Hell | Japan | 1960 | Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Logline: A group of sinners involved in interconnected tales of murder, revenge, duplicity, and adultery all meet at the Gates of Hell.
“Hear me! You who in life piled up sin upon sin will be trapped in Hell forever. Suffer! Suffer! This vortex of torment will whirl for all eternity.”
Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), is engaged to Yukio (Utako Mitsuya), the daughter of his theology professor. One night he is driving with his college colleague, Tamura (Yoichi Numata), and suggests a short cut down a dark country road. Unfortunately they hit a drunk yakuza, and Tamura, who is driving, decides to leave the scene, insisting no one saw the crime. Shiro and Tamura read in the newspaper that the gangland member has died of his injuries, but there were no witnesses. But, there were. The mother of the yakuza. She, and the girlfriend, conspire to seek revenge on the two men that perpetrated the crime.
So we have two sins presented; murder and vengeance. But there are more to come. By the halfway point of the movie there are several others whose paths will cross, whose sins have been exposed, and whose torment will be just as ghastly. For it is these folk who will suffer the various lower realms of the underworld, in the movie’s final third, which is depicted as a surreal, phantasmagorical landscape inspired by the infamous hell-scroll paintings, the unique stylistics of Butoh theatre, and embracing the ero-guro-nansensu of Japanese ciné lore!
The movie’s opening title sequence is mesmerising in its own absurdist way, heavily stylised with painted credits on cards, primary colour filters, and Shintoho nudies posed on either side, while a director’s voice calls, “Action!” A black streak of satire throbs quietly in the background of the entire movie. The mise-en-scene and cinematography are nothing short of extraordinary. The production design and art direction is stunning, and the special effects are terrific - the gore gags alone are the first of their kind, pre-dating Herschell Gordon Lewis by a few years.
There is a curious perspective on morality and roles at play in Jigoku. Just who is Tamura, really? He materialises on several occasions out of the blue, and behaves with a knowing smile, wearing unusual colours (compared to everyone else). It’s as if he is a spook for the Devil, but then he becomes caught up in the same undoing as everyone else. He admits to be being evil, even calls himself a demon. But his intentions are blurred.
And what are we to make of poor Shiro? He is the central protagonist, as bewildered by everything as we the audience, and yet, he is more innocent than guilty, so why should he be punished so? Perhaps he represents that evil-by-association element, of which he is most definitely tainted to. He hasn’t chosen his friends wisely, and he could’ve been more proactive at the right moments. But hey, dams da breaks. You make your futon, you sleep in it. That’s the way the fortune cookie crumbles.
Nakagawa had made eight other horror movies during the 1950s, and this was to be the last. Like some kind of mutant take on the Faust fable treated as a lurid, oh so lurid, study of seeking salvation, of the lack thereof, due to the overwhelming nature of sin to shroud our mortal lives. There is no other movie quite like Jigoku, way ahead of its time (in its own universe, even!), and yet, intrinsically locked in its own present, on the crest of the Japanese new wave, a pioneer of extreme cinema (I’m sure Takashi Miike learned a thing or two from this movie), and an adventurous step sideways from the familiar kaidan-geki movies so popular in Japanese film history.
Jigoku is not meant to be seen as some kind of theological treatise, it is to be experienced simply as pure, expressionist cinema; as striking, bizarre, and powerful as the oneiric tapestry and inescapable dread of true nightmares.