It's Nobuo Nakagawa's best-known film in the West, although it was almost impossible to find a copy until Criterion released it on DVD in 2006. It's fairly bonkers. I've just become a Nakagawa fan.
It's a film of two halves. The first half is set in the real world, but with an unconventional narrative. Shigeru Amachi is a young theology student with a pretty fiancee and no desire to hurt anyone. (His character's name is Shiro and that's how you'd transliterate the Japanese word for "white", although they're pronounced differently.) Unfortunately he also has a bad friend, Yoichi Numata, who I personally assumed was Satan. Look at the sinister way Nakagawa shoots him, in that blue light or those shadows. Look at how much he knows about everyone, suggesting either that he has supernatural knowledge or else that he's secretly the head of the KGB.
Numata has said that he'd tried to analyze the role, but couldn't find the best way to play it.
Anyway, a bad thing happens and for no clear reason, Amachi thinks he's partly to blame. I didn't get that bit. Okay, yes, someone's dead, but Amachi was just sitting there and ever since he's been eating himself up and saying they should hand themselves in to the police. Another bad thing happens, startling in hindsight for the victim's presentiment.
...and that's how the film continues. Amachi's the lead character, but it would be wrong to call him a protagonist. Bad things happen around him. That's not the same thing. Meanwhile we meet a bunch of varyingly evil, selfish, sexually depraved or otherwise callous people who are (presumably) going to the place suggested by the movie's title. There's some dark stuff here, some of which is almost blackly funny in its cynicism. (I laughed when a falling body bounced off some rocks, for instance, although this probably means I'm a bad person.) Amachi's mother is dying, so his father is carrying on with a mistress in front of her and she's accepting it! There's an old folks' home run by wicked people, which in Japan is particularly shocking. When Numata claims that everyone in the cast is a killer, this seems plausible.
It's bleak and twisted, but it's also less dramatic than I'd expected. Drama will has a protagonist who tries to overcome enemies or obstacles. This is just bad stuff happening.
After that, the second half has everyone dead and being tortured in hell. This is even less dramatic, but so insane that it's hugely entertaining and so I loved it. I've seen it said that this is the first gore movie. I don't know how true that is, but it's certainly going for wild visuals with flair.
One thing that makes the movie spiky is its massively dubious theology. Let's begin with its concept of going to hell not for any old sins, but specifically for sins that were unpunished. How does that work, eh? Is heaven full of serial killers who got caught and spent the rest of their lives in prison, while hell's full of children who stole a lollipop while their mothers weren't watching? Besides, what does "punished" mean? Arrested by the police and put on trial? What if you're executed? Might that count as getting off lightly? Is there an infernal judge whose job it is to decide if your punishment was insufficient? ("You tortured your parents to death and got a slap on the wrist!") Answer: yes and his name's Lord Enma.
Next we have the arbitrary judgements and worrying story points.
(a) Amachi didn't really do anything wrong. He wasn't driving the car. He's a nice guy who's been tying himself in knots over things that weren't his fault. However he blames himself and Lord Enma agrees. To hell with you!
(b) That Japanese professor who did terrible things during the war and deserves to go to hell... okay, what's he done? This should be juicy, right? Even if it's not the Rape of Nanking, the atrocities committed by Japan during World War Two are legendary. Answer: he stole a comrade's last sip of water. Okay, the guy then died of thirst, but even so that's so bathetic that it's funny.
(c) That professor's wife. What's she supposed to have done, eh? She didn't fight on the front line with him... but I think she's off to hell too. A good Japanese wife should follow her husband everywhere, right?
(d) There's a limbo for children who died before their parents. That's just... wow. Wait until you see the baby in hell. Besides, why's Utako Mitsuya there even after her parents died?
(e) There's a non-incest revelation that might do things to your head. There are two characters, one of whom was made pregnant by a character whom we'll eventually discover is unknowingly the brother of an entirely unrelated girl in whom he'd seemed to be showing interest. That's quite funny, but it's not incest. It might have gone there had everyone not died, but that's a what-if. However both girls are played by the same actress and the film ends with them side by side, wearing identical clothes and calling together to our hero. "Darling!" "Big brother!" Deeply peculiar.
Oh, and apparently it might be possible to escape from hell. I don't remember that from Sunday School.
The more you contemplate this twisted film, the more disturbed you'll realise it is. Watch this film on drugs and you might go stark staring mad. It's not about righteous punishment of the wicked. There's definitely punishment, yes, but their admissions procedure needs work. It's certainly not God's justice, unless you think God's a sadist who'd pull the wings off flies. You could keep a university's entire theology department tied up for years discussing this film alone, but my guess is that it's what happens when mischievous horror filmmakers tackle what looks to Western eyes like Christian iconography, but isn't. Japan isn't a Christian country. They know a smattering about our religions, but it's not really part of their psyche and most of them only have the most superficial knowledge of it.
That's already plenty to chew on, but on a visual level there's also Nakagawa's style.
I'm not sure why I love Nakagawa's theatricality so much. Seijun Suzuki did nothing for me (Tokyo Drifter
, Branded to Kill
) and yet I think in opposing ways they're quite similar. The difference, I think, is that Suzuki's is more cinematic, by which I mean cosmetic. If you were actually inside the action, you wouldn't notice anything. It would seem realistic. Suzuki's playing with colour, camera angles, etc. That's an oversimplification and of course it's mostly Suzuki's storytelling I disliked, but bear with me for now. Nakagawa on the other hand makes me feel as if I'm watching live theatre. He's not so interested in mimetic realism, instead pushing you into a realm where you've got to accept the visuals aren't afraid to be silly, melodramatic or unrealistic if that'll achieve the desired effect. The guy being flayed alive looks unconvincing, for instance, but that lack of realism lets the special effects department be more unforgettable.
Nakagawa's living up to medieval ideas of a proper Hieronymous Bosch hell, with deranged abstract creations like Harumi's Wheel. What the dickens is that? No idea, but I love it. Note also the fields of body parts.
I would have killed to see Nakagawa direct Kinda. The astral realm would have blown our minds and he'd have even managed to make us accept the snake at the end. Well, maybe not everyone. Me, anyway.
There have been 1979, 1999 and 2005 remakes, by the way. In summary: mad. The first half was a mild disappointment, but the second half is just freaky. It's doing proper full-blooded hell, with people being sawn in half or hung upside-down with a sword through their necks. It has someone appearing to take defiant pleasure in his own torture. Numata briefly does Mega-Acting like Nicholas Cage. The tortures would be unwatchable if they looked realistic, but Nakagawa takes it to a more theatrical level and so is allowing you to be more disturbed by the fact that these aren't all deserving victims.
Nakagawa's films aren't all this extreme, mind you. Snake Woman's Curse
is pedestrian in comparison, for instance, but it's still clearly the same director and I still love what he's doing. Apparently Jigoku was made for a studio that was going out of business at the time and Nakagawa made a special effort with this to make it different from any other horror film. He succeeded. That's still true, even today.