Director : Nobuo Nakagawa
Screenplay : Ichirô Miyagawa & Nobuo Nakagawa
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1960
Stars : Shigeru Amachi (Shiro Shimizu), Utako Mitsuya (Yukiko / Sachiko), Yoichi Numata (Tamura), Torahiko Nakamura (Professor Yajima), Fumiko Miyata (Mrs. Yajima), Hiroshi Hayashi (Gozo Shimizu), Kimie Tokudaiji (Ito Shimizu), Akiko Yamashita (Kinuko), Jun Otomo (Ensai Taniguchi), Tomohiko Otani (Dr. Kusama)
The afterworld is an ugly place in Nobuo Nakagawa’s morbid cult classic Jigoku, the literal translation of which is “Hell.” It is precisely in hell--or, more specifically, numerous hells--that the final third of the film takes place, and it is Nakagawa’s brutal, surreal imagining of the realms of endless torment that have ensured Jigoku a place in the horror pantheon.
Years before Herschell Gordon Lewis unleashed blood-soaked cheapies like Blood Feast (1963) and Two-Thousand Maniacs! (1964) on America’s drive-in audience, Nakagawa was on the other side of the globe exploring the visceral possibilities of on-screen gore in a way no other filmmaker had before. But, unlike Lewis, Nakagawa approached his gory material with a sense of artistry and panache, melding contemporary explicitness with traditional theatrics. At the time of its release, it was unlike anything that had been seen before.
Before arriving in the underworld, Jigoku spins a strange, sometimes nonsensical story that would be fascinating (and confounding) enough all on its own. Shigeru Amachi, who had already starred in several of Nakagawa’s previous films, including his breakthrough hit The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959), stars as Shiro Shimizu, a college student who, through bad luck and bad decisions, winds up destroying his life. Shiro is engaged to Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), the daughter of his theology professor, Dr. Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura), who early in the film delivers a lecture on the Buddhist beliefs in hell--essentially priming the pump for what’s to come.
Shiro, who is generally a good person, makes the mistake of being friends with Tamura (Yoichi Numata), a fellow college student who is as wicked as Shiro is good. While driving home one night, Tamura and Shiro accidentally hit a drunken gangster who wanders out onto the dark country road. Shiro, whose decision it was to take the road, begs Tamura to go back, but Tamura refuses. This sets in motion a revenge scheme by the gangster’s enraged mother and girlfriend, who plot to murder the two college students once they discover their identity.
The story, not surprisingly, contains several more deaths, both of which lay additional blood on poor Shiro’s hands. The earthly portion of the film concludes with Shiro going to a rural retirement home, where he is faced with his dying mother and philandering father, a young woman who looks exactly like Yukiko, a strange artist who paints visions of hell, and a number of eccentric and sinful characters. Tamura also reappears, rather unexpectedly and without rational explanation, which further suggests that he is less a person of flesh of blood than he is some nefarious agent of the underworld.
With a bottle of poisoned sake and some rancid fish, Nakagawa ushers us into hell for the film’s final half hour, taking Shiro, Tamura, and virtually every other major character along for the ride. It is here that the film truly comes alive, shedding its awkward earthly narrative and diving headfirst into a blistering series of vignettes depicting the various torments of the Eight Hells. Although obviously working on a limited budget (the film was made for the struggling Shintoho Studios, an exploitation outfit that would be bankrupt the following year), Nakagawa stages an impressive series of disturbing visual images, some surprisingly graphic, others strangely evocative. There are lakes of blood, rivers of pus, boiling cauldrons, fields of metal spikes, and all manner of flames and fire.
Each character gets his or her own torment, and Nakagawa lavishes his widescreen camera lens on the worst of it. We see hands cut off, eyes gouged out, teeth smashed in, and one poor sap reduced to a flayed corpse who can only stare horrified at his own heart beating. Nakagawa’s hellish visions can be a bit hokey at times, relying a little too much of Theremin wailing and montages of various characters screaming into the camera as if on cue. Yet, the overall effect of the sequence is one of true unease, especially when Nakagawa foregoes the gore for more psychological torments, like Shiro chasing desperately after the specter of his dead, unborn child or an endless parade of the damned wandering aimlessly forever.
For all its visual power, though, Jigoku doesn’t cohere thematically or theologically. For a film that desires to bring to life the horrors of the afterlife, it doesn’t always make strong connections between behaviors on earth and their punishments in hell. There are the obvious sinners who get their just desserts, but why is Shiro inflicted with so much punishment when he is, at worst, the victim of bad circumstances? His involvement in three deaths is his primary sin, but all of them are accidental. Tamura is just as confusing, but in the opposite direction; he is so manifestly evil that he never registers as human, which may be the point. Is he a person, a demon, or just a convenient narrative device? Although Jigoku is never as clear as it could be, it doesn’t fail to leave you with images that are quite unforgettable.
|Jigoku Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 19, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The image quality of Jigoku doesn’t seem to be up to Criterion’s usually impeccable standards, but I have the feeling it has everything to do with the quality of the source materials and not the transfer (and even then it’s just good to have this elusive, long-unavailable-in-the-U.S. cult classic finally available).The high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer was made from a 35mm print, which means it’s at least three generations from the original negative. The image is fairly soft and a bit grainy, and although black levels look solid, the color appears slightly washed out and faded (never having seen the film before, I can’t comment as to whether this is the result of age or the intended look of the film). The image is perfectly clear, as the MTI Digital Restoration System has cleaned it up nicely, leaving no traces of dirt or age. The digitally restored original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical print sounds strong throughout, with no ambient hiss or crackling.|
|The disc includes Building the Inferno, an intriguing new 40-minute documentary on director Nobuo Nakagawa and the making of the film. Criterion has rounded up many of the film’s participants, including actor Yoichi Numata (who sadly passed away not long after recording his interview), screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa, and Nakagawa collaborators Chiho Katsura and Kensuke Suzuki, as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose horror films like Cure (1997) owe a great debt to Nakagawa’s work. The documentary offers an in-depth portrait of Nakagawa and Shintoho Studios, and those without a lot of background knowledge of Japanese horror will come away with increased respect for Nakagawa’s accomplishments. Also included on the disc is a stills gallery of poster art for Nakagawa’s films and other Shintoho exploitation releases and an original theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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