Jigoku: Criterion Collection Review
Japan has a far more complicated outlook on religious beliefs than we do here in the west. Heaven and Hell aren’t just places run by a guy with a big white beard and a red demon with horns and a handlebar moustache who reward or damn those who have been naughty or nice. Buddhism tells of the Nakara realm in which people are automatically born into as a result of their previous karma. It’s a place of purgatory where a person is forced to go through a series of trials relating to his or her karma which has yet to reach its fullest potential. Each time karma has been satisfied the person is then elevated to another level of Hell. Effectively this is built upon several layers, those being nakara, consisting of eight hot hells and eight cold hells. Residing over these is the lord of death Emma-O (or Enma) who judges souls according to a register of sins for each, and this is what Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku looks into.
Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is a theology student who has recently become engaged to Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), the daughter of his professor, Mr. Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura). One night, whilst driving home, Shiro asks his best friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata) to take a different route than usual and by doing so they soon stray into the path of a drunken Yakuza member. Tamura hits the man and continues to drive, insisting that nobody saw the incident. The next day they learn that the man had died from brain injuries and Shiro tells Tamura that he wants to inform the police, but Tamura adamantly advises against it. Racked with guilt Shiro eventually tells Yukiko what happened and together they take a taxi to the police station. On the way the taxi crashes and Yukiko is killed. Suddenly Shiro’s life is thrown into disarray and soon matters are made worse when he’s informed that his mother is very ill, forcing him to travel to a retirement home run by his father. It’s there that he meets a young woman named Sachiko (Utako Mitsuya) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead fiancée, along with a crowd of hopeless individuals who represent the worst portions of society, from corrupt police officers and doctors caught up in malpractice, to drunken fools and adulterers. When Tamura catches up with him, as well as the mother of the man (Kiyoko Tsuji) he hit and his ex-girlfriend Yoko (Akiko Ono), Shiro finds himself trapped in his own private hell, not knowing that soon he’ll be waking up in the real thing, ready to be judged for all the sins that he’s committed.
Production company Shin-Toho was formed in 1947, shortly after a series of heavy strikes over at Toho studios. Armed with only a handful of directors and star names its aim was to alleviate financial burden from its sister company and produce prominent features that would see Toho get back on track. But Shin-Toho soon faced problems when bigger production houses were raking in the cash. In an attempt to secure its future as a major production company it took on a new face during the mid fifties, adhering to the rule that sex and violence would appeal to a wider audience and could be produced relatively cheap, while guaranteeing a high box office intake. For the rest of the fifties, before fizzling out in the early sixties, Shin-Toho released a bevy of Kaidan features, spear-headed by now cult director Nobuo Nakagawa, former protégé of Masahiro Makino. Nakagawa would go on to forge a long unrivalled reputation in movie making, generally being considered today as the father of Japanese horror. 1960’s Jigoku (“Hell”) is regarded as one of the finest films that Nakagawa made for the company, blending suspense and thriller aspects with unrelenting horror; it was also the last feature that he made for Shin-Toho, co-funded from his own pockets, which soon ended up seeing his employers bankrupt.
Jigoku is certainly thought provoking and delirious in equal measure, though contrary to what its reputation might have you believe it isn’t a non stop journey into bloody super-soaked territory. The film is divided into three very distinct acts in which the first two slavishly pave the way for our central figure’s demise. It’s here where Nakagawa sets up his central theme of morality for the actions that we’ll witness around Shiro and a close knit community built up of figures who have sinned in one way or another, small potatoes or not. Jigoku is a slow and moody piece of work that establishes itself through character interaction, setting an all too serious tone as it trudges through various twists and turns which places Shiro on a gruelling downhill journey, along with those who get through their daily lives none the wiser as to their faults. Much of its side stories and indeed the central premise where everything is almost too perfect to be true, only for a single event to turn it all upside down isn’t strictly original; it’s another tale of a man who must atone for his sins and see the error of his ways, only in Hell forgiveness is not something that’s dished out all too lightly.
The first hour of Jigoku sees a string of cruel events heap themselves upon our poor protagonist who could have so easily prevented a lot of this from happening - or could he? Jigoku carries with it ambiguity in spades. For every wrong decision that Shiro makes he’s forced into carrying out another and this is where karma lends its hand. Shiro is a harbinger of bad luck; he’s pre-destined to go to hell it would seem, because there’s nothing particularly evil in his nature which suggests that he deserves to be judged by the nastiness that lives below. He asks his “acquaintance” Tamura to take a different route which will ultimately seal his fate and he wants to confess to the crime and tell his girlfriend and her parents; actions which don’t necessarily spell an intent to inflict pain onto others. Hell then only sees fit to judge him further when he’s committed more unintentional acts spurred on by others around him, along with him having had pre-marital sex with Yukiko. It’s from hereon in that Nakagawa creates several character complexities, with the human conscience being the main driving point of the feature. As Shiro continues to create problems for himself Tamura’s presence proves to be essential in establishing the protagonist’s integrity and Tamura’s own will to do whatever is in his power to see poor Shiro lead himself down a path toward eternal damnation. But it isn’t just these people who are Nakagawa’s sole focus. By bringing into play other destitute figures he places the viewer in a position whereby they can form their own questions. For instance, what’s the point in living a good life when Hell waits to torture you for all eternity? It’s in the unknowing; the reality of not realising your sins until it’s too late to do anything about it. Nakagawa creates a compelling study on the imperfections of man and how easy it can be to succumb to temptation and selfish desires. However, Nakagawa does trip up slightly. As the film approaches its final moments it relies on a shock twist tactic which of course pre-dates a number of horror films made in the years since. The trouble with its handling here is that it’s far too ludicrous, having featured no prior build up or subtle nuances; a twist for the sake of twisting that in the end does little to benefit the overall narrative.
