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Jigoku(1960)

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Jigoku (1960)

Two men in a room, debating "what is murder?" It is not a grisly talk, rather one of philosophy. They begin with a thought experiment: what if they were adrift in the ocean, certain to drown. A single plank offers escape, but it has room to save but one. No matter what happens, at least one person is sure to die. The only question is, which one? The man who takes the plank consigns his comrade to death. Is that murder? After some discussion, they concur: yes, it is like murder.

From there, the talk grows more concrete. The world is full of examples of selfish actions whose consequences bring harm to others. Not all of these things are classed as crimes, but perhaps they are sins. There must be some cosmic justice, some supernatural court where immoral acts meet their punishment...

These two men are not philosophers. They are filmmakers, employed by a ramshackle movie company called Shintoho, an outfit that has barely stayed on one side of bankruptcy by crafting low-budget exploitation movies. The boss, a producer named Mitsugu Okura, storms into the room. It's time to get started on the next horror movie if it's going to be ready in time for the pre-ordained summer release slot for 1960, and he's hoping screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa and director Nobuo Nakagawa have been using their brainstorming time wisely. "Sure, thing, chief, have we got a pip for you," says Miyagawa (he said it in Japanese, but you get the idea). "It's about selfish people and the punishment they face in Hell." Okura likes what he's hearing, and proposes a working title: Heaven and Hell. When Okura later sees the movie that Nakagawa and Miyagawa actually made, he grumbles, "It's nothing but Hell. What happened to Heaven?" Shrugging, Miyagawa quips, "We'll get to that in the sequel."

Jigoku (1960, aka Hell) is like nothing before it. Even today its reputation is still growing. One would have thought that fifty years' influence on Japanese horror movies would have cemented a critical consensus that it is Nakagawa's masterpiece. Nakagawa was something like Japan's answer to England's Terence Fisher--like the master director at Hammer Studios, Nakagawa was a genteel and gentle practitioner of classical filmmaking who found himself making immensely popular horror movies for a marginalized studio. The depth of his craft and the extent of his commercial appeal were counterbalanced by the fact that he was working in a disreputable genre for a company too impoverished to lend him any artistic luster. Nakagawa felt slighted by the international critical attention paid to his contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi. Here he was, practically inventing the genre of Japanese horror single-handedly, and was being treated by the Japanese film industry like a black sheep.

Nakagawa had not set out to make horror films. But he made them well, and audiences liked them, which meant he got stuck. Okura, a former carnival showman, was not about to let that well run dry. And Nakagawa kept coming back from that well with something better than before. His career-making hit came with 1959's The Ghost of Yotsuya, and its enormous success bought him a measure of creative freedom. When he and Miyagawa proposed making Jigoku as a Japanese take on Faust, Okura never blinked (even though, in order to realize his vision fully, Nakagawa ended up investing his own money in the film to enhance the budget).

Miyagawa's background was in writing the Super Giants cycle of pre-Ultraman Japanese super hero movies; Nakagawa's most successful horror movies had been period pictures in which Samurais and their wives dealt with ghosts. Making a contemporary, and relentlessly grim, thing like Jigoku would bring a fresh challenge to both creators.

It begins with a bang: a full-frontal cinematic assault to put the audience on notice they are in for a ride. The credits roll over shots of naked women in what could double as a James Bond movie title sequence, but this is played over an aural collage of snippets of jazz recordings and seemingly random sound effects (the soundtrack is in fact foreshadowing important moments from later in the film, much as a Godzilla movie might roll its credits over freeze frames of monster battles to come). It is hard to imagine any movie meeting the promise of such a bravura opening, but Jigoku will. It will keep its best cards until the final round, though, and begins the story on a quieter note.

Shigeru Amachi stars as Shiro, a college student engaged to his professor's daughter (Utako Mitsuya). The problem is, Shiro can't seem to shake the presence of a creepy friend named Tamura (Yoichi Numata). One night, the two men are involved in a hit-and-run accident that kills a pedestrian Shiro is haunted by guilt and wants to confess the accident to the police; Tamura figures the whole thing is best forgotten. The victim was a yakuza gangster, who was crossing the street in a drunken stupor--Tamura thinks the world is better off without him.

