's certainly more interesting to see Yoshihide deal with this prospect of painting hell and his digs at his employer who has his daughter in his possession. However, it simply seems off due to the fact that they focused on the state of the kingdom so much in the first half of the film only for it to never come into the story again.

Complaints in the story inside, the movie is very character driven, and their development excels in some aspects and, sadly, falters in others. On the positive side, the movie's principal characters are very interestingly developed as writer Toshio Yasumi crafts two characters that are remarkably similar in personality despite their drastically different conditions, with the artist living an almost impoverished life and the Paramount Lord a life of luxury. The two men's unbridled racism and stubborn pride in their own convictions manages to fuel the story and snowball as the two men become entrenched in a personal rivalry. This builds up until the climax when Yoshihide is confronted with the possible death of his daughter, or giving up his assignment to paint Hell. In a frustrating, yet foreseeable, progression the artist instead eggs on the Paramount Lord by stating he simply wouldn't have the gall to do it. A dare that ends up costing Yoshika her life as the Paramount Lord refuses to lose face. The fact that both characters are fairly unpleasant makes this a rather fascinating study into the two. Both seem to get viler as the film progresses, although their real departure comes after Yoshika's death, when Yoshihide finally feels remorse for his mistakes while the Paramount Lord continues to shift the blame, placing Yoshika's death squarely on the shoulders of Yoshihide in order to deal with the event.

Unfortunately, the character development falters in terms of the side characters, especially Yoshika and Horimi, and their woefully under explored relationship. Their romance is given sizeable importance in the story, but due to lack of development and screen time it seems forced from the audience's perspective and lacks the emotional impact it should have had when they are denied each other.

In terms of performances, it's no surprise that it's here where the picture really shines. As expected, Tatsuya Nakadai is fantastic as Yoshihide, as he manages not only to create yet another memorable performance but also holds nothing back in exploring the more veil aspects of his complex role. The scenes of him shaking with unbridled rage as he tries to compose himself enough to talk to the Paramount Lord are simply something to behold and a real testament to his craft. Oddly enough, though, Kinnosuke Nakamura as the Paramount Lord tends to steal the picture a number of times due to his over the top portrayal of his character. Nakamura's fits of laughter in particular seem to resonate, as he's clearly having fun with the ruler's personality and it becomes infectious to the audience watching. There isn't all praise to be had for Nakamura's performance, though, as the over the top, almost comical manner in which he tries to act shocked and shaken while trying to take a drink as Yoshika is incinerated seems grossly out of place. It sadly cheapens the impact of the scene, as does, for that matter, the pet monkey's sound effect cue as he leaps into the flames, which was oddly chosen to be Kamacuras' roar from Son of Godzilla (1967). Speaking of Yoshika, Yoko Naito portrays the character and is packing enough hair on her scalp for the role as to give Sadako from Ring (1998) a run for her money. Unfortunately, the movie gives Naito very little to work with, while she fails to make any kind of impression from the minimal amount of screen time she does have. Once again she manages to be a cute face and nothing more, which is really tragic considering she has already appeared in a number of excellent films at this point, including Red Beard (1965) and Sword of Doom (1966).

From a more technical standpoint, the movie is so-so. The sets, for example, tend to be rather overt, with the matted background being so close to the foreground as to ruin any kind of “real world” feel it might have had. The musical score, by composer Yasushi Akutagawa (who is related to writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa), is hardly apparent in the film, but when it does stand out it tends to hark back to the early 1940's style of scoring that was seen in the United States. The ending result is some rather nostalgic type themes for those who enjoyed that period of film making, but also some very simplistic cues that tend to blare a single instrument. They do well to convey the hellish intentions they are aiming for, yet it's none too pleasant to hear all the same. The exception to all of this is Akutagawa's outstanding main title for the feature, which is definitely a wonderful piece of music.

Overall, the film is outstanding for its unique aspects and the way it plays on the personalities of its two main characters. Unfortunately, due to the dark nature of the movie, there are sure to be a number of people who are simply turned off from the film. In fact, I must admit even I have trouble watching the overly long torture scene in the movie in its entirety. I will also come clean by stating that I didn't care for the movie much the first time I watched it, and my appreciation only began to foster for the production after several viewings. So this is certainly the type of film where it's appropriate to say that it will fall in that “love it or hate it” realm of viewing experiences.

On a final note related to the review, normally I wouldn't have gone as far as to disclose Yoshika's death in the plot summary. However, it's such an intricate part of the film's character arcs that it would be hard to leave it out, while the trailers for the movie actually opened with this very scene as well.