Japanese horror cinema can broadly be sorted into two categories. Slow ghost stories with a focus on the psychological, which feature female ghosts terrorising people with their fabulous hair. Films such as Ringu, Ju-On: The Grudge, Dark Water. Then there is the more visceral type with emphasis on torture, gore and degradation. In this latter camp are films like the Guinea Pig series, Tokyo Gore Police, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Jigoku.
Meaning ‘Hell’ in the Japanese language, Jigoku is a visually startling film from director Nobuo Nakagawa and something of an anomaly. As a precursor to the torture porn genre, it doesn’t seem to have much of a precedent in a Japanese horror landscape that was mostly influenced by folk-tales. Shintoho Studio, which produced the film (before going out of business) were known for their violent films, but Jigoku definitely raised the bar. Psycho (1960) was released around the same time – to waves of controversy – but Jigoku’s violence is far more colourful and grotesque.
Attempting to make sense of Jigoku is an exercise in futility as it seeks to depict the Buddhist version of Hell, a harrowing crucible of karmic atonement. It is an exploration of life’s journey, how we try to be the best person we can be even when invariably failing to meet our own expectations – only in this case that journey extends beyond death itself and has far-reaching consequences.
Shirō (Shigeru Amachi) is an upstanding student set to marry his girlfriend, Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya) when he is involved in a vehicular accident that kills a member of the Yakuza. His close friend Tamura (Yôichi Numata), who was driving, feels no remorse for what he sees as an accident responsible for the death of a horrible individual, even as it plagues Shirō’s conscience. What follows is a Shakespearean melodrama of hubris, reprisals, and tragic falls.
At first, it isn’t clear what kind of movie Jigoku wants to be. For the majority of its runtime, the closest it gets to horror is its bleak outlook on the human condition. Shirō’s father Gōzō (Hiroshi Hayashi) runs a remote retirement community filled with the abusive, lecherous, war criminals, and the morally debased. Gōzō himself openly cheats on his dying wife, rips off the community and later poisons them with rotten fish.
The film slowly builds this sombre atmosphere, made weird through discordant jazz music, giving the viewer the impression of chaos taking over as Shirō’s life crumbles around him and he begins his spiritual descent into Hell. But once the tension starts spilling over, the plot becomes a succession of violent trespass after violent trespass; resulting in the type of blood-thirsty scene George R.R.Martin daydreams about.
The Hell scenes only make up the last thirty-something minutes of the movie. But I think that is as long as is needed. We see shards of glass tear through feet and necks, teeth are smashed by hammer-wielding Oni, and even people flayed alive. The special effects are the actual stars of the movie; though rather dated and unconvincing by modern standards, in 1960 this would undoubtedly have been pushing the line of acceptability.
An impressive level of detail evidently went into the gore. Jigoku relishes in its depiction of pain and suffering. In one scene, around one hour and sixteen minutes in, a man has his flesh ripped off and is left existing as a sinewy collection of pulsating organs and bones. The effect simulating the act of flaying is rather unconvincing, but the corpse itself is grisly – especially considering the Psycho shower scene would never have been allowed to be shot in colour. As a genuinely frightening representation of Hell, Jigoku is let down by age and technical limitation but elevated by imagination.
Jigoku operates on a much higher level. It depicts a savagely beautiful portrait of the afterlife, with artistically-minded shots and excellent use of subtle colour palates and eye-catching imagery (such as the burning ring). Shirō’s journey through hell to find his dead infant daughter brings to mind Dante Alighieri and his iconographical portrait of the three stages of the afterlife, The Divine Comedy. But it is the Eastern influence that gives Jigoku its unsettling, otherworldly vibe.
Geisha-style tormentors with their oil-paper umbrellas speak in cryptic lines, Yama (the King of Hell) proceeds over the ruination of the damned souls; Shirō even has to scale a literal Buddhist wheel of life. This all combines to form a film with the ability to unnerve purely through its sheer strangeness. Some people refer to this movie as ‘Japanese Hell‘ (a misnomer as that was the remake). That’s a bit redundant, though. Of course, this is Japanese Hell. There are umbrella twirling kawaii girls over-excitedly stating something that could simply have been whispered.