Betraying his selfish friend, Shiro tries to turn himself in--but in so doing, merely precipitates yet another car wreck, this one leaving his pregnant girlfriend dead. It is the first strike in a fast-spiraling vortex of guilt, in which everyone Shiro meets will be consigned to a grisly end. Friends, acquaintances, family members, enemies, and strangers alike die in Shiro's midst. Run over by cars, killed by illness, poisoned, shot, strangled, thrown from bridges, crushed by trains...you name it.

Whether by accident or design, the story takes a form vaguely similar to Nakagawa's earlier Ghost of Kasane Swamp. That 1957 film involved a cursed man who leaves a stream of corpses in his wake without meaning to. He is the catalyst for tragedy and violence he never wants but consistently fails to prevent.

Shiro's guilt has become a contagion, infecting the world, but the initial "crime" was not his. Tamura was behind the wheel and tried to conceal the death -- Shiro is punished for Tamura's crimes because this is a ruthlessly unforgiving movie. Jigoku sends its entire cast to Hell, no infraction is too small to warrant eternal hellfire. But then again, one could linger on that sentence a little longer: Shiro is punished for Tamura's crime...Shiro and Tamura, ever together--even if Tamura has to appear magically out of nowhere. Shiro has no memory of meeting Tamura, and Tamura never once acts alone. In a later interview, Miyagawa confessed that a lesser filmmaker could unimaginatively cast the same actor as both Shiro and Tamura, since they are aspects of the same person.

Following the logic of a dream, where unconnected events connect themselves after the fact, Shiro's grieving meanderings introduce -- and kill off -- a number of other characters, each with their own vice and failing. Once the body count has reached a critical mass, the clock stops, it all kicks off.

The rest of Jigoku is as experimental as anything attempted in the conventional, commercial movie industry. Brace yourself for an uninterrupted forty minute-long sequence of sustained surrealism and potent abstraction. Nakagawa and Miyagawa realized they would have a hard time expressing interior, psychological torment on the screen. So, they substituted a graphic metaphor: beheadings, behandings, a man sawed in half, another flayed alive, our hero suspended upside down with a spike through his neck...this is strong stuff, given that the very same year there were censors saying Alfred Hitchcock had pushed the envelope too far with Psycho (1960). The effects are not especially realistic, nor are they intended to be, but the overall impression is one of abject terror. The most powerful are also the simplest--forget the severed limbs, the most horrifying sight is a swarm of humanity, running in circles in a vast empty space.

The final shot is the kicker -- Shiro has spent much of this sequence trying to rescue his infant daughter, the unborn child killed in the car wreck along with its mother. The poor screaming child is on the edge of a giant cogwheel, and Shiro is crawling along the teeth of the thing to reach her on the opposite side. She is screaming, as terrified babies are wont to do, and Shiro's own hysteria matches hers 100%. His exertions are useless--no matter how much he crawls along the edge, she will always be the same distance away. He will never reach her, and he will always try, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is Hell. (What did the baby do to deserve such punishment?)

Much of the credit for Jigoku's jaw-dropping depiction of Hell should go to production designer Haruyasu Kurosawa. It was he who realized that the lack of money could be a boon rather than a deficit. Rather than try to concoct elaborate visions that would fall short of their ambitions because of poor execution, Kurosawa successfully argued for a minimalist approach. Rarely has so little achieved so much. Hell was an empty soundstage (the largest in Japan), with some colored lights and a fog machine. Instead of scenery or props, he had Nakagawa manipulate the camera. Images of blood and pain are intercut in staccato fashion with moments of poetry. The result is arresting, terrifying, and memorable.

