Our rock and roll albums teach us that Hell is one big party town, but Jack Chick comic tracts would have us believe otherwise. Hell can take the shape of many different places. In one movie, it is an oppressively hot tropical village where b-grade made-for-television movie actors sweat profusely. In other movies, legions of the damned march pointlessly to and fro while a killer red robot stands on a mountain. My personal hell, of course, involves frequent broadcasts of Brat Pack movies and a stereo that only plays adult contemporary hits and that “Our God is an Awesome God” song.
Some people don’t even believe in Hell, and I guess I’d have to be among them since I’m not a religious fellow. But still, Hell is fun to talk about. It’s a lot more interesting than Heaven, even to Christians. Fire and brimstone sermons are a dime a dozen, and each one goes into graphic detail regarding the eternal sufferings one endures in Hell. When Dante wrote his epic Divine Comedy, he spent about five pages on Purgatory, a couple of pages on Heaven, and about a million pages on Hell. Everyone wants to describe Hell, but no one seems all that into Heaven. About the best we get is people wear a lot of robes, and maybe it’s foggy. Other than that, who knows? The problem with Heaven is that it’s a place where everything is basically going all right. While that may not be a bad way to live, it doesn’t make for very dramatic literature.
This is why filmmakers, much like Renaissance poets, tend to dwell on Hell while dashing off Heaven scenes with little imagination or consideration. But Hell — now there’s a place worth writing about. It’s miserable, fiery, evil, and full of sin. Actually, I don’t know if it’s full of sin or just full of sinners. Seems like if you were a big time sinner in life, then Hell would be a place where you don’t get to do any more sinnin’. I know I like me a good sin every now and then, and I’d be pretty annoyed if every time I tried to commit a sin, the Devil popped up to make me stop. Likewise, Heaven is a place where, if you didn’t sin in your life, you get to sin like mad for all eternity. I don’t know. This theory is probably why I’m not a preacherman.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on Hell, of course, and lots of other religions serve up their own particular brand of post-mortem eternal suffering. One of the most wild and creative visions of Hell comes from Japan, and more specifically from the gloriously twisted imagination of famed horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. Nakagawa, one of the most respected names in the history of classic Japanese horror cinema, became an instant favorite of mine after I saw his stunning samurai ghost film Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, a film that combined the more traditional slow build-up with some truly shocking gore scenes the likes of which were unheard of in 1959. A year later, he completely outdid himself with the film Jigoku, also known as Sinners of Hell.
People generally credit HG Lewis’ outrageous 1963 film Blood Feast as the first splatter or gore film, a claim that betrays a lack of knowledge regarding horror and shock cinema on a global scale. Nakagawa not only beat Lewis to the punch, but he did it with a movie that is both far bloodier and far better than Lewis’ ridiculously cheap but enjoyable romp. Jigoku is splatter that also manages to maintain a high production value, outrageous imagination, and a truly warped surrealism that sets it far apart from the legions of splatter films from all over the world that would follow in its wake. Part of the reason the film probably isn’t as widely known as Lewis’ film, apart from it being Japanese, is that while it delivers the grue, it’s all reserved until the final third of the film. Up until that point, the movie is fairly slow in its pace, allowing time for the development of characters, the explanation of situations, and other aspects of basic storytelling that the kids these days seem not to have the patience for.
We begin things with a credit sequence that is positively James Bond in nature, or at least Seijun Suzuki. Scantily clad, curvatious femmes in weird shadows and blue light populate the sequence, which then leads into a montage of hellish images that will be revisited during the film’s finale. Having thus shocked the viewer right out of the gate, Nakagawa continues with the story proper. A college professor is giving the typical movie professor lecture on concepts of hell, the kind of lecture that never actually takes place in real classrooms. One of the students, Shiro (Shigeru Amachi, who also played the wicked samurai lead in Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan), is especially interested for a couple different reasons. First, he’s about to marry the professor’s daughter, but more influentially, he and a shady acquaintance named Tamura were recently involved in a hit and run murder. As a result, damnation, sin, and guilt have been weighing pretty heavily on Shiro’s mind.
