Director Nobuo Nakagawa tells his cast and audience to go to Hell with 1960’s Jigoku. But it’s not all bad; you might find that, if you regretted your wrong doings on Earth, then you are spared having to run in a circle for eternity. If you are bored with the standard Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre fair this October, Jigoku might just be the change of pace you’re looking for.
With the Japanese producing chilling horror movies and the constant whisperings of perverse Japanese exploitations films, Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (Hell) is an imposing work. Considered by many to mark the beginning of Japanese horror and gore, the film follows Shiro, a young student, who descends into emotional hell, and later physical hell, due to the guilt from a hit and run accident. As Shiro wrestles with his guilt, his loved ones begin to die off one by one. Soon the inhabitants of the small village, along with Shiro, die for their various sins and face their judgment in Hell.
While images of bones stripped of their flesh and boiling seas of blood and puss leave the viewer anxious for what will happen when Shiro arrives in Hell, the physical pain of the film’s later third pales in comparison to the emotional strain of guilt and regret Shiro experiences before his decent. And perhaps that is the most shocking aspect of Jigoku - the horrors of Hell are actually a relief from earthly emotional distress. After the hit and run incident, everyone Shiro comes into contact with dies. Among all the residents of this small village, Shiro is the only one who feels any remorse for his transgressions. Adultery, murder and gluttony run amuck in the village and no one seems to mind, until they are forced to pay for their sins.
The argument could be made that because Shiro suffered during his time on Earth, it’s fitting that he doesn’t share his countrymen’s fate in hell. Instead of being subjected to the teeth-breaking, bone-snapping, flesh-boiling practices of Hell, Shiro is reunited with his late wife who informs him that she was with child when she died, and he must travel through the stages of hell in search of his lost child. While Nakagawa brings the pain in regard to the supporting cast, this MacGuffin chase through Hell takes away from its horrors. However, when not distracted by Shiro’s quest, the imagery Nakagawa creates will make you cringe and cover your eyes. Although the methods of showing the torture are fairly tame in these days, Nakagawa’s hellish situations, such as hundreds of people dying of thirst attempting to crawl to a single canteen, having to walk on a floor covered with large spikes of glass or being tied to the ground while all your bones and teeth are smashed, are what nightmares are truly made of.
It’s somewhat disappointing that the physical torture of Hell isn’t as affecting as Shiro’s emotional torment. And although it was not Nakagawa’s intention to create this underlying sub-text, it’s interesting that in a movie about Hell, the most torturous events take place on Earth. Had Nakagawa actively explored this theme in the last half of the film, Jigoku could have been a thing of horror history. Although it misses its mark in the theme department, it creates striking and terrifying imagery that stays with the viewer long after he has forgotten the film’s events.
The Criterion Collection presents Jigoku in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image isn’t as crisp in some scenes as one would like but given Criterion’s track record, it’s a good bet that Jigoku never has and never will look any better. The soundtrack is presented in its original mono soundtrack and gets the job done. However, the great debate of whether a film should feature its original sound format or an updated surround sound mix not with standing, it might have been nice to have the option to hear a broader range of sound to enhance Jigoku’s mood and atmosphere.
In regard to the special features, the main attraction is the Building the Inferno documentary. The documentary features interviews with actor Yoichi Numata, screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa, Nakagawa collaborators Chiho Katsura and Kensuke Suzuki, and Cure and Doppelganger director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (No relation to Akira Kurosawa of Seven Samurai fame). It is an interesting look at Nakagawa’s practices and techniques, as well as his film set mannerisms. It’s always interesting to hear how caring and generous horror film directors are just before they shoot someone’s flesh melting off.
Aside from the documentary, you get the theatrical trailer and a poster gallery of Nakagawa’s films. A new essay by Asian cinema critic Chuck Stephens is also included and well worth your time. And although this Criterion is fairly light on supplemental substance, this horror DVD is well worth checking out this October.