Mark Vallen - October 2001
was privileged to see the long belated U.S. Premiere of Jigoku
(Hell) at Hollywood's famous Egyptian Theater on August
18th, 2000. Nobuo Nakagawa is a name associated with
the genre of horror and ghost stories. Nakagawa's late 1950's
movies, Ghost of Kasane (Kaidan Kasanegafuchi) and
Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan), were retellings
of traditional Japanese folktales. Those classics helped to
established the director as the king of the horror flic, but
he was also producing Western inspired horror films like Vampire
Moth (Kyuketsuki Ga) that introduced decidedly non-Japanese
fantasy elements into his work. It wasn't until 1960
that Nakagawa created his masterpiece, Jigoku. The widescreen
film was Nakagawa's first color movie, but it would also be
the first horror film of it's kind produced anywhere in the
Hitchcock would release his infamous thriller, Psycho
in the same year... but Jigoku made the American director's
outlandish tale seem tame by comparison. Jigoku was a phantasmagoric
nightmare of unrelenting morbidity, a glimpse of Hell and it's
eternal torments that must have outraged viewers when it first
opened. Even by today's standards the film contains scenes that
are truly disturbing.
stunning opening credits of the movie consists of a 1960's
Jazz trio pumping out a frenetic soundtrack as the backdrop
to an eye popping montage of still photos showing close
ups of scantily clad women. The credits serve as a vulgar
introduction to the sins of the material world. Immediately
following we are introduced to the lead character, Shiro,
as he sits in a university classroom listening to a lecture
conducted by Professor Yajima.
subject of the lecture is "concepts of Hell" and Shiro is
most interested in learning about the The Eight Great
Hells as they are revealed in the Buddhist sutras.
But Shiro's curiosity is motivated by guilt... the night
before was he involved in a hit and run accident that resulted
in the death of a yakuza (gangster). Shiro has convinced
himself that he was not actually driving, it was
his alter ego... a dark mirror image of himself named Tamura
that was at the wheel. That darker self refused to confess
guilt to the local police, and so Shiro is tormented by
the death on his hands... partly because he's also engaged
to Professor Yajima's Daughter, Yukiko.
forever in Hellfire
is unkind to Shiro when he's involved in a second car
accident, this one killing his lovely fiancée Yukiko. The angst
of the young man knows no bounds when Yukiko's family turns
him away. Shattered and guilt ridden, the forlorn Shiro finds
refuge in the pleasure quarters... and he takes a sleazy courtesan
named Yoko as his plaything. Little does he know that
Yoko was the lover of the yakuza he killed in the car accident!
his misery, Shiro gets the news that his mother is on her
deathbed. He travels to the Tenjoen Senior Citizens Facility
to visit her, where he quite unexpectedly encounters Sachiko...
a dead-ringer look alike of his deceased fiancée. Sachiko's
father is an alcoholic artist who spends his days painting
a magnificent image of Hell. The other residents of the senior
citizens home are equally eccentric. When Shiro finds his
elderly father living there with a very young woman while
the old man's wife lies dying in an adjoining room, the fragile
Shiro approaches the breaking point. That breakdown comes
when the mysterious Tamura arrives, followed soon after by
the courtesan, Yoko. Later
that evening, the Tenjoen's 10th anniversary celebrations
get underway, and they soon deteriorate into drunken revelry
as the sake endlessly flows. Suddenly the grim Tamura stops
the proceedings as he slowly recounts the past sins of all
those present. Time freezes as the hapless merrymakers are
then hurled into the gapping maw of Hell.
this point the film departs from its rather conventional first
half, and along with the movie's protagonist, the viewer is
thrust into an utterly terrifying abyss. The last half hour
of the film is a fast moving collection
of disjointed vignettes whose only relation to each other is
that they graphically detail the endless tortures of Hell. Time
and reason are suspended as the denizens of the underworld are
by the Lord of the Eight Great Hells and his demonic minions.
and again Shiro was punished in unspeakable ways... hung upside
down with a huge spike driven through his neck... made to
trod over a field of sword blades, but always restored to
fitness so that he may suffer boundless torments until the
end of time. One devastating torture reunited Shiro with his
Yukiko on the banks of a mist covered river.
pair could hear the cries of their baby girl, Harumi
(conceived only days before Yukiko's tragic death), but they
were unable to see her. Finally the girl is spotted floating
down the netherworld river on a lotus blossom, but as Harumi's
cries became more desperate and the river turned to blood,
Shiro was unable to save the child despite all his efforts.
The scene was poetic
was not the only one to be abused and oppressed by demons,
the infernal regions were overflowing with humanity and
people were undergoing agonies both individually and in
Sachiko's artistic father was there... painting not with
brush and ink, but with entrails, blood, and human filth.
There were infinite fields of grasping, clutching hands
where people were buried for eternity in muck. There were
vast and empty dark plains were only the moaning of the
dead could be heard. Misshapen ogres crushed the bones of
their victims with giant clubs, while others were skinned
alive, boiled, or sawn in half. Some poor souls were roasted
upon giant flaming wheels.
me the most memorable scene of the pit was that of a massive
rushing whirlpool made up of screaming, terrified people.
The wretches had no control over their own bodies, some unseen
force made them run endlessly in the gigantic swirling circle.
Like animals off to slaughter, the panicked throng was mad
with fear, but unable to escape.
aesthetics of classic Noh Theater are evident in the
film's portrayal of purgatory, from the minimalist but evocative
sets to the eerie music. Working with designer Haryasu
Kurosawa, an amazing glimpse of the underworld was achieved
using little more than lighting effects, film editing, and
low budget props and make-up, yet the overall effect was startlingly
of flesh, again & again
frightful morality tale was based upon the Buddhist belief
of an afterlife where earthly sins are atoned for after death.
took Nakagawa seven months to shoot Jigoku, and much of the
production was funded with his own money. The film has been
the subject of numerous remakes, including a 1999 production
by Teruo Ishii. Yet it's the original director's remarkable
vision that helped give rise to a renaissance in the genre
of horror movies. Forty years after its making, the film still
elicits shock, screams, and praise from its viewers.
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