1980’s Friday the 13th is usually credited with having kick-started America’s obsession with gore-soaked cinema. Arriving on the coattails of Halloween, Sean S. Cunningham’s slasher set out to do the same, only bloodier, unwittingly embroiling future films of its kind in an endless competition to out-gross one another. But Japanese filmmaker Nobuo Nakagawa got the party started a couple of decades before Jason ever reared his ugly head, with 1960’s Jigoku. In what was to be the final film for a studio on its last legs, Jigoku went out with one hell of a bang, combining centuries of Japanese storytelling with the sort of frighteningly explicit theatrics Hollywood now takes for granted.
As Jigoku begins, everything is peaches and cream for our hero, Shiro (Shigeru Amachi). But on the night he becomes engaged to his sweetheart Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), Shiro’s life takes a turn for the worse, when he and sinister comrade Tamura (Yoichi Numata) are involved in a hit-and-run accident. To top things off, Yukiko accompanies Shiro when he decides to confess, only for her to perish in a car accident. Shiro’s sadness continues to compound once he’s summoned to a nursing home run by his parents, where all the pieces of a complex puzzle proceed to come together. Various characters with various agendas converge upon the rest home and explode in a flurry of emotions, but their anguish isn’t over yet. Forces greater than Shiro and the others could ever comprehend have gathered them in order to drop them squarely into Hell, rendering them powerless as they confront their sins and lament their neverending torture.
In a narrative sense, it’s obvious that Jigoku (a title that literally translates to Hell) is a little on the flimsy side. You don’t need to watch five minutes before you realize this flick is going to be one of style crushing substance under a steel-toed boot. At its heart, Jigoku is a morality tale, and not just one in which the story’s almost one-dimensional evildoers get their just desserts. On first glance, Shiro seems to be the least likely candidate for demon fodder, as his involvement in the numerous deaths that take place prior to his hellish journey range from accidental to practically nonexistent. But with Shiro’s predicament, Nakagawa brings up the old saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It’s a thin beef, as Shiro remains a sympathetic character if only for the torrent of tragedy constantly raining down upon him, but in the face of such misery, he does sort of sit there and take it instead of standing up for what he knows is right. In regards to the supporting characters, Jigoku assembles a mosaic of intensified melodrama usually reserved for soap operas. Everyone but Yukiko (and the doppelganger Mitsuya also plays) might as well come with a nametag that says, “Hi, I’m evil.”
Nightmarish punishments are doled out all around, but it’s in this area that Jigoku finds its strongest footing. In a making-of feature on the film’s Criterion Collection DVD, fellow director Kiyoshi Kurosawa noted that the notion of a “horror” film didn’t really exist in Japan until Jigoku came along. Supernatural tales had long been performed in kabuki theatre and even in fairly recent cinema, but Nakagawa proceeded to inject this genre with a massive dose of style. The film’s first hour is just a taste of what’s to come, a cadre of horrifying misdeeds that reaches a fever pitch once the characters stop by Old Scratch’s place. The remainder of the film becomes the viewer’s own personal tour of Hell, stopping to savor such over-the-top tortures as flayings, beheadings, and voyages down rivers of blood. With its overdramatic tendencies and ultra-stylized gory, Nakagawa pretty much invented the modern horror movie with Jigoku, only he had the good sense to create something viewers would never forget instead of churning out a more soulless endeavor.
Purely as a filmgoing experience, Jigoku leaves you feeling a bit hollow. For all of its ghastly set pieces and heightened emotions, it just amounts to a lot of show, as the main story leaves viewers hanging with a sort of “Well?…” feeling. But as far as the history of horror goes, Jigoku has left its mark and then some, a marriage of blood and spooky atmosphere that the genre has yet to reject.