Jigoku is very much like Hell of different religions. I understand the intent behind it, but it crumbles under the weight of any critical thought except to devout followers. The film tries to be more than a mere horror film by dealing with higher ideas, but it fails to properly execute them. Although paved with good intentions, the filmmakers stumble on their path.
The opening is slightly baffling as the title credits appear with scantily clad women and a soundtrack of chaos. The film opens with the main character Shiro in Hell along the River Sanzu. He then falls into a fiery pit. The film cuts to a classroom as Shiro is listening to a lecture about Hell in a comparative religion class taught by Prof. Yajima, the father of his fiancée, Yukiko. Tamura appears next to him and tells Shiro that the guy they ran over last night died.
The film cuts back to the previous night. Shiro is visiting with the Yajimas, and Tamura suddenly appears inside the house. He returns the professor’s book along with an old photo taken back during the War. In it, the professor fought a fellow soldier over the water in a canteen, yet no one was there to take the photo. For some reason Tamura drives Shiro’s car to take them both home. They turn down a road and run over a drunk in the street, who turns out to be Kyoichi, a yakuza gang leader. Tamura keeps going, unaware that Kyoichi’s mother spotted them.
Shiro is racked with guilt and wants to turn himself in. Tamura says to forget it. Shiro confides in Yukiko. She agrees with him and accompanies him to the police station. She is rewarded with death as the taxicab gets into a fatal car accident that is completely unbelievable because of how poorly the scene was shot and edited.
Shiro is consumed with even more guilt and grief. He drowns his sorrows at a club where he meets Yoko, who soon suggests they leave. He takes her to a hotel, and after sleeping together, she discovers that Shiro is the man who ran her brother Kyoichi over. Yoko and her mother plan their revenge, but before they can hatch their plans, Shiro is called out to the country to visit his gravely ill mother.
Shiro’s father runs an old age home called Heavenly Gardens, which is anything but. Father doesn't care about the residents and has a mistress living with him who is very attracted to Shiro. Shiro meets Sachiko, who looks so much like Yukiko that even her grieving mother can’t tell the difference. Yoko and her mother come out to obtain their revenge. Tamura also shows up.
The second act ends with a raucous party that concludes with an homage to Hamlet, setting the stage for the ambitious third act which takes place in Hell. We meet Enma, King of Hell. He sits in judgment and passes sentence on people’s sins. Shiro gets the full treatment although the entirety of his sins is not completely clear. He is transported to the banks of the River Sanzu “where children are held in limbo for having died before their parents,” which seems rather unfair unless they committed suicide. Here, he reunites with Yukiko and begs for forgiveness because he feels responsible for her death.
Throughout the levels of Hell, Shiro is punished and interacts with people from his life, including his unborn child. Information about the characters and their sins is provided, but how can we trust anything anyone in Hell tells us? We don’t even know if the characters are who they say they are. They could be demons playing tricks or it could all exist in Shiro’s mind.
Jigoku falters at many places, leaving many unanswered questions. There is no redemption and all are doomed, so if we are all going to Hell anyway, why not do what we like on Earth? Other than having pre-marital sex, Yukiko committed no sin and neither did their unborn baby. Why did Shiro run into her double? Aside from the Yukiko car crash, another poorly constructed scene is Yoko falling off the rope bridge. She “tripped” out of her shoe and plummeted to her death; however, there was no hole big enough for that to happen, so she had to fall upward and over the side of the bridge. As the dummy bangs around, it is unintentionally comical.
However the biggest problem is the character of Tamura, who performs so many functions in the story that he constantly contradicts what he is. He is very mysterious, never walking into or out of a frame. When we first meet him, he appears as Shiro’s acquaintance, but as they talk about the previous night, he shows signs of being an extension of Shiro’s subconscious. He later tells Yukiko that he, not we, killed someone in regards to the traffic accident. That idea gets nixed because Prof. Yajima sees Tamura and remembers his own guilt, so then Tamura might be a personified metaphor, but other people know him. When Yoko confronts about Shiro her brother’s death, she says she found Shiro and Tamura right away, so maybe Tamura is some type of magical being. Yet, he does nothing magical to protect himself when Shiro shoots him and knocks him off the rope bridge. When in Hell, Tamura admits to being a demon and a god of death, but King Enma punishes him. If he wasn’t doing King Enma’s bidding, then we have run out of possibilities.
The DVD comes with a new documentary entitled Building the Inferno about the film and director Nobuo Nakagawa, and it includes interviews with Yoichi Numata, the actor who played Tamura, and one of the film’s screenwriters, Ichiro Miyagawa. Neither was able to shed any light on the mysterious character, which wasn't surprising. There is no commentary track, which I found surprising for Criterion, until I saw the film.
The cinematography is the film’s saving grace. The use of lighting and imagery are very compelling as director Nobuo Nakagawa and his team create the horrors described in Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, a 10th century Buddhist sutra that described what awaits the doomed on the various levels of Hell. It’s disappointing it’s not in a better film. I would recommend skipping straight to that sequence because it would make as much sense.
Since the word for “horror” didn’t exist in Japanese in 1960 according to director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Jigoku is understandably groundbreaking; however, it will test the tolerance of today’s viewer. It’s a film for the more committed fans of film horror due to its imagery because the incoherent plot will lose everyone else.