It's a Japanese film that I find in poor taste. It's remaking Nobuo Nakagawa's lurid and surreal 1960 film
, Jigoku, and shoehorning into it the real-life Aum Shinrikyo cult who perpetrated the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo underground trains.
If you're unfamiliar with modern Japanese history, you'll just think it's camp but sinister nonsense. We begin with Lord Enma offering a lucky girl a day trip to Hell! Wouldn't you say yes? This exciting opportunity will give our heroine a chance to see what happens to sinners in the afterlife (hint: not nice), repent of her ways and help spread the gospel of goodness and spiritualism when she returns to the world above.
A Westerner might be puzzled by this. Yes, Lord Enma is the ruler of Hell, but she's not evil. (This film's Enma is female.) Enma isn't Satan. Enma is instead the Japanese name for the Hindu/Buddhist god Yama, the judge of the dead who's known in every country with a Buddhist tradition, including both China and Japan.
Anyway, we see a bit of Hell. They're camp and silly-looking, which is good because otherwise it would be almost impossible to watch them sawing people into bloody piles of body parts and then reassembling them in order to keep doing this for all eternity. (Every time I see this, the dafter it seems. Is it really a punishment for the demons? Don't they get bored? You'd think their arms would get tired, at least. Besides, being gorily dismembered for eternity seems a bizarrely over-the-top reaction to what might, in the end, be a marginal balance of sin vs. virtue in one's brief earthly life. However that's what certain religious types would have us believe and this film's merely showing us what this would be like, so I suppose thumbs up to the filmmakers.)
There's also a flashback bit where we see what a random victim did to earn this torture when he was alive. He was a serial killer of little girls. These scenes are gore-free and indeed almost family-friendly, but they're still creepy and appalling. However I also liked them for the performance of the serial killer, who's simple, socially dysfunctional and probably mentally ill. He speaks oddly and lives surrounded by books. He's a refreshing antidote to the Hannibal Lecter cliche, being deluded and pathetic.
There's an interesting subsidiary question in whether this guy deserved to go to hell. His crimes are horrifying, yes, but he's clearly broken and the world inside his head doesn't map to reality. He needed help, really.
Anyway, that's hell. Cartoonish demons with big tusks, lots of theatrical make-up and of course nudity. When you're in hell, you get your boobs out.
We then jump to nearly an hour's worth of uninterrupted Aum Shinrikyo.
The surprising thing is how accurate it is. These clowns look like a rag-bag of all the creakiest cult cliches, down to their 1960s hippy leader who dresses like a Maharishi, loves Indian decor and never opens his eyes. However what's here is, in its broad brush strokes, correct. Shoko Asahara (here called Kyoso) really was into yoga and meditation. That's how his cult started out. There's no exaggeration in the bit where the cultists blame their sarin gas on the Japanese government, the American army and the freemasons. There really was an incident where they murdered a lawyer who'd been threatening a lawsuit against them. It happened in 1989, the guy's name was Tsutsumi Sakamoto and they also killed his wife and child. The truth wasn't uncovered until 1995. They did indeed use hospitals as ways of extorting money. Even the kidnapping and killing of the brother of someone who'd escaped from the cult is a real event.
That said, as a film it's also unconvincing and a bit silly. They're sinister when they're being bullies and murderers, but their cult leader is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. He has a brainwashed cult whom he uses for his sexual gratification... and he's not even capable of stopping his attempted sex with someone who literally worships him from turning into brutal rape. Every time he does something new, he looks pathetic. It's impossible to imagine the man in this film ever having followers. He's a loser. He wets himself. Similarly the scenes of women coming to a gradual awareness of the cult they're trapped in are heavy-handed and not particularly interesting. However that said, the world created by this film does have its moments, such as the cult's bullying gangster tactics or the wordless relationship between the leader's wife and mistress.
Daftest of all, for me, is the courtroom scene. Firstly, they don't have enough money for a proper set and are doing it against black walls. Secondly, the film's straining so hard to make the lawyer seem evil that you'll just roll your eyes. He's a lawyer. He's doing his job. That smile is unnecessary... but then the scene gets a hilarious pay-off later when the lawyers go to Hell along with their clients! That had me howling. For the most part, this film is avoiding the moral complications of Nobuo Nakagawa's film, instead giving us pure, distilled evil in desperate need of punishment... but that's a bit to make you raise your eyebrows. I was also looking forward to seeing what would happen to the ex-cultists who'd repented and tried to leave. Would they go to Hell too?
Did I mention the nudity? There's often none at all for long periods and very little of it is even remotely sexy, unless you get off on the screaming hordes of the damned. However the bare boob count, if you were to sit down and take it, must be astronomical and Teruo Ishii has an occasional tendency to make his camera leer. Note also the mega-nudity finale, in which dozens of women strip naked to worship the sun for the duration of the closing credits. One feels that Ishii enjoyed making this film a little too much.
The gates to Hell also look like a vagina.
Oh, and that sun-worship is weird. One thing I do like is the fact that this film's theology is in some ways loopier than Nakagawa's. When our heroine repents at the end (smart girl), she's advised to worship "the eternal one". Would this be God? No, it's the sun. Hello, skyclad women.
Oh, and Hell also has an itinerant samurai who's tougher than the demons and hacks them to pieces with his sword whenever they meet. I don't think he's even realised he's dead. He's just wandering around and the demons can't do anything about it. So there you have it: save yourself in the afterlife by being a scary violent bastard who'll kill anyone with his sword!
Apparently these were going to be two unrelated films, but then financing collapsed. That explains a lot. A real-life tragedy like the sarin gas attack doesn't to me seem suitable for this kind of film. It's like Carry On Auschwitz. I wonder if any survivors or victims' relatives complained? However that said, I wasn't particularly convinced by the Aum Shinrikyo section even on its own, so I'm not convinced this would have worked much better as separate films.
The best thing about Nakagawa's film was its surrealism. That Hell wasn't just demons and tortures, but instead a mind-expanding astral experience. This one doesn't get anywhere near that level, although its dragon is flamboyant.
So... Teruo Ishii. Who is this guy? Answer: a one-man movie industry. He was nearly eighty years old by this point and he'd started directing in the 1950s, making superhero films called Super Giant. (Ken Utsui played the lead role, hated it and to this day refuses to talk about it.) He also did horror, adapting Edogawa Rampo films like Horrors of Malformed Men. He did eru-guro films like Shogun's Joys of Torture (um...) and Pinky Violence for Toei. His final film, in 2001, was Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf, which I've had on my to-watch list for ages. In Japan he's called the "King of Cult", but his body of work is more diverse than that makes it sound. However that said, this film didn't leave me with a particularly high opinion of him.
In summary, not great. It feels silly, whether we're with the Aum Shinrikyo cultists or the demons. The tongue-pulling is particularly goofy. It's wholehearted, offensive and different, I'll give it that, but I just don't think it's as interesting as it could have been. It's not a train wreck and I don't regret watching it, but I'd still suggest sticking with Nakagawa's version.