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Portrait of Hell
Portrait of Hell
Actors: Eisei Amamoto, Y˘ko Nait˘, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shun Oide
Director: Shir˘ Toyoda
Genres: Action & Adventure, Indie & Art House, Drama
UR     2006     1hr 31min

Film legend Tatsuya Nakadai (Sword of Doom, Ran) stars as the troubled artist who is commissioned to paint a beautiful picture, but instead only paints the death and famine he sees in the world around him. Written by one ...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Eisei Amamoto, Y˘ko Nait˘, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shun Oide
Director: Shir˘ Toyoda
Creators: Kazuo Yamada, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ryűnosuke Akutagawa, Toshio Yasumi
Genres: Action & Adventure, Indie & Art House, Drama
Sub-Genres: Martial Arts, Indie & Art House, Love & Romance
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 03/07/2006
Original Release Date: 11/18/1969
Theatrical Release Date: 11/18/1969
Release Year: 2006
Run Time: 1hr 31min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 2
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: Japanese
Subtitles: English

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Movie Reviews

I See Hell Everywhere
Daitokuji31 | Black Glass | 06/03/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

Based on a short story by one of Japan's modern literary masters Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, Portrait of Hell takes place during the decaying end of the Heian Period. Known as Japan's classical era, the Heian Era gave birth to many forms of poetry, long fiction, courtly aesthetics, and many cultural elements that are deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. During this long period the Fujiwara family, through marriage and political alliances, cemented itself as the true ruler of Japan while the emperor, who often had a mother from the Fujiwara family and thus whose grandfather was the de facto leader of the country, was merely a puppet who was quite often retire from his position as emperor when he began to have his own ideas. While the arts flourished and the culture of the court grew more elegant, the nobility began to cloister itself away from the outside world and let others such as the Minamoto and the Taira families for them. It is in this world that Horikawa rules in his blissfully ignorant way. While the common people make it through their wretched lives by stealing the clothing and hair of corpses, Horikawa lives in his world of perfumes, silks, and art.

Included amongst his artisans is the master painter Yoshihide. From Korea, like many of the other great artists and statesmen during this period, Yoshihide artistic skill is unmatched. However, of a totally dour, gloomy nature, Yoshihide's art is filled with harshness. Unable to turn a blind eye to the world rotting around him, Yoshihide puts on paper with his brush the reality that Horikawa refuses to see. More amused than angered by his stone-voiced artist, Horikawa continues to order Yoshihide to paint. However, it seems that the spirits of those wronged by Horikawa haunt Yoshihide's paintings. Unnerved by his nightly visitors, Horikawa seems to finally have the upper hand over the painter when Yoshihide's precious daughter Yoshika comes into his possession. However, with two men whose will and pride are so strong can there truly be a winner?

Like many other movies filmed during the late 1960s, Portrait of Hell is awash with striking colors and scored with a stirring soundtrack that keeps a steady beat and helps progress the action of a film that is primarily a dialogue between two characters. Nakadai Tatsuya truly steals the screen in this film. Yoshihide is at times unsympathetic and quite harsh, he tortures one of his pupils to help him visualize hell, but one can feel the true intensity in his desire to produce art that will cut Horikawa to the core and put before his eyes the suffering that he has brought to Japan.

Toyoda ends the film with this quote from Akutagawa:

Jinsei wa jigoku yori jigoku teki de aru. Life is more hellish than hell itself.
Stark Portrait of Hell on Earth
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 12/15/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)

"From a story by the author of Rashomon, this is a dark, stark and very disturbing descent into madness setting a deluded tyrant and an obsessed artist against each other. At first it appears a pretty basic good v. evil take, with the artist refusing to decorate the lord's temple with a portrait of heaven because he sees only hell in the lord's domain - cue a battle of wills between the two, with the artist using his art as his weapon. But it's not that simple: if the lord, who deludes himself of his benevolence, is evil, the artist is little better. He drives out his apprentice for falling in love with his daughter, only to see her become the lord's concubine. Then, as matters escalate and the lord settles for a portrait of hell, knowing the artist can only paint what he sees, to win his daughter's freedom the artist puts others through the pains of hell simply so he can observe and copy their torments. This reaches a tragic climax with a disturbing and powerful scene with a burning carriage with a chained prisoner inside that is the most powerful and visually impressive scene in the picture.

