During the 1920s, Teinosuke Kinugasa's startlingly modern experimental movies infused Japanese film with a sophistication that rivalled the best European art films. His innovations, along with those of Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Sadao Yamanaka, helped Japanese cinema develop a distinct cinematic voice.
Born in 1898, in Mie, Kinugasa entered film in 1917, as an onnagata, a man who specialized in female roles. At the time, Japanese cinema was evolving away from staged performances of Kabuki to become a unique cultural art form unto itself, though conventions from the theater, such as the onnagata, remained. Kinugasa turned to filmmaking in 1922, and managed to crank out several silent features (sadly lost), until the infamous 1923 Kanto earthquake, which leveled Tokyo and killed thousands of people. The quake signaled the beginning of an unprecedented influx of Western ideas into Japan. Bauhaus-inspired buildings rose from the rubble, while Marxism and Freudianism became fashionable among Japan's intellectuals. Japanese cinema began changing rapidly as well, Kenji Mizoguchi directed Blood and Soul (1924), a film directly influenced by the German masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), while Daisuke Ito gleefully used rapid montage and bizarre camera angles in his samurai epics. Yet Kinugasa's Page of Madness (1926) is widely credited as the first mature Japanese avant-garde film and one of the finest examples of international experimental cinema. The movie's dizzying, fragmented portrait of an insane asylum featured both an expressionistic aesthetic akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and elliptical editing that recalled Sergei Eisenstein's use of montage editing. The film was entirely self-funded, which almost broke Kinugasa. Fortunately, it was a surprising box-office success.
Jujiro (1928), Kinugasa's next film of note, was the first Japanese film to have a wide European release, under the title Shadows of Yoshiwara. The film is a gloomy, hallucinatory tale of love, revenge, and murder with an expressionistic sensibility similar to Page of Madness. After the film's completion, Kinugasa, fighting bouts of depression, went abroad to find himself. He studied under Eisenstein in the Soviet Union until his money ran out. He showed a complete print of Jujiro to skeptical officials at Berlin's powerful U.F.A. studio and managed to get it distributed. Critics in Germany and France reviewed it favorably, comparing Kinugasa's use of close-ups to Carl Theodor Dreyer's newly released La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928).
Upon his return to Japan, Kinugasa settled into a prolific career as a studio director. After Akira Kurosawa's unexpected international success with Rashomon (1950), studios realized that there could be a foreign market for period dramas. In 1952, Kinugasa following this trend with the largely forgettable Saga of the Great Buddha, but in 1954, he returned to international renown when Gate of Hell won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Though, in hindsight, the film lacks the depth of such contemporary films as Seven Samurai and Sansho the Bailiff, it remains a masterpiece of color cinematography. Shot on Eastmancolor, the film strikingly juxtaposes colors and exotic scenery. Teinosuke Kinugasa directed over 100 films before his retirement, in the early '60s.