The Scoop: 1960 NR, directed by Nobuo Nakagawa and starring Shigeru Amachi, Yoichi Numata, and Utako Mitsuya
Tagline: No tagline
Summary Capsule: A young man dies and goes to Hell, taking as many people with him as possible.
Al’s Rating: Teacher says every time Jigoku gets a good review, an angel gets its wings.
Al’s Review: I’ve come to the conclusion that I dislike It’s A Wonderful Life. No, you’re not reading the wrong review, just stick with me here. I enjoy the whole ‘see what things would be like without you’ butterfly effect and Clarence the angel-in-training and “Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!” and all that good stuff. The rest of it, though? Blech. Bailey Farms? George and Harry sledding? UncleBilly? All that piddling minutia of Jimmy Stewart’s boring little life is just interminable. Of course, you can’t watch the end of the movie without the beginning, so you really have to make the choice of suffering through an hour and a half of tedious exposition so you can enjoy the last forty-five minutes or dismissing the movie entirely and going to find some figgy pudding.
In this way, Jigoku is a sort of spiritual sister to It’s A Wonderful Life, except in this case it’d maybe be more appropriate to call it “Life Was Pretty Good Until You and Everyone You Care About Died and Now You’re All Stuck In Hell.”
The story follows Shiro Shimizu, a young man who’s got a lot going for him: he has a loving fiancée, understanding and indulgent in-laws, and goes to a good school. Of course, given that we’re watching a horror movie called “Hell,” our hero’s Rockwellian life is clearly not destined to last.
One night, he and his irresponsible friend Tamura run over a stumbling drunk and drive away thinking no one has seen them. Shiro wants to turn himself in, but Tamura refuses, especially when they find out that their victim was a high-ranking Yakuza boss. Shiro reluctantly agrees to keep quiet and does his best to return to normal life. Normal life, however, appears to be in short supply and within days, his fiancée, Yukiko, is killed in a car wreck, followed by the successive death of his parents, her parents, Tamura, some Yakuza who saw the hit-and-run and have sworn revenge, a roomful of party guests, a girl who looks like his fiancée but is actually his long-lost half sister, her father, the quality of American Musical Theater, and one of those endangered Chinese pandas at the zoo. It’s all very Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 5.
This half of our movie culminates with the inevitable death of Shiro himself and then follows his descent into Buddhist Hell, where he learns he is sentenced to suffer eternally for his crime.
Buddhist Hell, called Naraka, is actually a pretty lenient place, so before Shiro has to endure any hardcore torment, he gets to take an extended walkabout through its various levels, encountering everyone he knew from the world of the living in various states of discomfort. Like all good trips to the underworld, we see fiery plains, a frozen tundra, a lake of blood, and a room that gives you zillions of little paper cuts — there’s no one pushing a boulder up a mountain, but I’m sure that was just a budget thing.
As he travels through Naraka’s “hot” and “cold” hells, we learn about the previously hinted-at sins of our characters, which range from the really important to the truly lame, including suicide, attempted murder, substance abuse, premarital sex, and even taking the last drink of water from a canteen. Actually, Japan’s idea of what constitutes a Hell-worthy crime has me getting a little antsy over those late library books.
Jigoku is supposed to be the first picture that used gore as a serious special effect, making it the grandfather of movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser, and Saw. As you can then imagine, the levels of Naraka that Shiro wanders through are appropriately gruesome and feature abundant dismemberments, burnings, decapitations, impalements, disembowelings, and other gorge-rising agonies. It’s tame-ish compared to what Hollywood has brought to the table in the last forty years and lots of the big set pieces have been done and redone enough that you won’t be shocked into swooning, but it was all obviously quite scandalous back in the day and is still a lot of fun to watch.
Unfortunately, like George Bailey and his riveting struggle to create affordable housing projects, you’re going to need to sit through an hour of boring soap opera cliches in order to really appreciate all the neat-o Hell stuff that Jigoku offers. Characters mourning, pontificating, and having lengthy arguments in a different language – it’s all on the way cheesy side of melodramatic and quickly becomes laughable or simply uninteresting.
Just like It’s A Wonderful Life, I can’t tell you not to see Jigoku. It’s no longer the terrifying journey it apparently was back in the sixties, but still ultimately worth your time. At least unlike some of today’s garbage that employs those gross-out tactics (iwontmentionnamesbutimlookinginyourdirectionEliRoth) Jigoku has the decency to create characters who are characters instead of just walking crash test dummies. The first hour is long, long enough that I feel confident saying I don’t really think I’ll ever feel compelled to sit through it again, but if you can handle the trek this movie makes to set the pins up, it really does know how to knock them down. And, honestly, I think you should play it safe and give it a rent because I’m a little afraid that not seeing it at this point may be enough to earn you a spot in Naraka’s “screaming hell.” Then again, I’ve heard it’s nice this time of year. Toasty.
- Two other Japanese movies have been made titled Jigoku, one in 1979 and one in 1999. Although all three films involve trips to hell, apparently some debate exists over whether the latter two are actual remakes of this one or simply similar films with the same title.
- The dancing devil women in the opening credits? How very James Bond of them.
- Old folks homes throw the best parties?
- The movie’s whole color palette is very dull except the color red.
- The reoccurring umbrella
- The reoccurring number 9? According to my research (i.e. the IMDb message boards), the number 9 means suffering to the Japanese.
- The same actress plays Shiro’s sister and love interest
- So… Shiro is suddenly Typhoid Mary for no reason at all?
- The all-seeing mirror is a pinhole camera surrounded by a Lost In Space special effect
- The Limbo where dead children wait for their parents? Creepy.
- Naked women and Samba music? I wanna go to that level of Hell!
- Tamura’s spoooooooooky voice?
- Saving a baby cancels out vehicular manslaughter? Good tip.
Chorus [repeated]: A life is naught but two score and tenyears.
Party Guest: You really pulled out all the stops. You gave us fish with heads for a change.
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!
Thirsty Dead: Give me water…
Enma, King of Hell: You who are dead, if it’s water you want, drink your fill. This is the pus wrung from your festering carcasses and a cesspool of your foul wastes! Drink all you wish!
Tamura: Hell! This is hell!
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Un Chien Andalou
- What Dreams May Come