JIGOKU (1960): Movie Review

JIGOKU Movie Review
Review by Colleen Wanglund

JIGOKU (1960), released in America under the title THE SINNERS OF HELL is a Japanese horror film from director Nobuo Nakagawa who is considered by many to be the father of Japanese horror. The movie was remade in 1970 and again in 1999 under the title JAPANESE HELL. "JIGOKU" was released on DVD in 2006 by Criterion.

The movie stars Shigeru Amachi as Shiro, a theology student who has just gotten engaged to his professor’s daughter Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya) when his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata) shows up. Tamura offers Shiro a ride and a drink to celebrate his engagement but while driving they hit a drunk in the road and leave him to die. Unfortunately the drunk was a leader of a gang and his mother who saw the car’s license plate number vows revenge. Shiro is horrified by his friend’s lack of remorse and decides to go to the police and confess. He tells Yukiko what has happened after interrupting her as she was about to tell Shiro something. Shiro insists they take a cab to the station but there is an accident and Yukiko dies.

With his life spiraling out of control, Shiro goes home to see his parents when he gets word that his mother is seriously ill. While there he discovers his father has a mistress and is stealing money from the residents of the nursing home Shiro’s parents own. Shiro also meets the daughter of one of the residents, Sachiko (played by Utako Mitsuya in a dual role) who is a dead ringer for the dead Yukiko. Shiro has also discovered that Tamura has followed him home, but so has the mother and girlfriend of the dead gangster killed in the hit-and-run accident. Things just go from bad to worse for Shiro, as well for the people around him.

JIGUKO is a beautiful film that is well-written and flawlessly directed with a minimalist quality. A somber mood runs effortlessly throughout the film, never deviating from its surreal and horrifying conclusion. At the time of its 1960 release in Japan JIGUKO was received with shock and outrage as it contained very graphic images of the torments of Hell. The character of Tamura is almost an enigma as you’re not quite sure what to make of him. He is diabolical and without a conscience. What’s also so disturbing about Tamura is that he seems to appear out of nowhere and knows everyone’s darkest secrets. Is he human or demon?

Jiguko literally translates to “hell” and the movie’s final third is a dark and horrifying depiction of Hell based on the teachings of Buddhism. Including traditions from other Japanese folklore and religions, this Hell consists of eight levels of fire and eight levels of ice. A soul’s punishment is determined by the type of sins committed while alive and can consist of anything from carrying the pain of those you have hurt to being flayed alive.
What is so scary about this is the belief that all souls must spend some time in Hell before moving on to Heaven and eventually reincarnation.

As Shiro moves through the levels of Hell he witnesses the torments being suffered by those he knew in life. He witnesses eyes being gouged out and bodies cut to pieces as well as hearing the never-ending screams of the sinners. Shiro is also being followed by Tamura who tries to tempt him at every turn. Shiro is determined to prove that he is not a bad person and has a conscience. The last third of JIGUKO is quite intense and frightening. This is definitely a film worth viewing.

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