This is my first experience watching a film by Nobuo Nakagawa, and I’m already enamored with what I witnessed. For one it is easy to commend something like Jigoku (or The Sinners of Hell in some areas) aspires to be, especially given the image that is known to define Japanese horror – for with Jigoku we have something that changes around the most recognizable factors and instead becomes an experience of its own kind altogether. With Jigoku, what Nobuo Nakagawa has managed to create is not only one of the most frightening of all depictions of Hell to be put on film, but also one of the best films to representative of its own time period and in the best sense.
We are told the story of a man named Shiro Shimizu whom after being set to get married, ends up getting hit with guilt as he gets himself involved with a hit-and-run incident, setting him into a trap that takes him down to Hell. At first what sounds ridiculous with the sudden descent all the way down into Hell but while that went on there was a specific camp factor to which I found that only heightened my enjoyment of Jigoku because the manner to which it mixed both the campiness together with the morbid overtones also drew back to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, a film that rides upon its ridiculousness to the point the fact that everything becomes so baffling leaves a hypnotizing effect on the viewer.
Although Jigoku has undeniably shown its age in certain aspects, what still remains something unique even to this day is the visual style – an area where the most creativity in an absurd picture already shines so brightly. Whether it be from the background colours to the set pieces (particularly the design of Hell itself), there’s something so beautiful arising from how hysterical the very nature of the film itself. Mix that together with the chaos created by the editing style or the narrative structure of Jigokuand then the final product is something so unbelievably perplexing it must be witnessed in order to be believed. Every second of its running time only adds more to the maniacal nature the film’s title promises, Hell, which is where things become frightening.
Nevertheless, there’s also something deeper behind Jigoku for it also approaches religion in such a unique manner by placing it alongside Dante’s Inferno. Adding more, we also have the concept of Shiro having a double, who haunts him to bring guilt and regret upon his soul as it only begins to sink down much lower as the film keeps going. It became clear to me that Nobuo Nakagawa had wanted to create something that almost would have played like a recreation of the process of going down to Hell, by picturing his suffering and as a result, it creates a tragedy to be found inside of the mind-boggling turn of events that fill up the whole film. The first half shows Shiro amidst life, but as his soul only descends more, the search for redemption at a point where it may or may not be too late makes something compelling in the end.
However, it is not until the film’s third act where everything begins to make sense. Every moment in the film’s first half is where we see Shiro as he is still experiencing life, but it is also where we finally witness the film’s highlight, its depiction of Hell. From this point on, the film is entirely set in the Underworld and what first appeared campy becomes one of the most terrifying portraits of it to have been put on the screen. Yet even more impressive is how Nobuo Nakagawa managed to make everything as insane as it is shown on such a low budget, for the visual style together with the harsh pictures of torture, pain, and misery that fill all of Hell – it soon becomes home to some of the most haunting imagery to have been put on film.
Jigoku is truly a terrifying experience, one that managed to catch me off-guard. Even in places where it shows its age, suddenly the final moments make up for all of it by presenting something that never could be imagined in the very same way. Never have I imagined that such a baffling experience like this would also turn out to be such a beautiful portrait of a search for redemption, and make itself out to be one ride unlike any other. Jigoku is simply a movie that manages to mix so much to that degree when everything finally makes sense, what seemed like too much for ourselves to handle becomes something that will linger inside of the head. If it may have aged in some areas for the mannerisms to which it represents the time period in which it came out, it was also ahead of its time in terms of what effect it would have upon any viewer because it truly is pure Hell we are viewing.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Shintoho.
Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Screenplay by Nobuo Nakagawa, Ichiro Miyagawa
Produced by Mitsugu Okura
Starring Utako Mitsuya
Release Year: 1960
Running Time: 100 minutes