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Review © Tyler Robbins, 2007.

Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960, 101 minutes, starring Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya, and Yoichi Numata.


When future film scholars look back at the modern era of Japanese horror films, they will no doubt refer to it not on the basis of how it stands currently, but to what it was and what it is not now; that is, the state of affairs in 1998, the very genesis of the J-Horror boom.  Now, almost a decade on, that same horror film industry seems regrettably tired and contrite; it seems to have copied and recopied itself into oblivion (the exact opposite of Ring's proposed fictional method of exponential success), and the common statement of the day about most films is, "Well, it was okay, but I've seen something kind of like it before."  Living purely in the present tense of Japanese scare cinema, it would seem that (to beat a Ring pun to its death) the well is dry.  But creative vision rarely comes in a straight line; it ebbs and flows, and looking at the peaks and troughs of this nation's cinema and its rich past need only give you reason enough to have faith in its future.

Nobuo Nakagawa has a career that spans six decades, and a back catalogue that is as rich in creativity as it is in realistic depictions of the extraordinary, as well as the ordinary.  Jigoku (literally, meaning "hell") is the oft-cited modern watermark not just upon his own career, but upon horror cinema in the region during the decades of his life.  Following a string of frightening and innovative horror films in the 1950's, Jigoku was to be like nothing else.  And nearly fifty years later, it remains as such.  Unlike Onibaba and Kwaidan, other brilliant and epitomizing pieces of Japanese horror and ghost story-telling from the era, Jigoku manages to straddle that strange line between subtlety and disturbing realism (as well as outright shock), and to embody both the tasteful and understated brilliance of early Japanese cinema as well as the over-the-top eccentricity of a director who had a vision of one of the most frightening and horrifying concepts in all of humanity, and was able to fully realize it for film audiences.


Prefaced by a credits montage of suggestively tempting women in provocative poses, culminating with our protagonist being dropped into a cauldron of fire, Jigoku opens with Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi), a university student, as he sits in on a religious studies class.  Appearing (literally) next to him is his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), who ominously announces the death of someone "from last night."  Shiro appears shocked, but Tamura steamrolls the conversation into Shiro's pending nuptials with the professor's daughter.  Shiro recounts the events of the previous night: having visited Professor Yajima's (Torahiko Nakamura) home and asked for permission to marry his and Mrs. Yajima's (Fujimko Miyata) daughter, and having gained their (glowing) approval, Shiro found his celebration cut short by the sudden (ghost-like) appearance of Tamura.  Tamura drives Shiro back home to Tokyo, and on their way a man drunkenly steps out into the road.  Tamura hits the man, but then speeds off, with Shiro in the passenger seat.  Despite Shiro's immediate desire to return to the scene, his friend drives into town, assuring him that it will be left behind them - but not before he reminds Shiro that it was his decision to take the road in the first place.

The family of the murdered man experience their own grief.  A member of the yakuza (who loyally paid for his funeral), his mother and girlfriend now find themselves without any financial support, facing certain ruin.  The mother reveals that despite not having told the police about the person who hit her son, she had seen the license plate, and a plan is hatched for her and her would-be daughter-in-law to avenger her son's death.  At the same time, Shiro becomes gripped by the accident.  He pleads with Tamura to let them turn themselves in, but Tamura refuses.  Finally Shiro tells his fiancée, Yukiko (Utaka Mitsuya), what has happened, and asks her to accompany him to the police station.  She agrees, and as they stand outside waiting for a taxi, she pleads with him to let them walk; he refuses and accuses her of acting like a child.  Driving to the station, the driver loses control of the vehicle and crashes into a telephone pole.  As she lay across the back seat, Yukiko whispers, "I don't want to die," passing in Shiro's arms.  After being ejected from the Yajima house by Yukiko's grief-stricken mother (where he wallows in his decision to hail the cab having caused his fiancée’s death), Shiro goes to a bar, where he meets and sleeps with a young woman who, as fate would have it, is the girlfriend of the man Tamura hit and killed two nights previously.  Oh fate, you (literal) devil!

The following day Shiro receives a telegram from the home for the elderly where his parents live,  telling him of his mother's ailing condition.  Arriving at the home, still reeling from the grief of having lost his fiancée, Shiro stumbles upon a soap opera of heart-wrenching proportions: his mother is dying, and his father has taken a mistress.  While his mother dies, his father cavorts in the next room with this young woman (who upon seeing Shiro, immediately proclaims to his father that he is "really cute" and that she has an interest in him).  Shiro is also gripped with a shocking sight: the neighbour’s daughter, Sachiko, looks just like Yukiko.  As this tableau unfolds before him, the stories of those at the poorly-managed and deceptively-run elderly home begin to intertwine.  After his mother's passing (and while his obvious affection for Sachiko increases), the Yajima's visit to offer their solace in Shiro's grief, only for Mrs. Yajima to shockingly clutch to Sachiko as though she were Yukiko herself. 

As his own guilt begins to cause Shiro to collapse in on himself, the figures from the chain of events begin to reappear one by one.  Tamura shows himself and proclaims his desire to stay in the isolated town housing Shiro's father and his new girlfriend.  The girlfriend and mother of the man Tamura and Shiro hit also returns, to see their plan for revenge come to fruition.  Faced with the possibility of his own death, and the deaths of those around him, Shiro's world falls apart in a struggle between his own conscience and civility and the forces of evil that seem to be encircling around him, until, following a shocking climatic resolution to the lives of those in the film's first half, he himself comes face-to-face with Hell.