The almost immediate implosion of Shintoho's finances did nothing to help the distribution and promotion of the movie. When audiences did find their way to it, they were torn in two between the lovers and the haters. The division exposed a generational fault line. Young folks thrilled to the movie, and embraced its experimental style and outrageous imagery. Oldsters rankled against its unpleasantness and cheap look. As time went on, that younger audience grew up and became the establishment. By the 1990s, a new generation of filmmakers had come to prominence who had been greatly influenced by Nakagawa. The likes of Hideo Nakata, Hiroshi Takahashi, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa started a new cycle of Japanese horror movies ("J-Horrors") in the late 1990s in explicit homage to Nakagawa -- even going so far as to cast actors like Yoichi Numata in Ringu (1998) and its sequels. In 1999, cult filmmaker Teruo Ishii made his own idiosyncratic remake of Jigoku (it was not the first such remake, but the less said about the 1979 version the better).

Nakagawa did not live to see his renaissance. He kept working, improbably, through the doldrums of the 1970s and 80s when the rest of the Japanese film industry went on life-support. He migrated to television, where the pay was worse and the hours longer but at least there was a steady audience. And on he plugged, making nightmares on the cheap for anyone that would have him, until his death in 1984.

He left behind an enduring legacy that seems to grow in esteem with each passing year. Jigoku is as startling and unsettling today as it was back then.

Producers: Mitsugu kura
Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Screenplay: Nobuo Nakagawa, Ichir Miyagawa
Cinematography: Mamoru Morita
Music: Michiaki Watanabe
Film Editing: Toshio Got
Cast: Shigeru Amachi (Shir Shimizu), Utako Mitsuya (Yukiko/Sachiko), Yichi Numata (Tamura), Hiroshi Hayashi (Gz Shimizu), Jun tomo (Ensai Taniguchi), Akiko Yamashita (Kinuko), Kiyoko Tsuji (Kyichi's Mother), Fumiko Miyata (Mrs. Yajima), Torahiko Nakamura (Professor Yajima), Kimie Tokudaiji (Ito Shimizu).
C-101m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film.
Bill Cooke, "Noburo Nakagawa: Master of Japanesque Horror," Video Watchdog issue 103.
David Kalat, J-Horror.
Jay McRoy, Japanese Horror Cinema.
Marc Walkow, "Building the Inferno--Noburo Nakagawa and the Making of Jigoku," Jigoku DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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teaser Jigoku (1960)

Two men in a room, debating "what is murder?" It is not a grisly talk, rather one of philosophy. They begin with a thought experiment: what if they were adrift in the ocean, certain to drown. A single plank offers escape, but it has room to save but one. No matter what happens, at least one person is sure to die. The only question is, which one? The man who takes the plank consigns his comrade to death. Is that murder? After some discussion, they concur: yes, it is like murder.

From there, the talk grows more concrete. The world is full of examples of selfish actions whose consequences bring harm to others. Not all of these things are classed as crimes, but perhaps they are sins. There must be some cosmic justice, some supernatural court where immoral acts meet their punishment...

These two men are not philosophers. They are filmmakers, employed by a ramshackle movie company called Shintoho, an outfit that has barely stayed on one side of bankruptcy by crafting low-budget exploitation movies. The boss, a producer named Mitsugu Okura, storms into the room. It's time to get started on the next horror movie if it's going to be ready in time for the pre-ordained summer release slot for 1960, and he's hoping screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa and director Nobuo Nakagawa have been using their brainstorming time wisely. "Sure, thing, chief, have we got a pip for you," says Miyagawa (he said it in Japanese, but you get the idea). "It's about selfish people and the punishment they face in Hell." Okura likes what he's hearing, and proposes a working title: Heaven and Hell. When Okura later sees the movie that Nakagawa and Miyagawa actually made, he grumbles, "It's nothing but Hell. What happened to Heaven?" Shrugging, Miyagawa quips, "We'll get to that in the sequel."

Jigoku (1960, aka Hell) is like nothing before it. Even today its reputation is still growing. One would have thought that fifty years' influence on Japanese horror movies would have cemented a critical consensus that it is Nakagawa's masterpiece. Nakagawa was something like Japan's answer to England's Terence Fisher--like the master director at Hammer Studios, Nakagawa was a genteel and gentle practitioner of classical filmmaking who found himself making immensely popular horror movies for a marginalized studio. The depth of his craft and the extent of his commercial appeal were counterbalanced by the fact that he was working in a disreputable genre for a company too impoverished to lend him any artistic luster. Nakagawa felt slighted by the international critical attention paid to his contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi. Here he was, practically inventing the genre of Japanese horror single-handedly, and was being treated by the Japanese film industry like a black sheep.

