Zombos Says: Very Good
Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place; poor theology student Shiro (Shigeru Amachi) can’t seem to keep from going to hell and taking everyone else with him. The Criterion Collection brings Nobuo Nakagawa's 1960 surrealistic terror and damnation cult classic, Jigoku, to DVD.
Like a nightmare, the film takes twists and turns that defy visual logic and story sense, plunging you—along with Shiro—into an absurdest world with no possible exit. Before you watch the film, I strongly recommend reading the essay by Chuck Stephens in the included booklet and watch the documentary Building the Inferno on the DVD.
Jigoku is not a film to see on an empty mind.
Perhaps it’s Shiro's indecisiveness hastening his descent. The poor man is not a happy camper and, as he broods, his fiance, family members, and acquaintances suffer the consequences of his brooding. Then there is Tamura, Shiro's evil friend. With friends like him, as the saying goes, you are sure to wind up in hell before breakfast. Tamura has an eerie way of popping up unexpectedly, and knowing all the dirt on everyone. Who, or what, is he?
But which hell are we talking about here? Every religion has its own claim to the greener pastures and turgid rivers of bubbling corruption. For Shiro, hell is a tenth-century Buddhist's depiction of nastiness, complete with images from thirteenth-century Japanese Hell scroll paintings—with multiple levels of torture.
Bargain Basement, all out for dismemberment, disembowelment, and peeling-you-like-a-grape forever and ever; next stop, eye-gouging and tickling your feet until you up-chuck.
I never knew Buddhists had it in them. We need one to make a horror movie.
Shiro's journey to torment begins with his insistence that Tamura drive down a bad road. Their car hits a gangster. Shiro implores Tamura to stop, but he speeds away, telling Shiro no one saw the accident, so why stop? But the gangster's mom saw it all, and notes the license plate. She tells his gun moll she saw who did it and soon the two are planning to kill the killers.
Shiro, guilt-ridden, tells his fiance, Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), that he killed a man. He blames himself for the accident even though Tamura was driving the car. He insists they go to the police station and he insists they take a taxi, though his fiance would much rather walk. The taxi driver promptly steers the car into an unyielding tree and his fiance promptly dies calling his name.
Shiro now has more guilt to weigh on him. He suffers from lots of guilt, but we never know why. Just because he feels guilty most of the time, that's no reason to send him to hell, is it?
Love-making out of wedlock is a hellish offense, perhaps, and his fiance was pregnant.
As Shiro's guilt-ridden brooding consumes him, he receives word that his mother is dying. He visits his family home outside Tokyo. We meet the odd inhabitants of the old-age home run by his unscrupulous father. His father is also riding his mistress to exhaustion as his wife lies quietly dying in the next room. Hell for sure, that one, guaranteed; and a hell-way ticket for everyone Shiro meets, including the unethical doctor, corrupt cop, and daughter of the drunken painter who paints scenes of hell in his spare time. Adding to Shiro's angst is how the painter's daughter looks exactly like Yukiko.
The gangster's mom and moll find him. The gun moll confronts him on a wooden suspension bridge hanging high above a rocky chasm.
Any self-respecting horrorhead knows where this is going.
In an almost comical scene, the moll trips over her own high-heeled feet just as she is about to shoot Shiro. Down she goes, and goes and goes, until she smacks into the rocks below. Creepy Tamura shows up to gloat over the incident and heap more guilt on to Shiro's back. He and Shiro get into a tussle and down Tamura goes, and goes, and goes.
Smell that brimstone charcoal firing up for Shiro?
Up until now, Nakagawa filmed his characters together in twos or threes, with tight, sparsely decorated sets. He now opens up to show the evening party revelry at the old-age home, shifting between the carousing residents and a small party of shady characters, including his father, who served the home's residents with tainted fish, his mistress, the immoral doctor, corrupt cop, Shiro, Yukiko look-alike, and—hey, wait a minute, what's that gangster's mom doing here? And what's that she's carrying? Looks like a big jug of—DEATH!
No, don't drink it you fools!
Suddenly, creepy—looking kind of dead—Tamura shows up again, but he isn't gloating this time. He does manage to shoot Yukiko-look-alike to death. While Shiro strangles Tamura for that the gangster's mom strangles Shiro.
With it looking like a Three Stooges skit, everyone winds up in hell.
And what a hell it is for a 1960's film.
Nakagawa is called the founding father of Japanese Horror for his visual extremes of torment. Poised on the bank of the river Sanzu, Shiro and all those that fit into that hand-basket with him must now unpack and settle into their uncomfortable eternal accommodations.
No crowding please, there's plenty of torment and pain for everyone.
With annoying demons sticking a pitchfork up your butt, or lopping off hands here and there—and let's not forget the boiling and bubbling hot-tubs of blood (my favorite!)—this is Club Dread for the damned dead.
Need a beautifying skin peel? No problem, they'll remove it all and leave chunky bloody bits for added zest. Need a pedicure? Easy, just go for a walk in a field of razor sharp needles growing like blades of grass. A field of feet sticking up out of the ground, while running hordes of annoying commuters not knowing which stop is theirs, embellish the toxic landscape. Nakagawa, and Kurosawa the production designer, stretch their minimal budget to its limits and create a horrific inferno comprised of jarring images, colors, and torments.
As each person is condemned to damnation for their sins and tortured in gory close-ups unusual for 1960s Japanese horror cinema, Nakagawa presents a nonsensical and almost non-linear montage of the netherworld. Is he winking at us? Perhaps he is telling us that religions telling people they must suffer eternal, barbaric tortures for daring to disobey religious edicts are ludicrous and cannot be taken seriously?
Shiro is told he must rescue his unborn daughter as she floats down the river of blood. Along the way, he meets both Yukiko and Yukiko look-alike, and Tamura.
Is Tamura a demon? Or Shiro's doppelganger? Or just some really evil person?
Nakagawa mixes it so you never really know. He also ends with lotus blossoms floating through the air, a discordant image given their symbolic meaning of purification and rebirth. He leaves Shiro hanging, literally, as he tries to save his unborn daughter, now caught in the netherworld. Yukiko and Yukiko look-alike swirl parasols and smile as lotus blossoms float all around them.
Nakagawa's film is both art-house and nonsense at the same time. He sends everybody to hell and has a rousing good time doing it in this Manga-stylized film.
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