RaEL Film Guide

Dir: Nobuo Nakagawa [Eclipse Films DVD/1960]

On a night out with Tamura (Yoichi Numata), Shiro (Shigeru Amachi) is involved in a hit-and-run which kills a gangster. Shiro is engaged to Yukiko, the daughter of Prof Yajima, but she dies in a car accident soon after. To get over Yukiko's death, Shiro visits his dying mother in the countryside, and finds that his father, who runs an old folks home, has taken up with a younger woman. Living in the next room is an old artist whose daughter, Sachiko, looks like Yukiko. Shortly, Yukiko's parents drop by for a visit, and join in the home's 10th anniversary celebrations. Included among the guests are a journalist and a policeman though Tamura suddenly shows up. To pocket the home's food expenses, the cook buys rotten/poisoned fish, which kill the inmates, and a drunken orgy/shoot-out leaves the rest dead. The clock stops at nine and everyone is sent to hell to be judged.

Jigoku, which is also known as Hell and The Sinners Of Hell, is classified as a horror film but since its release in 1960, the notion of horror cinema has changed so much that even though the film carries a number of horrific images - tongues being ripped out, heads being crushed, spikes driven into the body and bodies severed into two - it's hard to be shocked or frightened by the film. For local audiences at least, the journey through Hell is familiar to anyone who has been to the Haw Par Villa. Though not a blow-by-blow rendition of the exhibits, the general idea is the same. Do bad on earth and you'll get just desserts. The journey through the various chambers of Hell takes up almost half the movie but it is a surreal trip that captivates with its interesting set designs (a spot of dry ice - or do they have smoke machines then? and careful use of spotlights can do wonders) though we have all seen more interesting-looking (Hell) denizens. In that sense, the journey that unfolds has a stagey effect that is comparable to Kwaidan's but it certainly makes for more entertaining cinema.

But it is David Lynch fans who will have a field day deconstructing Jigoku. Director Nakagawa uses not one but two sets of dopplegangers to highlight different aspects of the film. Way before Lynch hit on the doppleganger concept in Twin Peaks (and brought it to fruition in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr), Nakagawa uses Tamura as a stand-in/ dark side for Shiro. In an early scene, Shiro, finding Tamura beside him, muses: "Who is this guy Tamura? I know I don't like him." It is Tamura who drives the car that kills the gangster and again Tamura who shows up in the countryside to set things going downhill. The other doppleganger is Sachiko, who is a dead-ringer for Yukiko, and Shiro finds himself drawn to her. As it turns out, Sachiko is Shiro's sister and that raises the whole incest spectre (again, an idea germane to Twin Peaks).

In a movie which follows the protagonist through Hell, it is only safe to say that what's at the core is a morality play. Everyone who is judged has a skeleton to hide - for example, Yukiko is punished because she was carrying an unborn child and her father killed a fellow soldier (in Malaya no less) when he deprived him of much-needed drinking water. To Nakagawa's credit, the film isn't preachy (he stopped just as he was about to get there!). The wages of sin may be death… to which a character in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein says, "but the hours are good." In Nakagawa's Jigoku, one can't even argue for that - it's damnation all the way.

The print and colours look fine though not exquisite but it is the fact that this cult favorite is now available to an English-speaking audience (there are English subtitles), and in widescreen format, that will make fans want to sought it out. - Stephen Tan

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