doomsey reviews Jigoku

Jigokuaka The Sinners Of Hell
101 min., 1960
Written by Nobuo Nakagawa/Ichirô Miyagawa
Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Language: Japanese
My rating: ★★★

“Do you think you can escape from hell? JUST TRY IT!”

* * *

Starting with the metaphorical fires (actually, a cremation), Jigoku reminds us all that we are to be penalized for our misdoings, after life if not during, in Hell. How did we get here? Now, we are talking about the Budhhist hell, Naraka, not the Christian Hell. Naraka is perhaps a little different, as it is not a promise of infinite torture like in the Christian tradition, but instead a place and time where one’s karma is balanced. But in fury, if not duration, the Buddhist view of Hell matches our own.

At the opening of the film, our heroes, Tamura (Yoichi Numata) and Shiro (Shigeru Amachi) talk about the man from last night whom they killed in a drunken car accident. “Who is this Tamura,” Shiro asks, “and how can he be that awful?” Shiro, a graduate student with an ordinary life and a pretty girlfriend, Yukiko, finds his life changing rapidly after Tamura arrives uninvited while Shiro discusses his engagement with his girlfriend’s parents.

Leaving, Shiro requests Tamura make an ill-advised turn onto a “bad road,” where he plows over a drunk Yakuza playboy, killing the man, and speeding away (lingering long enough for a theatric death scene, and for the playboy’s mother to identify the car’s license plate). Tamura continues to drive while Shiro considers his new identity as a murderer. Shiro feels guilt about this, and wants to make amends, but Tamura has none of it.

Things go downhill rapidly thereafter. The couple is involved in a taxi accident, and Yukiko dies dramatically of resulting injuries. The mother and wife of the murdered Yakuza plot revenge, planning to kill Shiro and Tamura. And when Shiro receives a telegram saying his mother is dying, he runs back to his parents, in a retirement community in a remote village. There, Shiro meets another girl, “the spitting image of Yukiko,” and things look up until for Shiro until Tamura shows up again. Tamura reveals the sins of Shiro’s family and friends, all murderers and fraudsters. And largely as a result of Tamura’s interventions, everybody dies.

Frankly, at this point in the film I was pretty tired of it. The plot was formulaic, the characters overacted, and the deaths in particular looked pretty ridiculous. The girlfriend doesn’t want to take a cab, then dies in a single-car accident on an empty road in good weather? Really? Two people in a row trip and fall off a rope bridge? Please. Yes, everyone in the film is criminal and morally bankrupt, but that doesn’t mean that they’re mortally clumsy as well. I suppose we are supposed to attribute these things to the devil character Tamura, but it came off more as happening because plot demands it than because the devil gets his due.

But when everybody dies, there is still 40 minutes of the film left.

The last 40 minutes shows Hell, done in a style that reminds me of David Lynch’s Eraserhead: surreal and weird, with lots of screaming. The visuals are in this section are remarkable, especially in the light of the low budget of the film (Shintoho, never a high-budget studio to begin with, was effectively bankrupt at the time Jigoku, its last film, was made). Although the special effects are not elaborate or expensive, and the sets sparse, light, smoke machines, pools, and simple visual compositing is used to create an otherworldly effect. Color cinema swept through Japan in the late 1950s, and is used to great effect here; blues, greens and greys are used for the Hells of Ice, reds and oranges for the Hells of Fire. Most of the main characters get their own hell, appropriate for their sins: creepy, and well deserved. There’s plenty of gore, pain, and mutilation, and while not all of it is perfectly realistic, unlike the first act it doesn’t come off as campy or overdone.

Overall, I liked the concept and vision of this film, but unfortunately there’s just too much inanity in the first act for the creatively visualized concept of Hell to redeem the film. At 101 minutes total, I suppose there wouldn’t have been enough left if you cut out the entire first act and just left the introduction and vision of Hell, even if elaborated a bit, and it’s necessary to introduce the characters in the first act to have reference for their personal hell in the second. But the characters have to come off as people, not caricatures, for this to work, and the first act of the film lets the second down in that.

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