All of the above of course signal opportunities for Nakagawa to exploit. He depicts a Hell that’s stricter than your average strict; if you sin you sin, but you don’t necessarily have to leave others around you to suffer. In the end you can make certain choices that will better the lives of others you love. This crops up toward the end when Shiro is faced with a decision to save someone dear to him. Nakagawa presents the sin and the appropriate punishment in pure undiluted Gore-O-Vision, which sees bodies being mutilated and people forced to relive their pain over and over again. Even forty five years on Jigoku’s visuals remain powerful and sickening, which shows the director was more than capable of overcoming any budgetary limitations he might have had at the time. It’s only during the third act that the film goes completely off the rails and presents a maddening and surreal trip into the unknown, filled with endless screams and cries for help from victims bathed in swashes of green and red hues, the yelling of which does become a little tedious after some time hearing it. The art direction is equally quite stunning and makes the most of simple set ups with the Sanzu River depicting an eternal limbo of dead children rather effectively against a black backdrop from which well placed lighting emits. While Hell has always been traditionally shown as being a land of fire and brimstone Nakagawa paints an entirely different picture, which sees it reflect classic art styles, maintaining the simplest forms throughout, even with backgrounds that resemble large brush strokes. Of course the film has flamey bits but much is subdued by Nakagawa’s theatrical-like presentation.
Jigoku is number 352 from Criterion, and as usual they deliver the goods in style. Accompanying this release is a booklet, featuring an essay by Asian cinema critic Chuck Stephens.
Straight from Criterion’s mouth:
Jigoku is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a new 35mm print. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System. To maintain optimal image quality through the compression process, the picture on this dual-layer DVD-9 was encoded at the highest-possible bit rate for the quantity of material included.
It all sounds very fancy, but it’s just a shame that after all that hard work we’re still left with some rubbishy old edge enhancement. At least that’s the only niggle. Overall this is a very pleasing transfer which compliments a forty year old film very well. Most notably is that this is a dark feature and Criterion has had to be careful when getting those plentiful black levels correct, along with contrast and detail. They’ve done a good job; black levels are considerably deep, so much so that scenes involving characters wearing black uniforms tend to blend in a little, but there’s no apparent digital manipulation and it all appears authentic. Likewise flesh tones appear accurate and outdoor shots are deliberately saturated, though pleasing. Accompanying all of this is a nice amount of grain that thankfully hasn’t been filtered out.
For sound we get the original Japanese monaural track, which like the film print has been put through a fancy process. The soundtrack and dialogue take place entirely through the central speakers, though you can select two channels to output, not that it makes much difference. Things sounds as good as can be expected; this is an active sounding film once it gets going, by which I mean the final act and all of its hellish qualities. There’s plenty of clarity for dialogue and jarring sounds, not to mention Chumei Watanabe’s weird little score.
Also included is an option for English subtitles, which come in a pleasing and simple white font, which are well timed and contain no grammatical errors.
Building the Inferno (39:26)
This brand new documentary on Nobuo Nakagawa and Jigoku features contributions from Yoichi Numata (actor), Chiho Katsura (writer/friend), Ichiro Miyagawa (screenwriter) and Kensuke Suzuki (colleague), with modern horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa lending his thoughts on Nakagawa’s legacy. Those involved offer a lot of interesting and fun insights into the production of the film, with Numata fondly remembering Nakagawa’s eccentricities and recalling how he felt at the time of shooting, working with material that he didn’t quite understand. He paints a perfectly sincere and sweet picture of the kind of man that Nakagawa was. Katsura shows his respect for the director and talks about its general reception, while Miyagawa takes us through what inspired him along with certain religious aspects, in which he shares a funny story. Suzuki talks about Nakagawa’s working methods and how he treated people on set, which always seemed to be very well; he enjoyed the working environment. Kurosawa discusses Nakagawa’s style of film making and also the cinematography throughout, in addition to addressing the differences between Asian and American horror. There are also various other bits and pieces scattered through: studio woes, expressionism, criticisms, previous Nakagawa films and so forth.
In all this is a largely fascinating look at Nakagawa and his life as a film maker, covering quite a bit of ground given its run time. It’s very nice to see surviving members recall their hey days and I’d have to say that Yoichi Numata seemed like such a great man; he’s so enthusiastic and articulate and carries great fondness toward Nakagawa and his co-star Shigeru Amachi. Sadly Mr. Numata passed away in April of this year, not long after the interview was conducted.
The rest of the extras consist of the original theatrical trailer and galleries for selected Nakagawa and ShinToho films.
Due to its ambiguity it took a couple of viewings to get the most out of Jigoku; it doesn’t spell out everything for the viewer, and simplicity isn’t the name of the game. The film requires some patience; it’s not your conventional horror by any stretch, but a drawn out drama piece that closely looks at the human conscience, before culminating with a backlash of visceral imagery and a poignant conclusion which philosophises and examines the extent of true damnation. Equally there’s no denying Nobuo Nakagawa’s strong visual style which deservedly secured him quite the reputation as a horror maestro, who is still a major influence on contemporary J-Horror cinema.