Hell is deeply personal, but Judge Brett Cullum managed to stay cool while reviewing this precursor of Hellraiser.
"Hell is for children!"
Although Japanese horror (known as "J" horror by aficionados) seems like a relatively new export from the Pacific, truth is it's been around for as long as film emerged from Japan. Jigoku is a classic of the genre from 1960 directed by the father of Japanese fright Nobuno Nakagawa. For their 352nd presentation, The Criterion Collection brings you a new transfer and improved subtitles with a smattering of extras to celebrate Nakagawa's vision of hell—the literal translation for the title also known as "The Sinners of Hell." The film has been on DVD before, but now we get to see how Criterion treats it.
Facts of the Case
A young theology student flees from the site of an accident, and his troubles begin. His idyllic life is turned upside down as his sin haunts him, and people he loves begin dying or are exposed for what they are behind their pristine masks. But why shouldn't hell be a destination? Consider the guy he hit was a yakuza (mobster), and his best friend is an all-knowing devil incarnate. Could the road lead anywhere but straight to hell?
All religions have some concept of hell, so don't think this is a Christian vision of eternal damnation. You will recognize flames and despair, but Jigoku provides a very interesting glimpse of Buddhist hell both on earth and in the literal sense of the word. The movie was considered shockingly graphic when it was released in 1960, and the story has been remade several times over (yes, remakes exist far outside of Hollywood as well). This film defined Japanese horror for many years to come. Strange camera angles, spiritual torture, and crazy narrative edits are all in place as the reels unfold. Westerners may find the symbols and subtle clues impenetrable, but interests will pique once the torture begins. In the final portion of Jigoku we see literal interpretations of the River Sanzu where children are held in limbo until their parents join them, Emman who rules over hell, and glimpses of various tortures of the eight hells of fire and ice.
Jigoku is entertaining and completely over the top. Anyone expecting a slow-paced, classical-feeling foreign film will be shocked to find out that the plot writhes and turns at an almost breakneck pace. The deaths are impossibly heightened almost to level of ridiculous like we would see in The Omen. All the film is missing is a Jerry Goldsmith score with a chanting English choir. It falls easily in to the idea of religious horror, but it is also psychedelic to the point of being surreal. In the climax the deaths are over, and the trippy torture sequences begin.
The most interesting twist to this tale is how one wrong action can lead you to hell. There is a karmic sense of destiny where the lead character believes if he only had done the right thing after the accident, all of the subsequent events could be averted. He is not a traditional sinner of the fire and brimstone variety, but rather a victim of the ripple effect stemming from one wrong turn. The film is a captivating study of the consequences of what happens when life spirals out of control.
Criterion provides the clearest transfer to date for Jigoku which is a problematic film to author on DVD. Most of the film takes place in gloomy shadows or unfavorable weather, so controlling grain and black levels require strict attention to detail. For the most part the film company succeeds in controlling these elements, though you will see grain now and then and some shots looking too dark. It's the best this film could look. The soundtrack has been remastered as well in a monaural Japanese track with newly translated subtitles to deliver more nuances of the story. It's not a literal translation, but one that emphasizes cultural points clearly. This release trumps all previous editions in all areas, but particularly in the surreal climax where colors of hell are allowed to pop and are free from bleeding or fading in key moments.
Extras fall in to the academic realm typical to a Criterion release. There is a new documentary running forty minutes which explores the career of Nobuo Nakagawa and the making of the film. The director passed away in the mid '80s, so actors and crew are interviewed for this piece. Also featured are frequent collaborators and some famous Japanese cinema directors. It is in Japanese with English subtitles, and really examines more than just Jigoku, but also the careers of all involved and the studio that produced the project. There are trailer and photo galleries which provide some nice historical documentation of how the film was marketed. Finally we have an essay written by Chuck Stephens who is an Asian film critic. All in all the extras are solid if not numerous, but I missed any kind of commentary track on the feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers seeking a true horror movie will be disappointed. There are no traditional scares to be found in Jigoku, and it substitutes creep for fright. The film meanders about with a sense of dread and horrific imagery, but fans of modern "J" horror will find this entry slow paced and plodding. Western cinema such as Hellraiser owes a great debt to the stylization of the torture sequences, but they are tame in comparison to Clive Barker's far more sexual and visual depiction's two decades later. Jigoku makes for an interesting artifact of culture, but it doesn't deliver shocks for a current audience beyond how much influence the film had on later projects. It is more interesting from cultural and religious perspectives than from a horror angle.
Jigoku is a surreal masterpiece of Japanese horror, and a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection. The elite distributor delivers a nice transfer without too many bells and whistles, and overall the package is solid enough to satisfy fans of the film and world cinema. The film is a fascinating look at the Japanese vision of hell, and offers the insight that eternal damnation looks similar no matter what continent you die on.
Guilty of being hellishly interesting, and devilishly influential.
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