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The Forgotten: Tatsuya Nakadai Catches Hell

In "Portrait of Hell", a Japanese feudal lord and a Korean artist engage in a battle of wills ending in death and madness.
David Cairns
Shirô Toyoda's Jigohuken or Portrait of Hell (1969) builds steadily to a shattering penultimate sequence, then peters out in a disappointing denouement. If you cut the climax off, I bet it would haunt people forever, and such is the power of its individual high points that it still commands attention.
The great Tatsuya Nakadai (Harakiri, Ran) plays a Korean painter at the court of a nasty lord who fancies his daughter. Both men are tyrants: Nakadai forbids his daughter to marry her lover because he's not Korean, but then has her taken away from him by the corrupt and lascivious ruler. He then conceives the idea of a painting of the inferno: his patron/tormentor, the lord, doubts his ability to render so abstract a concept, but Nakadai says he sees Hell all around him, so it will be no particular challenge.
This is all good stuff. Nakadai is superhumanly intense, melting holes in the screen with his intense glower. Kinnosuke Nakamura as the lustful lord is a bit too fleshily on-the-nose, sneering and twitching the painted eyebrows in a way that feels a little too theatrical. But as the film proceeds and his character becomes ever more hateful, and yet doomed and neurotic also, the performance comes to seem exactly right.
The lord suspects that his court painter is setting some kind of trap in revenge for the deflowering of his daughter, and when Nakadai requests the opportunity to paint a burning royal carriage with a figure inside, his suspicions are confirmed. He arranges the display, but has Nakadai's daughter chained inside the coach. He challenges Nakadai to give up his scheming and submit to his command, or else he'll burn her alive. Nakadai decides to call his bluff. He's not bluffing.
All through the film, Nakadai's character has been as mulish and ruthless as the lord, but since he's always powerless in the face of the leader he comes across as more sympathetic. Now we realize they're both equally deranged. As the chariot is torched, Nakadai swears revenge. He also becomes certain that he's won, though we don't know how.
This scene is the true portrait of hell: horrifying, and powerful, and with a perverse beauty and grandeur at the same time. Toyoda films giant closeups of his star's eyes filling the Tohoscope frame, with thousands of tiny cinders floating through, a trick of double-exposure that makes Nakadai look like a giant presiding over an apocalypse. He does a lot of wild tricks, directorially (it was an era when this was becoming very fashionable): this is certainly the most stunningly effective.
And through it all, Nakadai's voice-over insists that, somehow, he has won.
The next scene show the artist's assistant finding him hanged, an effective moment. The lord hears that the painting is complete, and is visited by Nakadai, before realizing he's dead. A ghost! Also a very effective moment.
Then the lord finally views the portrait of hell, which turns out to be a piece of crap sixties commercial art. Of course, no mere piece of art direction could live up to the build-up this prop has had. Jacques Rivette knew that in La belle noiseuse (1991) the excessively powerful, disagreeable painting must not be shown (we're allowed to glimpse a bit of foot). For The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945), Albert Lewin had a rather splendid painting created by a major artist, but also showed it in color in an otherwise black and white movie, giving it an extra uncanny force.
Sadly, Toyoda, otherwise so resourceful, just lets his duff painting lie there on the screen, and then has Nakamura go theatrically mad, chased about by a dodgy special effect of a burning carriage. Nothing he can do is big enough for the occasion.
So, my idea is to end the movie a whole chunk earlier, with Nakadai at his bleakest moment, swearing revenge, confident of receiving it, and then leave the audience high and dry. I realize everyone would hate this. It's a terrible ending. But, like Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence (1968), this would be an ending to haunt us all forever. I'm partly motivated by my dislike of easy revenge endings which tend to nullify moral ambiguity of the kind this film has been rich in. But partly I just think you should end on our strongest scene, and that was one hell of a strong scene.
Oh, the one thing that rules that out as a solution: the end of the burning scene features one of the most stunning transitions I've ever seen, as Toyoda cuts from drifting orange cinders against black night sky to snowflakes, white on white. Wow.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 


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