Portrait Of Hell (Japan 1969)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 12/13/10
Director: Toyoda Shiro
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Nakamura Kinnosuke, Naito Yoko

"Life is more hellish than hell itself."

This delightful quote sums up the film quite nicely, which follows a tortured artist's journey into madness under the harsh rule of Paramount Lord Nakamura Kinnosuke. The artist Yoshihide (wide-eyed Tatsuya Nakadai) is a peerless painter, but he can only paint things that he has witnessed. As a result, his paintings are horrific depictions of the brutality heaped upon the miserable lives of the common people by the oppressive government. The Paramount Lord doesn't like this and wants Yoshihide to paint beauty and paradise, which he cannot do. Ultimately, the Lord challenges Yoshihide to paint a portrait of Hell, and provides him with ample source material and motivation.

The film is slow and ponderous, and primarily serves to document the obstinate arrogance and philosophical sparring between to the two main characters. The acting is superb, and both Tatsuya Nakadai and Nakamura Kinnosuke deliver riveting performances. However, the film's greatest triumph is its exquisite cinematography. The film is astoundingly gorgeous and reminds us of a time when Japanese cinema truly was high art. The lighting, colors, and textures are a stunning treat for the eyes. The visual effects are also extremely good, especially considering the age of the film. Very well done. The only criticisms I have would be with the slow pacing and the weakness of the script. It's hard to take Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short story and stretch it into a full length film, and the "big reveal" at the end is neither a shock nor a surprise. But maybe it wasn't intended to be, as it is actually shown in the original theatrical trailer. This actually puzzles me more than anything else. Why show the last ten minutes of a film to a potential audience? Are Japanese audiences really more interested in the events that lead up to the climax rather than the conclusion and resolution of those events? If nothing else, the film is definitely an interesting observation and commentary on Japanese culture and history.