Hell and Tragedy:

on the Cult Classic Jigoku

Jigoku, alternately known as Hell or The Sinners of Hell, came out in 1960. It was directed by Nobuo Nakagawa for the Shintoho studio. Shintoho was exclusively a purveyor of low budget schlocky, gory films. Horror wasn’t really an established genre at the time in Japan; instead the few movies Shintoho released that were on the scarier side of things would’ve been ghost stories (Japanese ghost stories follow pretty specific patterns) and monster movies. Jigoku was unique because it was neither. The thing is Jigoku, while definitely resembling a horror movie more than any other genre by the mere inclusion of the third act, isn’t quite a horror movie either. If I absolutely had to quantify it, I would describe the first two-thirds as a poetic tragedy and the last third as horror. Jigoku, like many movies that straddle genres, has become defined by its indefinability. The same way the Space Channel keeps telling me Cabin in the Woods is Joss Whedon’s genre-busting horror movie, the back of my lovely Criterion copy of Jigoku espouses the same phrase with exuberance. Genre-busting! Which maybe goes to show how constrictive genre delineations can be. Even the phrase genre-busting is vague – Cabin in the Woods is infinitely less weird in design than Jigoku, which is no claim to superior quality for either, just a fact.

Apparently Nobuo Nakagawa was quite a character. He was known for wearing wooden sandals everywhere. He even dresses his main character in them in Jigoku. He’d previously directed a couple of ghost stories for Shintoho before he started work on Jigoku. The script for the film was initially entitled Heaven and Hell. Apparently the studio was taken aback by the utter lack of heaven in the script. Nobuo Nakagawa quipped that he’d put heaven in the sequel. He said this knowing full well that Shintoho was doing so badly this was to be their last production. There isn’t any sort of triumphant underdog story here either; Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku was indeed Shintoho’s last project. They were so short on cash the extras they’d hired got roped into helping build the rather extravagant sets for the hell scenes. They had to cover Shintoho’s largest sound stage with dirt and build the few physical props that appear during these scenes, which, probably to the benefit of the extras, were fairly sparse. Just extravagantly large, which lent the scenes a striking nature.

Here’s a chunk from the Criterion essay on the Nobuo Nakagawa:

Born in Kyoto, in 1905, Nakagawa began his filmmaking career in 1929, as an apprentice at the second-generation cine pioneer Masahiro Makino’s Mikiko Studio, directed his first film while working for chanbara giant Ichikawa Utaemon, in 1934, and finally settled at Toho, where he specialized largely in slapstick comedies, until he was sent to a battle station in Shanghai shortly after the beginning of the war. Returning to Toho after Japan’s surrender, Nakagawa found the studio rocked by labor strikes (quelled only once the U.S. occupation force’s tanks rolled in to arbitrate the dispute) and moved to splinter studio Shintoho (New Toho) in 1947. By the time of his death, in 1984, Nakagawa had made some ninety feature films—jidai-geki samurai sagas, noirish thrillers, musicals, and melodramas alike—and enjoyed at least two distinct cinematic reputations: first as a suspense specialist, sometimes described as “the Japanese Alfred Hitchcock,” and then as the filmmaker whose midcentury reinvention of the feudal-era fever dreams of the kaidan-geki (ghost story) at Shintoho earned him distinction as the “master of Japanesque horror,” the at once semantically quizzical and yet somehow obliquely apt moniker by which Nakagawa is still widely remembered today.

The main character in Jigoku is Shirô, a university student taking philosophy. He’s also developed a relationship with his professor’s daughter, Yukiko. It’s all going pretty well for Shirô. He has the blessing of Yukiko’s parents, their relationship is solid, everything seems to be going well. Until his mysterious classmate Tamura starts to get involved. Tamura is a menacing, manic man who fixates on the worst in everyone. There’s a demonic sensibility to him, equal parts a result of the lighting and the performance, that separates him from just being a douche. One night he’s driving Shirô home when Shirô suggests they make a turn. Tamura barrels down the road and hits a drunken man. Shirô and Tamura drive on, stressed but agreeing to keep the incident a secret.

They don’t realize they’ve been spotted by an elderly woman, or that the man they’ve killed was a high-ranking member of a local Yakuza syndicate. The woman doesn’t go to the police, but does make a pact with her daughter to kill whoever was responsible. The guilt starts to get to Shirô, who eventually comes clear to Yukiko who agrees to go to the police with Shirô. They hire a cab and, again in a manner that could be construed as Shirô’s fault, they get into a car crash that kills Yukiko. The next time we see Shirô he’s a broken man, weakly watching an exotic dancer in a club. He’s approached by a beautiful red-dressed woman who seems stricken by him. They have a one-night stand. The woman looks at his driver’s licence while he sleeps and is taken aback. She’s the daughter of the elderly woman who spotted Shirô kill the Yakuza man. They did their research and know this is the man they have sworn to kill. This is quite a coincidence, but this whole tragic first section of the film is riddled with them, and I feel like it’s almost an innate part of the type of story being told.

