If there’s any country that produces films that make me feel like utter shit, it’s Japan. You always hear about Japan being a “Shame society” where social order is kept by the reinforcement of guilt. If I’ve learned anything from watching Japanese horror films, I’ve learned this is 100% true. I don’t know how many Japanese ghost stories I’ve read or watched where the events of the film are thrust into motion after a horrible accident or regrettable decision is hidden by the film’s central character(s). These people usually learn their lesson by way of paranormal haunting or a supernatural curse. Or in the extreme case of Jigoku, GO TO HELL! *cue your favorite rock song containing the word “Hell”.
Hell isn’t a metaphor in “Jigoku” it’s the real deal. Right off the bat, the film begins with a man screaming his lungs out and falling into a fiery pit. Whether or not this effect looks good from a technical standpoint is debatable, but there’s no question that it’s effective at a dramatic level. A title card cuts in abruptly and we follow with a college lecture hall where a professor, Mr. Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura), gives a lecture about the concept of “Hell” in different cultures. At the back of the class sits Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), a bored student, but as we quickly learn, it isn’t boredom that’s eating away at this student rather, fear.
Shiro is joined by Tamura (Yoichi Numata), a too cool for school rebel—though he is technically in school—who simply tells Shiro “The man from last night died.” This news sends Shiro into a whirlwind of anxiety, but only until later do we learn what this means. Meanwhile, Shiro must be on his best behavior for his girlfriend, Yukiko’s (Yoichi Numata) parents. Her father of which happens to be Shiro’s theology Professor from earlier. Shiro tries to adapt to the domestic life but is still deeply troubled by what he did. dun, dun, dun.
Turns out, Shiro and Tamura killed a man with a car on accident and fled the scene of the crime. Tamura doesn’t seem fazed by the incident but Shiro is eaten away from the inside. Eventually, Shiro tells Yukiko about his crime and they decide he must confess at the police station. Except on the way, Yukiko is killed in a taxi cab accident.
We learn that the man, Kyoichi (Kiyoko Tsui), who was killed in the hit and run was the leader of a notorious gang. In a bizarre coincidence, Shiro, distraught from his girlfriend’s death, sleeps with a stripper who turns out to be Kyoichi’s girlfriend Yoko (Akiki Ono) and confesses his crimes. Yoko informs Kyoichi’s mother and the two conspire to track down and kill Shiro.
If shit hadn’t already hit the proverbial fan hard enough, Shiro’s mom who lives in a country-side retirement home is sick and dying. Shiro visits where we are introduced to an entire community of people with notorious pasts. The link between most of these individuals being they are all in some way linked to the death of another. While there, Shiro falls for a girl who’s the splitting image of Yukio a la Vertigo and Yoko proceeds to hunt Shiro. Oh and this girl also dies. Lotta death.
The film builds to Yoko eventually shooting and killing Shiro and Tamura. To top it off the crooked residents of the retirement home are served tainted fish which kills them and Mr. and Mrs. Yajima who are there for some reason are so distraught they jump in front of a train. Mondays, am I right?
So everyone ends up in Hell. I’m amazed at the amount of the plot it takes to get to this point but it definitely justifies it all. Also, I think you need it to keep audiences from going insane. Even though the Hell sequence only lasts 20-30 minutes at most it’s beyond nightmarish. People are strung up on swords, stripped to their skeletons and tortured in cruel, ironic fashion.
One example, we learn that Professor Yajima ended up in Hell because during the war he stole water from a dying soldier. Therefore his punishment is to drag his body along with others towards a small pool only to have the water evaporate. With the water gone everyone has to instead drink shit and blood water. It’s not as bad as it sounds on screen but mentally it made me uncomfortable. Shiro is visited by the ghost of Yukikio and clone Yukiko girlfriend one last time, so there is some solace but he’s still fucked because he’s in Hell. God… Damn…
This is a bizarre film. So bizarre I’m surprised it’s not more famous. Well, not that surprised. It was far too weird for 1960, bloody too. I’m not even sure it was available for American audiences to see until it became a Criterion movie in 2006. An honor which it absolutely deserves. Because this film, for as horrifying as it is, is beautiful. The violent splashes of red and blue against a wide canvas of light and shadow. The flickering green lights in Hell and psychedelic flowing rivers. It reminds me of the kind of the film you’d see projected on the walls of an upscale hipster bar or at a gallery with a DJ. It’s one part art film one part harsh morality tale. If I wasn’t afraid of Hell before I’m sure as heck afraid of it now.
Sorry that all the pics look like they were filmed on a potato.