Review first published by EyeforFilm
Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), Spawn (1997), Hellboy (2004) and Constantine (2005) are just some of the horror films that have exploited the fire-and-brimstone iconography of hell for their sensationalist thrills, but occasionally cinema has also taken its cue from Virgil and Dante to explore more seriously the aesthetic, religious, philosophical and psychological aspects of the Underworld.
One thinks of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956), and perhaps Koreeda Hirokazu’s After Life (1998), but far less well known is Nakagawa Nobuo’s Jigoku. Less well known, that is, unless you happen to live in Japan, where it is regarded as a classic and has spawned remakes by Kumashiro Tatsumi in 1979 and Ishii Teruo in 1999. After all, the film’s bleak portrayal of sin and (maybe) redemption is easily adapted to any time, even if Nakagawa’s particular version is unimaginable in any decade but the Sixties.
Shiro (Amachi Shigeru) is an earnest young student about to get married, but ever since the mysterious Tamura (Numata Yoichi) has materialised, Shiro’s life has become a personal hell. It is Tamura who is in the driving seat when the two run over a drunken yakuza (Izumida Hiroshi) and leave him for dead; and shortly afterwards, as Shiro heads with his fiancée Yukiko (Mitsuya Utako) to the police station, she too is killed in an accident, preventing Shiro from confessing to his crime.
Summoned to Tenjoen when his mother becomes gravely ill, Shiro stays at the Senior Citizens’ Facility run by his father Gozo (Hayashi Hiroshi), who is openly conducting an affair with the young gold-digger Kinuko (Yamashita Akiko) while his own wife lies dying in the next room. Shiro finds himself surrounded by corrupt cops, slanderous journalists, fraudulent artists, negligent doctors, old war criminals, liars, drunks and whores, and it is hardly surprising when Tamura also arrives to stir things up. The only ray of hope is Sachiko, a decent young woman who is the spitting image of Yukiko (and is also played by Mitsuya). But with the dead yakuza’s girlfriend and mother out for vengeance, when the clock strikes nine everyone is destined to be revisited by their sins and judged in the blood and fire of Hell.
If the first hour of Jigoku is, for all its Sixties stylings and quirky cinematography, in essence a morality drama, then the last 40 minutes is a haunting, brutal guided tour of the sufferings of the netherworld, where earthly misdemeanours are punished with never-ending tortures: vanishing water for the thirsty, vicious clubbings from demons, stocks, baths of excrement and flames, metal spikes through the neck and feet, and even being sawn in half or flayed till no skin remains.
Yet while all this is depicted rather graphically, Nakagawa keeps his underworld abstract, so that it remains unclear whether it is a place of grisly reality or the imaginings of a bad conscience (of the kind that Tamura seems to embody). The phrase “I see everything” recurs in the film’s first half, whether on the lips of Tamura or of both the yakuza’s avengers, like a spur to guilty feeling, but once Shiro has arrived where all secrets are known, seen and judged, the words he keeps repeating are “forgive me”. For this may be a tale of crime and punishment, where the wrong choices have horrific consequences, but it also holds out the possibility (if no more) of atonement and purification. It might even, despite its title, end with a vision of Paradise – unless that is just another Tantalean torment for Shiro.
Jigoku is a beautiful film. Its play with lighting effects, colour gels and jarring camera angles makes everything – both on earth and below – seem an off-kilter nightmare, while the soundtrack of jazz, wood percussion and theremin only adds to the sense of disorientation. Realism this is not, but Nakagawa is nonetheless concerned with depicting a society that has lost its moral balance, at a time when memories of war-time horror were still fresh in the Japanese mind, while post-war modernisation was engendering its own anxieties about over-permissiveness and the dissipation of traditional values.
If Jigoku has a flaw, it is the meandering repetition of its Hell-set scenes, which prove all too effective in conveying the endless circularity of the Underworld, even as they replay (in a new environment) many of the sequences from the film’s first half. Fortunately, though, their aestheticised starkness makes them beguiling (perhaps ‘hypnotic’ would be more accurate) to watch. And Numata puts in a captivating turn, playing the demonic Tamura as a louche hipster – every bit the man of his times in the film of his times.