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Never mind that damnation to the fires of Hades is said to be eternal. For some of us, the wait we’ve already endured for a glimpse of hell has been plenty long enough. Director Nobuo Nakagawa’s Hell, that is, otherwise known as Jigoku (1960), the legendary—and for Western audiences, long elusive—genre-busting Japanese masterpiece about the infernal desires that forever tempt us during our mortal existence here on earth and the afterlife agonies awaiting those who succumb. An exact contemporary of (if rather more ideologically obscure than) the first films of the nascent Japanese new wave, Jigoku was released in 1960 and quickly attained the status of “cult classic” in its home country—even as it would remain, for decades thereafter, a wildly rumored about but rarely screened phenomenon in international cine-extremist circles. Today, it is recognized as the cornerstone of extremist-visionary Nakagawa’s long and extraordinary career.
Born from some unholy union of Goethe’s Faust and Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, a tenth-century Buddhist treatise on the various torments of the lower realms, Jigoku was the last in a nine-film string of innovative and deliriously eccentric horror films made by Nakagawa during his 1950s tenure at the genre-driven Shintoho Studios. Overflowing with brackish ponds of bubbling pus, brain-rattling disjunctions of sound and image, and at times almost dauntingly incomprehensible plot twists and eye-assaulting bouts of brutish montage, Jigoku is more than merely a boundary-pummeling classic of the horror genre—it’s as lurid a study of sin without salvation as the silver screen has ever seen. A tale of two male college students—one weak, one evil—who make a sudden detour from the path of righteousness and wind up on the road to hell, Jigoku’s plotline takes off from the same real-life Leopold-Loeb murder case that served as the basis for both Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion. But it’s the degree to which Nakagawa uses that familiar narrative framework to fearlessly extend the ero-guro-nansensu (erotic-grotesque-nonsense) ingredients beloved by Japanese filmmakers since the silent heyday of Yasujiro Ozu that preordained the film’s lasting notoriety. Fusing the goriest details of thirteenth-century jigoku-zoshi (hell scroll paintings) with Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s nineteenth-century ukiyo-e illustrations of innocence disemboweled—and climaxing in a centrifugal final blast of berserk, quasi-Butoh theatrics that seems to anticipate the lysergic gyrations of the 1960s’ Living Theatre as much as the flesh-hungry flailings of Night of the Living Dead—Jigoku’s dazzlingly art-directed and emotionally devastating evocation of unstaunchable dread continues to leave even the most stoic of modern moviegoers in a state of stunned dismay.
Hapless Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), engaged to his theology professor’s daughter Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), is riding in a car driven by a sinister campus colleague named Tamura (Yoichi Numata) when he becomes involved in the hit-and-run fatality of a drunken yakuza who staggers out onto a poorly lit country road. Unable to convince Tamura of their complicity in the accident—and, indeed, not even entirely certain who or what Tamura actually is—the guilt-racked Shiro gets Yukiko to accompany him to the police station to turn himself in. But when their taxi careens off the road, leaving Yukiko dead, Shiro finds his future suddenly shattered and falls precipitously into drink and despair. Summoned to Tenjoen, his father’s countryside retirement facility, on a medical emergency concerning his mother, Shiro hopes he might escape his haunted conscience there, only to find the place populated with drunken painters, unrepentant adulterers, criminally negligent doctors, lecherous cops, and an uncanny double of Yukiko—less the “heavenly garden” that the rural retreat’s name portends than an earthly version of hell. Wandering suicidally along a remote stretch of railroad track, Shiro once again encounters the mysterious Tamura, followed by the arrival of their car-crash victim’s mother and former girlfriend, who’ve ascertained the identity of the guilty couple and are intent on avenging the yakuza’s death. A night of drunken revelry follows, complete with a feast of tainted stream fish and a jug of poisoned sake, and by morning the entire community, Shiro included, is dead—and Jigoku, having at last arrived at its titular destination, suddenly comes alive.
