Jigoku (1960): We’re All Going to Hell

We recently watched Nobuo Nakagawa’s horror classic Jigoku (1960); AKA Hell and Sinners of Hell.

Synopsis: A graduate student in Tokyo is unfortunate enough to be riding with a fellow student when he runs down a drunken yakuza along a darkened road. The other student drives off, and the yakuza’s mother and girlfriend swear revenge. Things begin to fall apart for the young student. Then everyone ever goes to hell.

I love it when a movie takes the time to create interesting and relevant opening credits. Jigoku gets that half right: the credits are very cool, but somewhat disconnected from what follows. I expected an entirely different film given the tone of the credits. For one thing, they are quite sexually charged, with Bond-esque shadows of sexy ladies dancing while wearing very little, if anything. In the background plays a track of disturbingly real screaming. It reminded me of “A Psychopath” by Lisa Germano, which is sung over the recording of an actual 911 call of a woman whose home is being invaded, and “Suicide” by Frankie Teardrop, which is a raw song about a man who kills his family and then himself (also accompanied by too-real screaming). These were all very effective experiences, and I never want to experience any of them again. So from the start, I expected a disturbingly sexy ride.

Then the movie began. And things kind of lull for a while. After the initial action of the accident, the film meanders through scenes – some relevant, some unrelated. Despite the promise of tension, with a pitiless victim and a ruthless vow of vengeance, nothing really happens for a while. Ok, things happen, but nothing really *happens*, if you know what I mean (probably not). Things go downhill for our “hero” as people he knows and love start dying around him, but it doesn’t seem to drive the film or affect the characters much. The film becomes similar to La Dolce Vita (1960) in that it does not appear to have a real narrative focus. I’m not sure if La Dolce Vita is asking more interesting questions, or if I just had such different expectations for what Jigoku would be after the title credits, but I was confused as to what was going on several times and much of what we see seemed unnecessary. There is the root of a storyline that explains later action, but it felt bloated – as though Nakagawa didn’t have enough material to meet film-length expectations and so added material to the front end.

There is plenty to look at during this lull. Nakagawa uses stark colours with high contrast to great effect. The mise-en-scene is minimalist, and often the only colour on display is a splash of intense red. The camera work is quite experimental; one can imagine even more so for the time the film was released. Nakagawa uses extreme angles and lighting to an extent that would be commented upon if released today. So while the almost incidental narrative drifts along, we follow the characters from beautiful scene to beautiful scene. Waiting for the real show to start. Which it does as the story draws to a close, and basically every character yet seen on-screen bites it. Yeeeeeeeesssssssssssssss. Thankfully everyone was so evil, they have a cheerful reunion in hell.

According to Japanese mythology (as espoused by this film, so grain of salt…), there are 8 hells. I was hopeful that Nakagawa would really explore the different hells, showing us a bit of each. Unfortunately, too much time was spent on meandering, and our view of the tortures of hell are not as expansive as I would have liked. That’s a minor complaint. Judging by what Jigoku proposes, hell is a total bummer. When you aren’t being physically ripped apart, forces work to destroy your emotionally. The entire segment in hell (basically the second half of the movie) is effective, creepy, and haunting. Jigoku is attributed as being the first film to employ gore as a special effect, and it is shocking what they were able to get away with. Consider that in Psycho (1960), Hitchcock had to fight with the MPAA to get the term “transvestite” in the script – at the same time Nakagawa was openly showing a disemboweled man on-screen. Those wacky foreign decency laws; there they go again, thinking people can think for themselves.

So I felt the first half dragged, but was made entirely worth it by our time spent in hell. Perhaps if I were to rewatch with different expectations, the first half would be more effective too. In retrospect, I believe Nakagawa was taking that time to establish the indecency of most of humanity. Ultimately, the moral of the story seems to be that people are evil, and with very few exceptions, we’re all burning in hell for eternity. Seriously. Only two of the characters get to go to the happy place, and I sure don’t have it in me to be as saintly as they were. So I guess I’ll see you all there. I’ll be the one covered in man-eating centipedes. Till the next one.

Key Quote: Enma, King of Hell: Hear me! You who in life piled up sin upon sin will be trapped in Hell forever. Suffer! Suffer! This vortex of torment will whirl for all eternity.


~ by K. Harker on January 23, 2011.

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