Nakagawa had not set out to make horror films. But he made them well, and audiences liked them, which meant he got stuck. Okura, a former carnival showman, was not about to let that well run dry. And Nakagawa kept coming back from that well with something better than before. His career-making hit came with 1959's The Ghost of Yotsuya, and its enormous success bought him a measure of creative freedom. When he and Miyagawa proposed making Jigoku as a Japanese take on Faust, Okura never blinked (even though, in order to realize his vision fully, Nakagawa ended up investing his own money in the film to enhance the budget).

Miyagawa's background was in writing the Super Giants cycle of pre-Ultraman Japanese super hero movies; Nakagawa's most successful horror movies had been period pictures in which Samurais and their wives dealt with ghosts. Making a contemporary, and relentlessly grim, thing like Jigoku would bring a fresh challenge to both creators.

It begins with a bang: a full-frontal cinematic assault to put the audience on notice they are in for a ride. The credits roll over shots of naked women in what could double as a James Bond movie title sequence, but this is played over an aural collage of snippets of jazz recordings and seemingly random sound effects (the soundtrack is in fact foreshadowing important moments from later in the film, much as a Godzilla movie might roll its credits over freeze frames of monster battles to come). It is hard to imagine any movie meeting the promise of such a bravura opening, but Jigoku will. It will keep its best cards until the final round, though, and begins the story on a quieter note.

Shigeru Amachi stars as Shiro, a college student engaged to his professor's daughter (Utako Mitsuya). The problem is, Shiro can't seem to shake the presence of a creepy friend named Tamura (Yoichi Numata). One night, the two men are involved in a hit-and-run accident that kills a pedestrian Shiro is haunted by guilt and wants to confess the accident to the police; Tamura figures the whole thing is best forgotten. The victim was a yakuza gangster, who was crossing the street in a drunken stupor--Tamura thinks the world is better off without him.

Betraying his selfish friend, Shiro tries to turn himself in--but in so doing, merely precipitates yet another car wreck, this one leaving his pregnant girlfriend dead. It is the first strike in a fast-spiraling vortex of guilt, in which everyone Shiro meets will be consigned to a grisly end. Friends, acquaintances, family members, enemies, and strangers alike die in Shiro's midst. Run over by cars, killed by illness, poisoned, shot, strangled, thrown from bridges, crushed by trains...you name it.

Whether by accident or design, the story takes a form vaguely similar to Nakagawa's earlier Ghost of Kasane Swamp. That 1957 film involved a cursed man who leaves a stream of corpses in his wake without meaning to. He is the catalyst for tragedy and violence he never wants but consistently fails to prevent.

Shiro's guilt has become a contagion, infecting the world, but the initial "crime" was not his. Tamura was behind the wheel and tried to conceal the death -- Shiro is punished for Tamura's crimes because this is a ruthlessly unforgiving movie. Jigoku sends its entire cast to Hell, no infraction is too small to warrant eternal hellfire. But then again, one could linger on that sentence a little longer: Shiro is punished for Tamura's crime...Shiro and Tamura, ever together--even if Tamura has to appear magically out of nowhere. Shiro has no memory of meeting Tamura, and Tamura never once acts alone. In a later interview, Miyagawa confessed that a lesser filmmaker could unimaginatively cast the same actor as both Shiro and Tamura, since they are aspects of the same person.

Following the logic of a dream, where unconnected events connect themselves after the fact, Shiro's grieving meanderings introduce -- and kill off -- a number of other characters, each with their own vice and failing. Once the body count has reached a critical mass, the clock stops, it all kicks off.