The widescreen orgy of Buddhist torments that ensues—wailing heads pulled from skinless carcasses, blue-skinned oni (demons) battering away at the legions of the damned with gore-streaked battle truncheons, and the nerve-slicing sobs of an unborn infant floating helplessly along the currents of an endless river of blood—must be seen to be believed. At once a protopop pageant of postexistential anxieties and an incessantly visceral resurrection of centuries-old dread, the film draws as liberally, and often literally, from Genshin’s pre-Boschian descriptions of the increasingly unendurable inner circles of the afterworld and from the goose-pimpling atmospherics of Edogawa Rampo’s Taisho-era tales of mystery and suspense as it does from memories of the battlefield atrocities of the war that had ended scarcely a decade before. And it looks forward to everything from Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (with its lethal mother–daughter-in-law configuration) to the scorched-earth and charnel house–bordello backdrops of Suzuki Seijun’s Gate of Flesh to Roger Corman’s soon-to-follow gossamer-and-swamp-gas adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, joining other prescient world-cinema contemporaries—including Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face—in a seemingly universal campaign to find new, modern modes of inducing matinee-packing dread, even as Nakagawa remained steadfast in his conviction that sometimes the most archaic terrors can seem all too unbearably near.
Born in Kyoto, in 1905, Nakagawa began his filmmaking career in 1929, as an apprentice at the second-generation cine pioneer Masahiro Makino’s Mikiko Studio, directed his first film while working for chanbara giant Ichikawa Utaemon, in 1934, and finally settled at Toho, where he specialized largely in slapstick comedies, until he was sent to a battle station in Shanghai shortly after the beginning of the war. Returning to Toho after Japan’s surrender, Nakagawa found the studio rocked by labor strikes (quelled only once the U.S. occupation force’s tanks rolled in to arbitrate the dispute) and moved to splinter studio Shintoho (New Toho) in 1947. By the time of his death, in 1984, Nakagawa had made some ninety feature films—jidai-geki samurai sagas, noirish thrillers, musicals, and melodramas alike—and enjoyed at least two distinct cinematic reputations: first as a suspense specialist, sometimes described as “the Japanese Alfred Hitchcock,” and then as the filmmaker whose midcentury reinvention of the feudal-era fever dreams of the kaidan-geki (ghost story) at Shintoho earned him distinction as the “master of Japanesque horror,” the at once semantically quizzical and yet somehow obliquely apt moniker by which Nakagawa is still widely remembered today.
Shintoho had begun its relatively short-lived corporate existence producing prestige pictures like Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu, but by the early fifties, the fledgling studio found itself increasingly outflanked by its larger competitors, who had a stranglehold on Japanese movie screens. Enter Mitsugu Okura, a former benshi and carnival barker hired as Shintoho’s new top executive in 1955 and mandated to slim down operating costs and sex up the studio’s box-office receipts. Under Okura’s watch, war pictures, space operas (including the cult-classic Super Giant series), and a slew of increasingly naughty nudies starring office girl–turned–striptease sensation Michiko Maeda soon became the genrecentric studio’s low-budget mainstays. One might even term Okura’s Shintoho tenure a veritable reign of terror—not as a reflection of his managerial style but in accordance with the new brand of Japanese horror film that the hands-on Okura would take a personal interest in cultivating during his stay. Traditional, if somewhat extralurid, kaidan-eiga had been a Shintoho staple since at least as early as Kunio Watanabe’s 1949 Nabeshima kaibyoden (a variation on the age-old blood-slurping black cat theme), but it was under Okura’s aegis that, a decade later, numerous gore-streaked chillers, with titles like Blood Sword of the 99th Virgin, were being churned out every year.
Many of Shintoho’s top contract directors took stabs at the genre, but it was Nakagawa’s talent for turning formula assignments into such distinctly personal forays into Gothic excess as Vampire Moth (1956) and Black Cat Mansion (1958) that separated him from the pack. Rife with eccentric camera movements, jarring sonic surges, soul-smashing twists of karmic retribution, and an assortment of hideously deformed she-demons, Nakagawa’s smoke-machine succession of Shintoho spine-tinglers would eventually reach their penultimate fever pitch with his 1959 version of Ghost Story of Yotsuya, a classic of Kabuki theater, written in 1825, that had been a perennial of Japanese directors as disparate as Shiro Toyoda, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Kinji Fukasaku since its first silent-screen incarnation, in 1927. Despite the familiarity of this tale of a murderous samurai whose ruthless actions are avenged by the ghosts of those he’s sent to untimely graves, no other Ghost Story of Yotsuya had ever, or would ever, match the intensity of Nakagawa’s synesthetic tapestry of boiling blood baths, irrationally enlarged emotional turmoil, and furiously rotting flesh—ingredients that shocked cineastes during the film’s initial release and that are today regarded as the missing links between the chimerical kaidan-eiga of the past and the drone-choked modern nerve-janglers of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the jet-black gore comedies of Takashi Miike, and the unstoppable shockwaves of that phenomenon with the silent final vowel, known round the world by the unfortunate trans(il)literation Ringu.
