Scary Good Films Vol. 5: Jigoku

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| March 13, 2023

A groundbreaking movie gets released every so often and changes the cinematic landscape. Even after many years, its influence can last. One such film is Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1960 horror drama Jigoku (English: Hell, aka The Sinners of Hell). For this article, I will examine how the Jigoku stood out from other horror movies at the time.

First, here’s some background. This was one of the last films produced by Shintoho, one of the original major Japanese studios. It was about to go bankrupt, and the filmmakers said, “Let’s make the craziest movie ever.” Okay, they didn’t actually say that, but it was still the gist. Jigoku is essentially an anthology movie focusing on different people and the sins they commit. Eventually, everything comes together during the climax.

The main story revolves around a student named Shirō (Shigeru Amachi). One night, his friend, Tamura (Yōichi Numata), is driving him home when he suddenly hits Kyōichi (Hiroshi Izumida), a Yakuza leader. Tamura feels no remorse, but Shirō does. When he attempts to drive to the police station with his girlfriend, Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), Shirō crashes his car, killing Yukiko. Not long after, he learns that his mother, Ito (Kimie Tokudaiji), is dying in a retirement home. It turns out that the retirement home residents have all had skeletons in their closets, including but not limited to adultery, slander, and a misdiagnosis.

As if that weren’t complex enough, Shirō gets some company later. Kyōichi’s girlfriend, Yoko (Akiko Ono), has tracked him down. She attempts to kill him on a bridge, but Shirō gains the upper hand, and she falls into the river below. An angry Tamura also ends up suffering the same fate. Later, things go utterly haywire during the tenth anniversary of the retirement home’s foundation. Kyōichi’s mother appears and poisons most of the guests’ wine, and others get poisoned by bad fish. Two people jump in front of a train, and another falls to her death. Finally, Shirō gets strangled to death by the mother. I’m exhausted just typing this!

What sets Jigoku apart from other movies depicting Hell is that it displays the Buddhist version. Satan is not the ruler, but rather Lord Enma instead (played in the film by Kanjūrō Arashi). When a damned soul arrives in Hell, Enma will give you the punishment he sees as fit. You then get transported to a realm of your worst nightmares.

Shirō and Yukiko meet in Limbo’s vast valley. It is then revealed that she was pregnant when she died, and now their daughter, Harumi, floats away on the Sanzu river. Think of this river as the Buddhist equivalent of the river Styx. As he searches for her, Shirō comes across some shocking revelations and images that must be seen to be believed. Characters get mutilated, become lost, or have their worst fears come to life in front of them. When Shirō finally finds Harumi, whether he has saved her is unclear. One thing for sure is that viewers will feel bewildered once the Hell sequences end. For audiences in 1960 not used to this genre of cinema, it was an absolute game-changer. 

Jigoku’s case allows for some at the time innovative scenes. Because of the torture scenes the characters go through, this movie is sometimes considered the first splatter film, predating 1963’s Blood Feast. That movie is a story for another day, though. Trust me, even for a flick as old as Jigoku, the gore that occurs is not for the faint of heart. While graphic violence existed in prior horror movies, this was the first time it went to gut-wrenching extremes. The vivid cinematography helped greatly, too, even before the Hell scenes. Without Jigoku, we would not see modern cinema willing to push the envelope in what could be shown. 

I feel like Jigoku does not get enough recognition, especially considering its accomplishments. If future viewers come across this batshit insane product, I would like it if they saw it as something that can happen when filmmaking options become limited and financial troubles get in the way. No matter how the product turns out, it can become memorable- for better or worse.

Well, that’s a wrap for Volume 5 of Scary Good Films. What other media would you like me to cover? Sound off in the comments below.

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