Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa
Written by Nobuo Nakagawa and Ichirô Miyagawa
Starring Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya, and Yôichi Numata
When you think of Japanese horror films today, you likely think of disturbing ghost girls or gruesome body reshaping. As in Western cinema, this was not always the case. The shift to horrific imagery had to begin somewhere. I haven’t seen any Japanese horror made before 1960’s Jigoku, but it is generally held to be the starting point of the country’s modern approach to the genre. I just had to take a look for myself.
The English title of the film is Hell, but it’s also been known as The Gates of Hell and The Sinners of Hell. For an older foreign film, these English titles are all surprisingly good descriptions of the content. That is, they describe the end of the film, where all of the groundbreaking scenes are. The beginning is the sort of overly wrought, super-choreographed, spiral of death that can only be called a morality play.
Students Shirō Shimizu and Tamura run over a man one night, killing him. This sets events in motion which draw in everyone attached to Shimizu and the dead man, a yakuza named Shiga. Shiga’s mother witnessed the accident and wants revenge. Tamura, who may be some sort of demon, dismisses the incident, but the philosophic Shimizu confesses everything to his fiancé. Yajima is the daughter of Shimizu’s religion professor, and she talks him into going to the police. The young pair catch a cab, and when it inevitably crashes, Yajima dies. In his drunken grief, Shimizu hooks up with Yoko, Shiga’s girlfriend.
This is only a fraction of the people who get snared in the web of death, and it’s already incredibly complicated. Before the waves of the bloodbath settle the victims include Yajima’s parents, Yoko, Shiga’s mother, Tamura, Shimizu, Shimizu’s father, and a large section of the community where all the killing finally goes down. It’s meant to be tragic, but the scale and contrivance of it all is sadly hilarious. The movie Penn & Teller Get Killed ends with contagious suicide, where everyone who comes upon the mounting disaster kills themselves. It’s tasteless, and horrible, and not very funny. Here the inverse occurs; the very solemnity of the presentation makes it unintentional comedy.
Once everyone is dead, the movie follows Shimizu as he travels through Hell. He encounters everyone from earlier as they suffer the inexplicable torments of the damned. In the Western world, our concepts of Hell are varied but largely center on red fellows with pitchforks. There is some Greco-Roman stuff mixed in, of course — Charon, the river Styx — but that’s for pop culture, not theology. Japan has a different foundation for the afterlife, built on Shinto and Buddhism. Their cultural understanding of Christian Hell differs from the West, and the trials of the damned reflect that.
No pitchforks here, but there is a place where sinners are hung upside down and cut with swords. Groups of people shuffle in overlapping circles, hands bound, wearing a trench in the bare earth with their endless march. And a father waits eternally for time to advance enough to rescue his son from the clock of fate. It’s an amazing spectacle, although that’s practically all it amounts to. As a denouement, it’s rather protracted and introduces narrative elements far too late for emotional impact. It’s just an excuse to film Hell, which I’m okay with. As I said, it’s the best part of the film.
To be a trendsetter, you have to break some rules. Jigoku broke a lot of them to varying success, but it can’t be called a failure. It changed Japanese cinema, and set the path toward the visceral haunted horror that Western movies have been ripping off since Ringu. That’s quite a legacy for an overblown fable.