Most of us are probably familiar with (or have been forced to read in high school) the 14th century epic poem The Divine Comedy, and more specifically, that first part, Inferno, by Dante, here I will approach an interpretation of Hell from the other side of the world, from another time, and influenced, not by the Bible, but by Western gore and slasher flicks. While the central theme of the film deals with Hell, karma and morality from a Buddhist standpoint, the religious aspects are not as sacred as in Dante's poem (in fact, the director had quite a bit of fun with the entire film), so I'll just go into the explanation of it as far as to clarify it for those who may not be as familiar with Buddhism or the Japanese version of things. What I do want to point out, however, is that, despite the completely differing worlds in which the works were created, many of the themes, imagery and presentation of the depths of Hell do actually have a lot in common. Like Dante's Medieval Catholic Inferno, Buddhist Hell in Japan is also made up of a series of areas of varying torment designated to specific types of sinners nestled deep below the Earth's crust.
But at the heart of it all, this is a Japanese horror film. Made in 1960, most horror films at the time played directly to the Japanese psyche: slow, suspenseful, where you know there's something terrifying juuuust beyond the shoji screen, but not knowing what it is makes it all the more frightening. These films, precursors to modern international hits like Ringu, Ju-On, Dark Water and the like, are still remembered and often viewed today by fans of the Asian horror genre; films like Onibaba, Kwaidan and Ugetsu Monogatari can still be found on movie channels and DVD racks the world over.
This film, Jigoku, is not so well remembered. While the director, Nakagawa Nobuo, became very popular at the time of his career, his movies were not the subtly scary yōkai-tinged thrillers of most of his contemporaries. Even though only a few of his many films were in the horror or ghost story genre, the ones he did make are remembered to this day for their excellent visuals and direction. Like all good directors, Nakagawa was very eccentric, and his remembered well for his bizarre behaviour and penchant for wearing geta at all times, even on set. Despite often being referred to as "the Alfred Hitchcock of Japan" (and this film itself drawing inspiration from a murder case also depicted on the screen by Hitchcock), the suspense he masterfully built up in many of his earlier mystery films did not get the recognition that they may have gotten under different circumstances.
The circumstances? Shintoho, the film studio he worked for. After World War II, members of the Toho Production Company unveiled Shintoho (New Toho) Studios, and audiences were made aware very quickly of just the sort of films they were interested in making. You can't deny that Nakagawa's films had a certain cool quality about them...
Nazo no Hissatsu-ken (The Mysterious Blade)
Onna Kyuketsuki (The Vampire Lady)
Kenpei to Yuurei (The Military Policeman and the Ghost)
Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story), another of his phenomenal works, based off of the popular tale.
While the movies may appear slightly cheesy, Nakagawa really did an amazing job with the work he was given, which was pretty impressive since the majority of Shintoho's movies looked more like this...
Nikutai Joyu Goroshi - Gonin no Hanzaisha (Nude Actress Murder - Five Criminals)
Ama no Bakemono Yashiki (Girl Divers In A Haunted House)
Kuroi Chibusa (Dark Breasts)
And who could forget the Sexy Line? (Sexy Chitai)
Needless to say, when Jigoku (and even Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan before it) came out, many people dismissed it as just another one of those low-budget Shintoho films, which all seemed to be soft-core exploitation or really cheap and gory horror films churned out for summer in attempt to cash on on horror film season.
It didn't help matters that Jigoku came out in 1961, touting a film heavily influenced by Western visuals, something nobody had really seen before in a horror film and therefore should be wary of, and that it had almost zero budget, ending up as the very last film eked out of Shintoho before they declared bankruptcy and folded.
Jigoku was really far ahead of its time, and it deserves recognition for the absolutely stunning visuals and message presented in it, not to mention basically founding the ero-guro genre that is so popular today (even at Shintoho, blood on film was generally kept to a minimum, if at all). It is also gaining further notoriety for being one of, if not the first film to capitalize on Western plot devices, sensibilities, and the manner in which horrific imagery is approached, and to actually depict Buddhist Hell. It has since been remade several times, but finally Nakagawa Nobuo is getting the recognition that he deserves as one of the iconic directors of Japan (especially in this groundbreaking film that he still managed with no budget and the company against the amount of blood and gore). This movie is amazing and still must be seen to be believed. Please check it out if you can, and enjoy the review!
Movie Review - 地獄 - Jigoku