Written by: Nobuo Nakagawa and Ichiro Miyagawa
Directed by: Nobuo Nakagawa
Starring: Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya, and Yoichi Numata
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Hear me! You who in life piled up sin upon sin will be trapped in Hell forever. Suffer!”
Perhaps the most primal and universal of all fears is that of going to hell. Whether it’s of the hellfire and brimstone sort or another type of endless suffering, most civilizations and religions speak of some sort of eternal damnation as punishment for one’s transgressions in life. Perhaps hell is a construct meant to keep people in line as we walk among the living, or maybe it’s something a bit more natural and inevitable, something everyone all destined to experience as the wages of sin. Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1960 opus in afterlife terror, Jigoku, posits the latter possibility, insisting that hell is something we carry with us throughout life, complete with inescapable personal demons that haunt us every step of the way. In short: life is hell, and then we die.
Shiro Shimizu is a theology student whose life is coming together quite nicely, as he’s just become engaged to his girlfriend, Yukiko. That same night, he goes out for a drive with his friend Tamura, who accidentally hits and kills a drunken gang member who wanders into the road. The two men flee the scene, leaving Shiro wracked with guilt; this guilt is soon compounded when he’s involved in another car accident. This time, the victim is Yukiko, who was only in the taxi at Shiro’s insistence. Distraught, he’s soon called home to tend to his ailing mother, but this trip literally ends up being a one way ticket to hell when the various victims of Shiro’s transgressions end up converging on the small town.
Quite simply, Jigoku is a masterpiece in visual and abstract horror. It’s a lyrical and poetic work that explores guilt, fate, regret, and even redemption on the road to hell. Though there’s a very literal story to be found here, the level of symbolism and the surreal nature of the narrative is more reminiscent of an allegorical morality play along the lines of Faust. Here though, there’s no deals to be made with the devil; instead, hell is a purely unwanted but inevitable experience that Shiro must endure even in life. Fatalism hangs in the air after his initial transgression, as no deeds go unpunished here, even when he attempts to set things right. Everyone he meets becomes ensnared in a plot so outlandish that it must be guided by sinister hands. It’s almost as if Shiro’s guilt wills itself into a hellish destiny that could have been avoided with just one decision.
And all this happens before our protagonist is literally sent to the underworld. As if his hell on earth wasn’t enough, Shiro descends into the pits of hell in a mind-bending third act that’s among the best in all of horror. Nakagawa’s interpretation of hell is visually stunning; it’s both a fiery pit and a desolate wasteland full of aimless, wandering sinners enduring various punishments. This sequence feels like both a nightmare and a ghost story writ large, as Shiro confronts both a distorted reality and the deceased who have made the trip to hell with him. The photography here is appropriately ethereal, and the elliptical editing style creates a dream-like experience for the audience. We quickly jump from the shores of a netherworld river to the King of Hell’s lair itself, and it’s a disorienting, surreal experience that’s inspired the visuals of other films, including Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. Imagine a more fully realized incarnation of that film’s vast and barren underworld stretched out to 40 minutes, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s in store for you here.
The film’s most effective and infamous sequence involves the Torments of Hell, which can be best described as a series of vignettes that reveal the visceral punishment of various sinners. Bodies are dissected, flayed, made to wander in a “vortex of sin,” and cast into a lake of fire, among other things. It’s here that the film reveals just how ahead of its time it was, as the violence is stark and unflinching. Without a doubt, Jigoku must be considered one of the earliest gore and shock films (it predates Blood Feast by 3 years), as the unrelenting sequence has little bearing on the narrative itself; instead, it cuts right to the heart of why we’re told we should be afraid of hell in the first place. Though much of the film’s horrors are psychological, it doesn’t let us forget that the body too will endure endless suffering for sin. I can only imagine how audiences reacted to this one back in 1960 because it’s still quite gory by today’s standards.
There is a bit of a method to all of this madness. For all its horrific carnage, there’s a good tragic story beneath it all. Shigeru Amachi’s Shiro character is the archetypical tragic figure, a man whose experiences understandably wear him down. The most memorable and charismatic character is the mysterious Tamura, who manages to be quite a creepy character even outside of the context of hell itself. It doesn’t take long for you to figure out that something is a bit amiss about him, as he’s ultimately the classical trickster, always there to complicate things even further for our protagonist. The conflict that emerges between the two serves as the backbone of the tale, as it all ultimately comes down to good vs. evil and redemption vs. endless guilt and suffering. Most unexpectedly, the film puts forth the notion that hell is escapable, at least on a metaphorical level, if we can somehow free ourselves of our tragic history.
Jigoku is quite a tour-de-force, and it’s a clinic in auditory and visual minimalism. There’s a very staged quality to Nakagawa’s direction at times, as he envelops his scenes in complete darkness or sparse backgrounds. The hell sequence is of course the best example of this, as the vacant landscape is realized through simple sets that are accompanied by the haunting cries of the damned and Michiaki Watanabe’s eerie score. The film’s vivid color palette is also a highlight, as the lush tones create some arresting images that will haunt you. Both the world of the living and the dead sre surreal, hallucinatory settings that draw viewers in to their sordid existence.
That haunting quality is sure to be the film’s legacy. There are few films out there that can match the effectiveness of the experience Jigoku offers, as it leaves viewers both captivated and repulsed in a hellish descent. The film has made its way to home video by way of the Criterion Collection, who has treated the film with all the loving care you expect from them. The anamorphic transfer preserves the film’s scope ratio and faithfully reproduces its vibrant appearance. The audio is the original Japanese presented with English subtitles. Special features include a 40 minute documentary, the film’s trailer, and poster art for this film and other Shintoho Studios productions, and a 14 page booklet with liner notes. It no doubt fetches a higher price tag than your normal DVD release, but it’s worth every penny. Trust me--going to hell has never been so satisfying or Essential!
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