He and Tamura had been out for a drive that night when a drunken petty criminal stumbled out in front of their car. Though it was clearly not their fault and the police would probably write the matter off entirely as an accident, Tamura – who had been at the wheel – convinces Shiro not to report the incident since no one saw it. Though he is uncomfortable with such a course of action, Shiro is eventually persuaded by the darker, somewhat mysterious Tamura. Shiro begins to question why he even hangs out with this thoroughly creepy individual. “Who is this guy Tamura?” Shiro thinks to himself. “I know I don’t like him.” I guess everyone has one of those people in their lives who you really just absolutely do not like, and yet you always seem thrown together with them regardless of how much you strive to avoid them.
The big hole in Tamura’s plot is that the crime did not go unwitnessed. The gangster’s aging mother actually saw the whole thing, but rather than go to the police and settle for a court battle that will probably not end too horribly for Shiro and Tamura, she gives the license number to the recently widowed wife of the gangster, a fiery woman who immediately vows to hunt down the men who killed her man and extract horrible revenge on them. As if having the sexy but murderous widow of a gangster your creepy acquaintance killed after you isn’t enough of a hassle, Shiro is soon involved in another car accident, this one resulting in the death of his fiancee, the professor’s daughter.
Spurned by her relatives and obviously not getting a passing grade in the professor’s theology class, Shiro seeks solace in the embrace of a young hussy named Yoko, who we immediately recognized as the vengeful widow. Before she can stick an ice pick in the back of his skull, however, he gets word that his mother is dying and so decides to pack up and leave town, his destination being to visit his ailing mother out in the countryside.
Upon reaching the Tenjoen Senior Citizens Facility where his mother lies dying, things hardly improve for the troubled young man. His mom, of course, is at death’s door. His father is an unrepentant asshole who ignores his dying wife in the next room in favor of getting it on with a young harlot from the city. He also runs into the friendly and proper young Sachiko, who happens to look like his recently deceased fiancée. Oh, and there’s the insane artist who spends all day working on paintings of Hell, a corrupt cop, a criminally negligent doctor, a seedy reporter, and a couple other rakehells and ne’er-do-well. Put it all together and you have one hell of those “gathering of lost souls” type things. Suffice it to say that this motley gang of sweaty sinners is hardly the pick-me-up Shiro was needing.
Shiro is at least happy hanging out with his dead fiancee’s doppleganger, but the determined advances of his father’s mistress are unwelcome. Equally unwelcome is Tamura, who shows up to taunt everyone and expose their secret shameful pasts. Slightly more welcome is the old professor, who is ready to reconcile his differences with Shiro, at least until Tamura starts talking about how the old man was a jackass during World War II and stole his wounded buddy’s canteen, then left said buddy to die. It’s really one of those parties that involves too much alcohol and “truth or dare.”
Not one to have a moment of good luck, Shiro’s life is further complicated when both Yoko shows up. She reveals her background then attempts to shoot Shiro. A struggle on a bridge results in Yoko accidentally plunging to her death. Maybe Shiro should just stay home. When Tamura shows up to taunt Shiro and generally act like an asshole, the two get into a fight and Tamura falls off the bridge, too! All this is witnessed by Yoko’s crazy old mother-in-law, who also witnessed the hit and run and apparently spends entire weeks hiding in the bushes around various towns hoping to catch a glimpse of some knavery.
During a party to celebrate the center’s tenth anniversary, everyone gets drunk and belligerent and generally behaves like those old guys you see trying to punch each other out in Japanese parliamentary meetings. When the dad’s young harlot puts the moves on an exhausted Shiro, the father catches them and tries to kill her. The only reason she doesn’t succeed is because she falls down the stairs while running away and breaks her neck. Lesson learned: don’t be friends with Shiro. His dad immediately conspires to cover it up, and they both head back to the main hall where people are passed out, fooling around, or generally behaving like the scum of the earth. Not one to stay dead for long, a pale and deathly looking Tamura shows up to hurl barbs and taunts yet again, and as the clock strikes nine, Shiro finally loses it and tries to choke Tamura to death, his actions slightly hampered by the fact that while trying to choke Tamura to death, he himself is being choked to death by Yoko’s crazy mother-in-law. About that time, the clock freezes, and the fiery pits of hell open up to consume the various lost souls bickering with one another in the living room! That will kill a party even faster than breaking a lamp or getting caught staring at the hostess’ cleavage.