For decades, finding a copy of Jigoku in the West was a trial, if not a tribulation.  Subtitles were sparse, often inaccurate, and more often than not many had to view the film without language in order to afford themselves the unparalleled opportunity to see this visual and atmospheric beast in their lifetimes.  Most people in the West simply have not seen Jigoku.  But as anyone who enjoyed extreme Asian cinema prior to 2002 will attest: we are living in very different times five years later.  Last September Criterion added Jigoku to its collection (no. 352) with an outstanding digital high-definition transfer, and while the extras on the disc are sparse (as are most materials concerning obtuse films from the time period), the disc affords even the casual Asian film-viewer to see this work of art, and to see it presented in a way that accentuates every nuance of emotion that pounds through the story.

I enjoy this era because of its rich imagination and often creative solutions to problems concerning the economics and feasility of imaginative settings on such limited budgets.  But this was the time predating traditional special effects, and as such, the creativity runs wild in Jigoku; ideas that today would be avoided in the interest of using computer-generated effects are instead put to the fore in a bold and shocking way that engages and at the same time repulses.  While Kobayashi's Kwaidan, itself a great film worth checking into, is a testament to understatement and unusually subtle set pieces, Jigoku is an insanely disproportionate visual trip to a very real, very physical hell that cuts no corners, that spares no horrors, and that absolutely terrifies almost purely on its perceived realism of a place that exists, so far as humanity is concerned, within our own minds.  The story is fundamental to the visuals, though, and Nakagawa hits it out of the ballpark by making a tense and brutally honest story seem effortless, and engrossing the viewer in such a way that despite forty-seven years difference between my birth and the protagonist's I am able to identify along with him.  Shiro is an everyman, and his actions reflect the most basic moral dilemna in all of us: do we take responsibility for our failures, if we see an opportunity to PR that failure out of the frame of how others see and judge us?  While I won't espouse any philosophical connotations this might hold for the current generation of MySpace and LiveJournal revisionist historians, I will say that, despite sounding cliché, the film is universal in a way many regional morality plays simply aren't.

Jigoku has been remade a handful of times both in and out of Japan, and although Tatsumi Kumashiro's charming 1979 effort at least affords an alternate viewing of the visual creativity of Japanese direction, none approach the weight and atmosphere of Nakagawa's original.  This film works on dual levels for multiple reasons.  Its traditionalist first fifty minutes are able to invite viewers who would not ordinarily be interested in such an "artistic" film into it without throwing them by the curveball of obtuse techniques often employed in other avant-garde features.  In a similar way, its everyman story creates an air of relationship with the emotions Shiro struggles with that allows for an engrossing self-examination in the process.  But it is the second half of the film that defines this work, and that sets it apart from almost every other film of both the genre as well as the director himself.

Even before his descent, the deaths of those around him is brutal and horrifying; we see people die in ways that are shocking and realistic, and find Shiro struggling with his own ability to keep his head above water.  But it is the Hell itself, so truly infernal, that shocks.  It isn't horrifying in some abstract, beautiful way either; this world is not under any circumstances one you would want to be in.  The visual trickery isn't cheap or shoddy.  I dare not give away the fruit of this second act, because to see it without expectation is to truly be shocked at Nobuo Nakagawa's handling of not only torture but of the often undiscussed side of Buddhist cause-and-effect, all but ignored in the West: you will become what you commit.  And while what Shiro does is something that has been time and again made less shocking and gruesome as society's general desensitization has become an accepted part of the Internet generation, what happens to him after his descent into the realm of Emma-O painfully reawakens in the viewer the savagery of the now standard hit-and-run moral dilemma.

Like I have said, I like other films from this era.  The Japanese New Wave of the 1960's was an exciting time for cinema which employed obscure and unusual tactics that were interesting not only for their creativity, but also for their understated subtlety in contrast to the cinematic "other" new waves in various other nations.  I like the entire era, highbrow or otherwise, for its concept of "the horror film" (including those films not as top-tier) because of the honesty, and the emotion placed into some of them, or alternately for the visuals and scores placed in others.  But this film, predating almost all others in the New Wave, has all of it, and sacrifices none of its parts in its creation of what they add up towards.  Jigoku is beautiful, breathtaking, frightening, and visualizes Hell on the screen the same way Dante did in literature; every inch of the film says or shows something that will shock, or intrigue, or engross the viewer.  An historic piece of film that rightly deserves every good word spoken about it, Jigoku is cinema at its best, both of the era, and of all eras, and unequivocally deserves a place near the top of the Snowblood Apple Favourite list.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 10/10
Violence: 8/10
Chills: 7/10
Gross-outs: 7/10
Sex: 0/10
Hell: 10/10

Films in a Similar Style: Onibaba, Kwaidan

*** Essential! ***

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Jigoku Wallpaper
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2007

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Nobuo Nakagawa

(This film lacks a strong internet presence, and the below links are almost exclusively the best representation of Jigoku.)
http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=352 Criterion site for the film, including a first-class essay by Chuck Stephens
http://www.seekjapan.jp/article-1/765/J-Horror:+An+Alternative+Guide It gets mentioned in the J-Horror: An Alternative Guide
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/jigoku.shtml Midnight Eye review

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