But where Nakagawa’s Ghost Story of Yotsuya seemed to set new standards for the genre’s future, his wholly unprecedented follow-up, Jigoku, seemed to augur no future at all—and not simply because, having partially financed Jigoku himself, Nakagawa would never make another film for Shintoho, or for the fact that Shintoho would itself go bankrupt the following year. Embracing the aesthetics of annihilation in ways that even new-wave nihilist Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial and Night and Fog in Japan didn’t dare, Jigoku was a film so sui generis in its fevered desire to peer into oblivion that, in loitering ever closer to the edge of the Pit, it finally plunges in. Resolutely unafraid of incomprehensibility, Jigoku proves ultimately less an articulation of the moral and postmortal consequences of sin than a free-associative head-on collision of righteously motivated evil intentions and well-intentioned innocents who capriciously lose their souls.
How else is one to account for a character like Tamura, who seems forever (and often quite comically) to materialize from out of nowhere, spotlighted from below and slathered in corpse-white greasepaint when he interrupts Shiro and Yukiko’s bliss near the film’s beginning, and adorned in a half-unbuttoned, bloodred sport shirt when he cruises into Tenjoen, forever sniffing after Shiro’s tail? Is Tamura a scorned former suitor of Yukiko’s, driven by some jealous rage to destroy the life that Shiro seems poised to inherit in his stead? Or is Tamura some sort of demiurge on a mission from the underlord, sent to claim those guilty mortals scheduled for damnation, whose secret litanies of former atrocities he somehow knows so well? And if so, why must Tamura finally join them all in their eternal agonies, shrieking like a blood-daubed voodoo doll in fathomless despair?And what of the comparatively innocent Shiro, guilty only of premarital relations with his betrothed and, perhaps, of carelessly choosing his friends? Why must he suffer along with all the others? Is it the unexplained detour he insisted Tamura take down that fateful country lane one evening that eventually sends him and everyone he subsequently encounters on their one-way trips to hell? And just what was that stop Shiro seemed so intent on making anyway? Twice remade on its own turf—first by former Nikkatsu soft-core specialist Tatsumi Kumashiro, in 1979 (with special effects by Nobuo Yajima, best known for his work on Masahiro Shinoda’s Demon Pond), then by Japanese genre cinema’s Rachmaninoff of the repugnant, Teruo “Joys of Torture” Ishii, in 1999—and remodeled, in 2005, by Thai producer Thanit Jitnukul as the ultranauseating Narok, Jigoku remains unparalleled in its self-persuasion that any mortal answers to the questions posed by our existence are bound to seem hopelessly incomplete. Was, for Nakagawa, a life spent toiling in the cinema equally absurd? Jigoku’s credit sequence, with its succession of echt Shintoho nudies and the voice of an offscreen director shouting “Action,” apropos of nothing else that transpires in the movie, seems to suggest as much.
Perhaps the answers lie neither in the heavens high above us nor in the hell that—thanks to the long-awaited resurrection of Jigoku—seems now not quite so far below. Or perhaps, like the title of Akira Kurosawa’s Tengoku to Jigoku, the answers are best left slightly mistranslated. What do mortals know of hell and heaven anyway? Aren’t we all—like films of Nobuo Nakagawa, with all their munchkin-faced madmen, horribly mutilated lovers, and occasional blood-slurping moths—stranded eternally and infernally somewhere in between them, in a place both high and low?
Chuck Stephens is a contributing editor to Film Comment. His writing on Japanese and other Asian cinemas appears semiregularly in the Village Voice, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Cinema Scope. He lives in Bangkok.