How uncanny that Japanese Buddhist mythology has its own version of the River Styx: The Sanzu. It’s believed that the dead must traverse this “river of three crossings” in order to reach the afterlife. In the 1960 Japanese horror film Jigoku (Hell), however, the Sanzu becomes a daunting barrier between eternal damnation and the absolution of earthly transgressions. Director Nobuo Nakagawa focuses on the universal concepts of sin and punishment, deftly drawing parallels between Judeo-Christian guilt and the Japanese conscience. Even more captivating is how Nakagawa combines western images of hell a la Dante’s Inferno and Faust with Buddhist mythology and Asian morality. Jigoku, Nakagawa’s ninth and final foray into the horror genre, is a masterfully crafted, category-defying fever dream.
Jigoku is divided into two parts. The set-up is a morality play about Shiro, a college theology student, whose evil doppelganger involves him in a hit and run accident resulting in the death of a low-life yakuza. Following is an avalanche of cataclysmic bad karma, including the death of Shiro’s pregnant fiancé. But don’t worry, she has a doppelganger, too. While the film occasionally suffers from dated, tedious pacing, there are many inspired moments. The excitement of old-fashioned cliffhangers as well as film noir is also conjured up by a sequence involving a rope bridge across a gorge, a scorned woman, and a gun.
Played out in an exaggerated pantomime style, this half of the film emphasizes the guilt that increasingly consumes Shiro. Everyone around him is either corrupt or corrupted as Shiro’s life spirals out of control. The austere tone is so tense it sometimes backfires the film into camp territory. But even the camp adds to the strange atmosphere. Jigoku presents a self-contained universe with a dark, otherworldly feel, a device key to effective horror. Hovering over the story is a claustrophobic sense of imminent doom.
The second half of the film is simply hell. Without warning we are transported to a Grand Guignol world of torment shrouded in eerie smoke and shadows, populated by the debris of mankind. The primal colors and spooky Theremin soundtrack become even more effective in hell. The film’s cultish legend stems largely from this section’s surrealistic imagery and brazen approach to gore. Shiro’s wrongdoings are paraded in front of him while the entire cast undergoes ghastly acts of torture. The effects are crude yet jarring, particularly the folks having all their teeth knocked out or one poor soul’s dangling viscera. Nakagawa’s version of hell portrays the devil not as evil incarnate, but instead an agent of punishment for moral offenses.
David Wilentz dreams in color.