Soon Shirô gets word that his mother is wasting away in his hometown, and he goes to visit her. Once there he gets embroiled in a fairly complex situation. His mother is dying in one room while his father cavorts with his mistress in the next. Shirô’s father’s mistress starts to try to seduce Shirô in almost no time, begging him to take her back to Tokyo with him. The next apartment over, a drunken artist works to complete a massive painting of hell he’s working on, while his daughter helps and supports him. His daughter, Sachiko, looks exactly like Yukiko (this is a total trope, and it gets super weirdly erroneous later). Next to all of this are the owners of a nearby old age home. The old age home is failing and cutting costs desperately. None of these people really get along, although they are all involved in one another’s affairs. Shirô starts to have eyes for Sachiko when Yukiko’s parents show up looking for him.

The next arrival is Tamura. Menacing his way through the situation he starts to stir up all kinds of trouble. Because this is a tragedy everything starts to go wrong. Shirô’s mother dies. The old woman and her daughter show up. Her daughter tries to shoot Shirô on an ominous rope bridge but ends up falling to her death. Tamura shows up next and Shirô panics and shoots him off the bridge. Yukiko’s parents throw themselves in front of a train. The old age home cuts costs and feeds all their residents rotted fish. There’s food poisoning, regular poisoning, and more. Tamura shows back up and Shirô strangles him to death while also being strangled by the old woman. Literally every character dies some sort of terrible death. Very operatic tragedy.

This whole first portion has a lovely poeticism to it. There are recurring images of umbrellas and beautiful shots of all manner of things, for instance an elegant shot of tiny dead fish floating away down a stream. Impressionistic shots of swirling red dresses. Trains and car crashes and ironic turns of event. It’s not, strictly speaking, wonderfully written. Achieving the goal of mass slaughter by different means without connecting everything too tritely is impossible. Any solution will just feel too perfect and manufactured. The flip side of that would be a script that becomes too dependent on coincidence to achieve its ends. Jigoku manages to do both of these things. The cost cutting old-age home linked to Shirô’s parents is pretty trite, and Shirô just stumbling across one of the gang members out to kill him is pretty random, and borderline silly in execution. These plot contrivances do manage to add to the weird operatic tone more than they detract, but I’m still not convinced they’re good.

Of course it’s the last third of the film (I feel like I’m using this term a lot and you should know it’s got nothing to do with three act structure, which this movie absolutely doesn’t conform to, just evenly-sized delineations of time) that people really remember and respond to. The last third, as I mentioned before, puts all the characters from the rest of the film in hell. Japanese hell is a little different from the Western/Christian concept.

Here’s how the Encyclopedia Britannica describes “Jigoku”:

Jigoku, in Japanese Buddhism, hell, a region popularly believed to be composed of a number of hot and cold regions located under the Earth. Jigoku is ruled over by Emma-ō, the Japanese lord of death, who judges the dead by consulting a register in which are entered all of their sins. He is assisted in his examination of the dead by two disembodied heads, which rest on pillars on either side of him. The female head, Miru-me, has the power of perceiving the sinner’s most secret faults, while the male head, Kagu-hana, can detect any misdeed. Damnation is not eternal; the dead are sentenced to fixed periods of time in one region or to several regions in succession. The sentences can be shortened by the intervention of bodhisattvas (those destined to become enlightened) in response to the prayers of the living.

(Totally unimportant but there are a series of small hot springs in Japan. One of them is called Chinoike Jigoku. This basically means “bloody hell pond”, because there’s some mineral in the water that makes it red. That’s pretty cool eh? But what’s even nuttier – once upon a time the hellish body of water was used to torture people, because when you find a blood red pool what else are you going to do with it?)

This last third of the movie is certainly more notable than the first two, in a lot of ways. The vision of hell Nobuo Nakagawa conjures is wonderfully unusual and artistic. Spinning wheels and darkness and dirt and pools of fire and atmospheric rivers and the sounds of distant sobbing abound. There are crowds of manic extras crawling through rivers of blood and last-act reveals and demons. It also marks a weird transition in the pacing. Up until this portion of the movie Shirô is completely directionless. He has no real goals; he just sort of wanders from incident to incident and tries to stay alive. In hell he has a clear-cut, obvious objective. It’s definitely a change, and a welcome one to boot after the slightly languid first two thirds.

The camerawork in this portion is stunning too. Dramatic Dutch angles and ghostly lighting. Everything is tinged an eerie, rotten blue or savage red. Characters fade in and out of existence and the clumsy old-school compositing lends a variety of scenes a mystical, unreal quality. This is especially prominent in the handful of scenes that take place around the Buddhist equivalent of the river Styx. It’s all delightfully poetic. There’s nothing grounded about it, it jumps around, swirls, and cackles satisfyingly. It’s maddening and manic and serves as a wonderful capper to the movie.

Except it sorta never goes anywhere. The ending actually reminded me of Dan Harmon’s exaggerated description of the way movies would end in the summer. “Someone could just run into a room and there would be a gunshot and it would just end, stuff could just end whenever.” Jigoku kind of just ends. Perhaps implying eternal torment, but perhaps not.

It’s easy to see why Jigoku was a cult classic. Undefinable genre boundaries. Stunning visuals. Bleak and atmospheric. Worth the time, but ultimately slightly frustrating.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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