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 many different shapes. In one movie, it is an oppressively hot tropical village where 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. Others still imagine it to be a lake of fire, a cavern full of capering pitchfork-waving imps, or being stuck in a room with someone who won’t stop telling you about Libertarianism. Hell is fun to talk about. It’s a lot more interesting than Heaven, even it seems to Christians. They’re light on details about Heaven, but fire and brimstone descriptions of Hell are a dime a dozen, and each one goes into graphic detail regarding the eternal sufferings one endures. 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 misty?
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 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 is 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 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. Lots of other religions serve up their own particular brand of postmortem suffering. One of the most wild and creative visions of Hell comes from Japan, and more specifically from the gloriously twisted imagination of horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. Nakagawa is one of the most respected names in classic Japanese horror cinema. He is best-known for two spectacular films. First was Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (1959), which combined the traditional slow build-up with some truly shocking gore scenes the likes of which were unheard of in 1959. A year later, however,he outdid himself with Jigoku, also known as Sinners of Hell. People generally credit HG Lewis’ outrageous 1963 film Blood Feast as the first gore film, but Nakagawa beat Lewis to the punch with a movie that is far bloodier than Lewis’ ridiculous but enjoyable romp. Part of the reason Jigoku isn’t as widely recognized for its pioneering shock effects as Lewis’ film is that while it delivers the grue, it’s reserved until the final third of the film. Up until that point, the movie is 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, curvaceous 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 in Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan), is especially interested for a couple of different reasons. First, he’s about to marry the professor’s daughter (Utako Mitsuya). But more influentially, he and a shady acquaintance named Tamura (Yôichi Numata) 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, Shiro is eventually persuaded by the darker, mysterious Tamura. Shiro begins to question why he even hangs out with this 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 hole in Tamura’s plot is that the crime did not go unwitnessed. The gangster’s aging mother saw the whole thing, but rather than go to the police and settle for a court battle that will probably not end too bad for Shiro and Tamura, she gives the license number to her newly widowed daughter-in-law, a fiery woman who vows to hunt down the men who killed her man and extract horrible revenge on them. As if having the murderous widow of a gangster 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 class, Shiro seeks solace in the embrace of a young hussy named Yoko (Akiko Ono), who we immediately recognize 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 leaves to visit her.
Upon reaching his mother lies dying, things hardly improve for hapless young man. His father is an asshole who ignores his dying wife in the next room in favor of getting it on with a young harlot from the city. Shiro also runs into the friendly and proper Sachiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya), 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. Suffice it to say that this motley gang of sweaty sinners is hardly the pick-me-up Shiro was needing. He is, at least, happy hanging out with his dead fiancee’s doppelganger, 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 the buddy to die.
Not one to have a moment of good luck, Shiro’s life is further complicated when Yoko shows up. She reveals her true identity, and then attempts to shoot Shiro. A struggle on a bridge results in Yoko plunging to her death. Maybe Shiro should just stay home. When Tamura shows up to taunt Shiro, as is his wont, the two get into a fight, and Tamura falls off the bridge, too! All of this is witnessed by Yoko’s crazy old mother-in-law, who also witnessed the hit and run and who apparently spends entire weeks hiding in the bushes around various towns hoping to catch a glimpse of some knavery.
During a party, everyone gets drunk and belligerent. 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 he 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 heels. Not one to stay dead for long when there are people to insult, a pale and deathly-looking Tamura shows up to hurl barbs and taunts yet again. 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 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 surprised if future surreal horror directors 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, Shiro 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 to being dead, Shiro wanders off through the various levels of hell just like the protagonist in Dante’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. 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.
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. Others are forced to simply run around in a big confused circle forever, sort of like being stuck in a never-ending Limp Bizkit mosh pit. Yet another torture of the damned provides what may be the film’s most shocking and gruesome atrocity, as a sinner’s skin is ripped away, leaving a bloody skeleton covered with pulsating, dripping organs. As Shiro searches for his condemned child, he is still tormented by Shiro, who is revealed to be a demon and is himself eventually tortured just to shut him up. Shiro finally finds his child on a giant flaming wheel of life and struggles in vain to rescue it and possibly achieve some sort of salvation from the horrors of Hell.
Pioneering though it was, Jigoku was not alone in its move toward a more shocking, more surreal, and just plain bloodier presentation. While it was blowing the minds of unsuspecting patrons in Japan, the West was getting assaulted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 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. Mario Bava was honing his horror craft in Italy, and Hammer horror was creating waves all over the world. Even France was dipping its toe into horror and shock in the form of Eyes Without a Face. Jigoku is as much responsible for throwing open the doors to a new type of horror as those others, even if it is cited less often in Western film studies. It disarms you with its slow-paced, conventional first hour, leaving you 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, 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. What Jigoku accomplishes in the final thirty minutes of this film is mind-blowing. As grisly as the effects to come are, they are overshadowed by the sheer wild imagination put into the set pieces they inhabit. His sets are not lavish but make ingenious use of smoke, multi-colored lighting, superimposition, fire, and animation to create an otherworldly and terrifying landscape, an overwhelmingly eerie, alien world that feels like you’ve stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting.