“Jigoku” – Dom Coccaro

The works of H.G. Lewis and Coffin Joe are cited as the first splatter films. Their influence on the genre is undeniable, but Jigoku is a mean little number that predates both Blood Feast and At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. “Jigoku” literally translates to “Hell,” and that’s exactly where director Nobuo Nakagawa takes us in this chimerical morality play. We follow a man through a couple of Hells. The first subsists above ground, while the other is a more traditional underworld full of fire and brimstone. Jigoku was released in 1960, so the film’s depictions of harrowing torture don’t pack the punch that they are supposed to. Still, this is an intriguing driblet of dementia that you are likely to find in Takashi Miike’s video library.

Shiro Shimizu is in a constant state of grief. After the tragic death of his fiancé, he inadvertently kills a host of people with the “help” of an ominous friend. It’s fairly obvious that this friend is a manifestation of a devil (or perhaps the devil). Shiro is consumed by guilt, and he soon realizes that his soul is in limbo. The Hell in Jigoku is a gallimaufry of theological concepts. It’s part Buddhist, part Catholic, and part “Dante’s Inferno.” Shiro, along with several other characters, is condemned to dwell in eight levels of damnation. The film’s third act zooms in on this Hell. I’ll talk more about these striking, versicolor scenes in a moment, but I’m a chronological critic by nature. I am also naughty by nature.

The first hour of Jigoku is structured like daytime television. Apart from the odd aesthetic quirk, it’s a meandering melodrama that is paced with the chipper cadence of time-lapse photography…played in real time. That’s slow. The film just doesn’t move. There is no plot-propelled momentum; there is no cozy score to fill in prolonged gaps of silence; there are no well-written verbal exchanges; there is no reason to stay awake. The exposition is hopelessly aimless. I may sound like a desensitized child of MTV editing, but I couldn’t even warm up to the main character. I couldn’t warm up to anyone, since the script sculpts its participants to be cold, vindictive supersinners. For your information, I’ll be adding “supersinners” to my word processor’s dictionary.

Ultimately, Jigoku does stitch together a payoff of sorts. The last 40 minutes are truly remarkable. They belong in a better film. Nakagawa’s vision of Hell is a visual treat, to say the least. The lighting is eye-popping (lots of greens and reds…cool stuff), the Japanese demons are rather disturbing, and the violence is extreme. This was one shocking motion picture back in the day. The special effects are surprisingly slick. Despite the febrile finale, I can’t see myself ever revisiting Jigoku. I’m giving it extra credit for its historical significance, but like most genre landmarks, it hasn’t aged well. However, it’s considered mandatory viewing for foreign film buffs. I wasn’t going to end this review with a cheap one-liner, but I can’t resist…GO TO HELL!

Rating: ★★½☆

-Dom Coccaro

Dom is a freelance writer/graphic designer. He has contributed articles to Associated Content, Terror Tube, the Hickory Daily Record (print), and Arrow in the Head.

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