“This is a tale of things not of this world.”
Directed by the masterful Nobuo Nakagawa (The Ghost of Yotsuya), Jigoku is a simple tale of bad luck. As surreal as a dream yet rooted in real-world mechanics and consequences, the film is a horrific vision of hellish implications. The last production by Shintoho Studio, Jigoku is a horror masterpiece. The first half of the film takes place in the physical world; the world we are living in now, in relative harmony. The second half of the film takes place in hell, where sinners must suffer anguish forever; dying and being reborn, from one form of pain to another. It is a dark place, where one can be engulfed in flames whilst hanging upside down with a spike through the throat and still be able to carry on a conversation. There, the dead are unforgiving and ever-accusing; here, they are silent.
Shiro is a theology student who has just recently announced his engagement to Yukiko, the daughter of his professor, Mr. Yajima. Tamura (played by the wonderful, Yoichi Numata) is a fellow student and is not highly regarded by Yukiko’s parents (there are hints that Tamura was once a spurned suitor). One night, Shiro and Tamura are driving home. Shiro asks Tamura to take a side street. A drunken man (Kyoichi) stumbles into the road and is run over and dies. Tamura speeds off; Shiro imploring him to turn around and help the man, neither of them aware that Kyoichi’s mother witnessed the entire incident. Kyoichi turns out to be Yakuzza. Tamura uses this as support for his argument that they should feel no remorse for the occurrence and even blames Shiro for suggesting an unfamiliar road. Shiro, however, feels desperately guilty. He confides in Yukiko about the event and they decide to go to the police station and confess everything. She prefers to walk but Shiro insists on taking a taxi. The cab driver loses control and Yukiko is killed in the accident. Shiro descends into depression and meets Yoko at a strip bar who has plotted with Kyoichi’s mother, to revenge Kyoichi’s death. Shiro moves to the country to care for his ailing mother, Ito. He meets his mother’s nurse, Sachiko, who looks frighteningly similar to Yukiko (both played by Utako Mitsuya). There’s a certain real-world menace to the tenants of the retirement community Ito has been housed in. Her husband is openly having an affair, a criminal painter works labouriously on a rendition of hell (then burns it of course), a doctor who refuses to admit his inaccurate diagnoses, and others of dubious nature. In fact, there’s so much corruption, selfishness, and greed that the only characters depicted in soft light are Yukiko and Sachiko. All of the others have something to hide, murder is frequent and quickly forgotten, and everyone exploits everyone else. Ito dies and, only coincidentally, everyone is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the community. The prelude to the “hell section” of the film is an absurd bloodbath that is just as terrifying as anything in the following section.
The final forty minutes of the film is a continuous succession of madness and mayhem wherein these characters are tortured. The torment is relentless and mocking; it is hell, or rather, a series of hells strung across, one may presume, eternity. Shiro does seem to be an innocent though (or, at the very least, naive): fate’s whipping boy. “The blood flowing in these hands are cursed!” he declares, and he’s probably right. He discovers Yukiko was pregnant with a girl (Yukiko names her Harumi) and begins searching hell for her. There are definite similarities to Dante’s Inferno (theatricality included) throughout the film and indeed, it plays out like some twisted fable; as long as one feels guilt for an action, they are held responsible by Lord Enma of the Eight Realms of Hell – not a very understanding being.
The entire film is driven by Shiro’s unfortunate decisions and chance. These decisions are not born of selfishness or even premeditation, but are seemingly trivial common choices all of us make everyday. This heightens the horrific aspect of the film because it grounds all of these occurrences in reality – all great horror films require this. “Everything hinges on fate,” one of the characters in the film says. All horror films rely on this principle: fear is inescapable.
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