A Symphony of Hells
Crossing the river of Acheron is no cozy scrapbook moment; scanning the charred valleys of Gehenna is far and away no sightseeing excursion; the `fiery lake of sulphur' is not one we'd like to laze next to slurping Bloody Marys, absorbing its heat. The thought of the bright orange blaze of hell stokes our moral conscience, allowing us to vacation in our own reflexivity, giving us reason to ponder how far we've descended into, put theologically, the `pleasures of the flesh'. The thought-trip always ends with a swift riposte square into the center of our soul, in light of our shortcomings. Whither will we end up...after?
This film gives us such a thrust. Criterion's glistening transfer of the visually-arresting Japanese classic Jigoku ("hell") whirls us around in a blood-boiling, flesh-peeling, bone-crushing, eye-gouging, limb severing vortex that the hapless `sons of hell' are sucked into by dint of their earthly transgressions. Though the film is ostensibly Buddhist, and notwithstanding the fact that karmic retribution is always meted out with a battle axe, it always sheers away from and gives a wink at any dogmatic undertones. Nakagawa, who is no hard-bitten acolyte haranguing us over post-life itineraries, has Dante and Goethe serve as visionary add-ins in this extra-bilious stew, surrounded by a burning ring of fire. And yet, despite all that, the film is actually more terrestrial than one might suppose (more on that later).
Two theology students are driving down a backcountry road when they inadvertently (was it?) hit a drunken yakuza ("gang member"), leaving him to die in the middle of the alley. Shiro, the protagonist, wants to turn himself in while his friend Tamura, the humanoid Mephistopheles of the film who was behind the wheel at the scene, refuses. When Shiro's theology professor's daughter, Yukiko, to whom Shiro is betrothed, convinces the latter to go to the police, Yukiko dies abruptly in a car crash on the way to the police station. Racked with guilt, a despondent Shiro devolves into a libertine existence of drink and easy women. Shiro's world becomes suffused with echt-doubles of people in his formerly pleasant life, phantasmagoria abounds, and Tamura is appearing out of nowhere to ensure that his friend will not cashier them both to the authorities.
Any and all further character development carried out is meant to show that the whole crew is damned from the start, that fire and brimstone are what's in store for everyone we see. There is not a single redeeming value in Jigoku; every evil act is courted without a smidge of remorse. (Shiro feels guilty for what has happened but lacks the amount of pluck needed to know what to do with himself.) Those who have won a ticket to ride on the boat of Charon include a debauched, negligent doctor and a self-interested corrupt policeman.
The film becomes a death-zone, spurred by human, all-too-human vice and folly, each character virtually his own Faust; the Grim Reaper clearly has a field day when only halfway through the film, that is, before taking the batch of sinners down with him. Almost everyone dies from eating poisonous, guppy-sized fish sold to one throwing a rather boisterous soiree--an ensign of Acheron, the river from which the fish were gathered. As the theology professor, himself having a few skeletons in his closet, says reassuringly, "everything hinges on fate."
The venue to Nakagawa's hell is simple, very noticeably from the start shot in your average studio--it would be years before the CGI technology that brought you the hell in the filmic rendition to Todd McFarlane's "Spawn" would be available. Besides, that kind of netherworld is inspired largely from the pictures presented in what Christians call the New Testament. The hell in Jigoku is more interesting and heterogeneous. Called "Naraka," actually more purgatory-like in Buddhist teaching, is the netherworld of greatest suffering. The deathly emerald green that washes our screen in the 40-minute climax is counterpointed with the rushing fires that incite a chorus of spine-tingling yowls. Babies are heard bawling as they are held in limbo (a Roman Catholic whimsy). Ogres armed with battle axes slice off hands and feet. Amidst the blood-slathered bodies running around like crabs in a skillet is a crew of skeletons and flayed corpses. The soundtrack to all this is even more bizarre, going from a jazzy mixture of taiko drums and a tenor-sounding saxophone, to an eerier timbre a la a Ligeti etude. In short, the needling imagery to this sui generis of a scene will be seared in your memory for a long time to come.
This film has been written off as a cheesy piece of glam cinema, far-Eastern kitsch par excellence, compounded with near witless dialogue, whose popularity Criterion should have confined to its native country. The film, to be fair, still only receives specialized attention, particularly when benchmarked against movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and all its oriental thaumaturgy that elicit the dumb oohs and ahs of the uncultured Anglophone. Compared with garish, high-end films like Kwaidan, what with its expressionist visuals, laconic dialogue, and frippery costumes, Jigoku is far more accessible to Western audiences unacquainted with non-Western horror--particularly since it was only a burgeoning genre at the time--and all its subliminal incorporeality.
There is a silver lining in this darkly human story. The final cathartic scene in which we see Yukiko spinning her little purple umbrella in front of a vernal backdrop is, to this viewer, emblematic of a purified soul; the fires to which Shiro was condemned is platonic in its meaning of restitution. Jigoku, I surmise, is very much a film "of the earth" in that our own past, chock full of misdeeds and transgressions, comes back to haunt us, regardless of what religious outfit you garb yourself in. That is Nakagawa's hell in its essence; to avoid it, perhaps we should hearken back to the Nietzschean dictum, "Learn to forget!"