The rest of Jigoku is as experimental as anything attempted in the conventional, commercial movie industry. Brace yourself for an uninterrupted forty minute-long sequence of sustained surrealism and potent abstraction. Nakagawa and Miyagawa realized they would have a hard time expressing interior, psychological torment on the screen. So, they substituted a graphic metaphor: beheadings, behandings, a man sawed in half, another flayed alive, our hero suspended upside down with a spike through his neck...this is strong stuff, given that the very same year there were censors saying Alfred Hitchcock had pushed the envelope too far with Psycho (1960). The effects are not especially realistic, nor are they intended to be, but the overall impression is one of abject terror. The most powerful are also the simplest--forget the severed limbs, the most horrifying sight is a swarm of humanity, running in circles in a vast empty space.

The final shot is the kicker -- Shiro has spent much of this sequence trying to rescue his infant daughter, the unborn child killed in the car wreck along with its mother. The poor screaming child is on the edge of a giant cogwheel, and Shiro is crawling along the teeth of the thing to reach her on the opposite side. She is screaming, as terrified babies are wont to do, and Shiro's own hysteria matches hers 100%. His exertions are useless--no matter how much he crawls along the edge, she will always be the same distance away. He will never reach her, and he will always try, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is Hell. (What did the baby do to deserve such punishment?)

Much of the credit for Jigoku's jaw-dropping depiction of Hell should go to production designer Haruyasu Kurosawa. It was he who realized that the lack of money could be a boon rather than a deficit. Rather than try to concoct elaborate visions that would fall short of their ambitions because of poor execution, Kurosawa successfully argued for a minimalist approach. Rarely has so little achieved so much. Hell was an empty soundstage (the largest in Japan), with some colored lights and a fog machine. Instead of scenery or props, he had Nakagawa manipulate the camera. Images of blood and pain are intercut in staccato fashion with moments of poetry. The result is arresting, terrifying, and memorable.

The almost immediate implosion of Shintoho's finances did nothing to help the distribution and promotion of the movie. When audiences did find their way to it, they were torn in two between the lovers and the haters. The division exposed a generational fault line. Young folks thrilled to the movie, and embraced its experimental style and outrageous imagery. Oldsters rankled against its unpleasantness and cheap look. As time went on, that younger audience grew up and became the establishment. By the 1990s, a new generation of filmmakers had come to prominence who had been greatly influenced by Nakagawa. The likes of Hideo Nakata, Hiroshi Takahashi, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa started a new cycle of Japanese horror movies ("J-Horrors") in the late 1990s in explicit homage to Nakagawa -- even going so far as to cast actors like Yoichi Numata in Ringu (1998) and its sequels. In 1999, cult filmmaker Teruo Ishii made his own idiosyncratic remake of Jigoku (it was not the first such remake, but the less said about the 1979 version the better).

Nakagawa did not live to see his renaissance. He kept working, improbably, through the doldrums of the 1970s and 80s when the rest of the Japanese film industry went on life-support. He migrated to television, where the pay was worse and the hours longer but at least there was a steady audience. And on he plugged, making nightmares on the cheap for anyone that would have him, until his death in 1984.

He left behind an enduring legacy that seems to grow in esteem with each passing year. Jigoku is as startling and unsettling today as it was back then.

Producers: Mitsugu kura
Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Screenplay: Nobuo Nakagawa, Ichir Miyagawa
Cinematography: Mamoru Morita
Music: Michiaki Watanabe
Film Editing: Toshio Got
Cast: Shigeru Amachi (Shir Shimizu), Utako Mitsuya (Yukiko/Sachiko), Yichi Numata (Tamura), Hiroshi Hayashi (Gz Shimizu), Jun tomo (Ensai Taniguchi), Akiko Yamashita (Kinuko), Kiyoko Tsuji (Kyichi's Mother), Fumiko Miyata (Mrs. Yajima), Torahiko Nakamura (Professor Yajima), Kimie Tokudaiji (Ito Shimizu).
C-101m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film.
Bill Cooke, "Noburo Nakagawa: Master of Japanesque Horror," Video Watchdog issue 103.
David Kalat, J-Horror.
Jay McRoy, Japanese Horror Cinema.
Marc Walkow, "Building the Inferno--Noburo Nakagawa and the Making of Jigoku," Jigoku DVD from the Criterion Collection.

back to top