Shiro finds himself on the misty, barren banks of the river of death, and it is here that the movie kicks its eerie surrealism into high gear. I’d be slightly surprised if future surreal horror auteurs like Lucio Fulci didn’t see this movie. There are parts of the landscape of Hell that look very much like the hellish landscapes from The Beyond. The king of hell shows up to bellow about damnation. On the banks of the river, he is met by his inescapable load, Tamura, who tells him they are destined to burn in hell together. Not one to accept the word of a psychopath who recently returned from the dead only to quickly return back to being dead, Shiro wanders off through the various levels of hell just like the protagonist in Dante’s Inferno (as opposed to Dario’s Inferno).
He first encounters his recently departed fiancée, who is spending her time in hell stacking rocks along the riverbank. Her sin: dying before her parents, which seems like a pretty lame thing to get sent to hell for, though not as lame as being damned for driving a Volkswagen backwards into the bay, if you know what I mean (and I bet at least three of you do). She informs Shiro that she was seconds away from joyfully telling him she was pregnant, but got sidetracked by the whole being killed in a car wreck thing. As if Shiro didn’t have enough to deal with, he now understands that their baby, too, is condemned to Hell. This is pretty harsh, really.
Next thing you know, people are being dangled upside down with spikes jammed through their blood-gushing necks. They are being forced to drink from a river filled with pus and bile and other tasty treats (pus and bile custard is only slightly more disgusting than your average British fare, though). Others are forced to simply run around in a big confused circle forever, sort of like being stuck in a never-ending Limp Bizkit concert. One may provide the film’s most shocking and gruesome atrocity as his skin is ripped away, leaving a bloody skeleton covered with pulsating, dripping organs.
As Shiro searches desperately for his child, he is still tormented by Shiro, who is revealed to be a demon and eventually tortured just to shut him the hell up. Shiro finally finds his child on a giant flaming wheel of life and struggles in vain to rescue the child and possibly achieve some sort of salvation from the horrors of hell. Needless to say, he appears to fail miserably.
What Nakagawa accomplishes in the final thirty minutes of this film is truly mind-blowing. His sets are not lavish, but instead make ingenious use of smoke, multi-colored lighting, superimposition, fire, and animation to create an otherworldly and terrifying nightmare landscape. It’s the sort of thing Fulci spent his entire life trying to achieve (and did, to some degree, in The Beyond): an overwhelmingly eerie, alien world that feels like you’ve stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting. Cinematically, it seems to forecast the out-of-control artistic style of maverick film makers like Seijun Suzuki, who would apply similar color-saturated hallucinations to his yakuza films. As grisly as the effects to come are, they are overshadowed by the sheer wild imagination put into the set pieces they inhabit.
Simply put, the gore is good. The scene of the man being flayed alive, lying there screaming as his organs pulsate and spew blood, is really something else. I can only imagine how audiences must have reacted in 1960, because it’s still a very successful and bloody effect, far more shocking than anything HG Lewis would attempt a few years later with his better known but far worse Blood Feast. Part of what makes the splatter content of Jigoku so powerful is that the movie itself is a very well crafted work of art. While some of the editing during the final journey through Hell is confusing, the movie as a whole is technically sound, not to mention full of great writing, pacing, and acting. Lewis’ splatterfest is, of course, amazingly bad in all departments (though not at all unfun to watch).
Pioneering though it was, Jigoku was not necessarily alone in its move toward a more shocking, more surreal, or just plain bloodier presentation. While it was blowing the minds of unsuspecting patrons in Japan, the West was getting assaulted by Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho, which while not sharing the same artistic style as Nakagawa’s film, certainly shares the same desire to shock, amuse, confuse, and break new ground in what was a very tired and overly safe genre. Though not nearly as well-known today, even in Japan, Jigoku is every bit as much responsible for throwing open the doors to a new type of horror as was Hitchcock’s film. From the seeds planted by these films came glorious monstrosities like Blood Feast and the various Hammer horror films that continued to push the envelope of gore and sexuality throughout the 1960s.
Jigoku snares and disarms you with its very slow-paced, conventional first hour, leaving you completely unprepared for the moment when the clock stops and everyone is plunged into the depths of the underworld. Nakagawa once again proves himself a master of the classic horror film while, at the same time, defiantly showing that he is not bound by the conventions and can move the genre into bold new territory. It is a cautionary tale about the wages of sin and indulgence, yet it communicates its message without seeming preachy and its gore without seeming exploitive. Jigoku is a classic of the horror genre, and self-respecting fan with interest in horror owes it to themselves to track this horrible beauty of a film down.