The visuals, as befits a film about art and evil, are often striking. Shot entirely in a studio, there are very effective shifts of light and colour as the characters make their own hells and elements of the supernatural intrude (the film is ultimately a ghost story).

It's not easy to sympathise with any of the characters. The point of the film is that opposing an evil does not necessarily make you good, and that makes for occasionally difficult viewing. But if you're looking for something out of the ordinary and are willing to take a chance on an example of innovative 60's Japanese cinema from outside the samurai/Kurosawa cannon, it's worth exploring. Just don't expect any happy endings.

Red paint, black soul
Zack Davisson | Seattle, WA, USA | 02/13/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Akutagawa Ryunosuke is perhaps best known in the West as the author of the short story "Rashomon", which leant its title to the Kurosawa Akira film of the same name. But in Japan he is known as a master of the short story, a man who plumbed the darker side of the human soul with an unmatched skill.

However, Akutagawa stories are rarely adapted for film. Unlike his fellow Japanese short-story writer Edogawa Rampo, whose adaptations number in the hundreds, Akutagawa's stories do not lend themselves to cinema easily. Aside from Kurosawa's film, which is based on Akutagawa story "In the Grove", and not on the actual "Rashomon" tale, there are only about ten or twelve Akutagawa-based movies, and only two of which have been released in the US.

This is the second one. "Portrait of Hell", based on Akutagawa's short story "Jigokuhen" or "Hellscreen", and tells the story of Yoshihide, a painter who will only paint what he has personally seen, and Lord Hosokawa, who loves Yoshihide's work but wants him to paint more beautiful work such as fantasy visions of Buddha's paradise. Yoshihide instead tries to teach Hosokawa a lesson, by showing him visions of human bodies torn apart by war and the other suffering that his enjoyable and easy life is built on. Yoshihide (played by the master actor Nakadai Tatsuya, Ran, Harakiri) is a proud and stern man, who values his commitment to his artwork even above the life of his daughter. Yoshihide's daughter, Yoshiko (Naito Yoko, The Sword of Doom) has caught the attention of Lord Hosokawa (Nakamura Kinnosuke, Incident at Blood Pass), who wants to "honor" her by making Yoshiko his concubine, regardless of her engagement to another. A slow contest of wills emerge, as Yoshihide dives further and further into humanities murkiness in order to paint an actual picture of Hell, and finally open Hosokawa's eyes.

The story deviates from Akutagawa's original, but maintains the main tone and themes: The value of art versus the egotism of human beings, social obligations versus personal desires, the imaginary world of the Lord's court versus the true human suffering that goes on outside the walls, and who pays the price for such luxury. It is not a story that lends itself to much action, and most of the drama is psychological. It takes an actor of Nakadai's stature to bring life to the complicated character of Yoshihide, whose motives are not always apparent and whose actions can be shocking.

Director Toyoda Shiro is not a familiar name in the West, and "Portrait of Hell" is his only film with an official US release. He also directed Nakadai in one of the many adaptations of Yotsuya kaidan, and has a flair for psychological horror. His work is highly colorful and visual, and he makes brilliant use of seasonal colors to highlight the psychological elements at work. The theatricality of this film brings to mind another classic of Japanese horror, Kobayashi's Kwaidan.

I don't know that "Portrait of Hell" is going to please everyone. It is certainly not a typical samurai flick, nor a typical horror film. Most of all, it reminds me of a really well done feature length version of the old Rod Serling TV series Night Gallery. I am a fan of that show as well, so I really enjoyed "Portrait of Hell".

Anyone wishing to read the original "Jigokuhen" story can find it translated in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories It is definitely worth it."