Teruo Ishii is a master Japanese film maker, though not the sort that you'll find covered by film classes. I guess you could call him the b-film equivalent of Akira Kurosawa. He began his career in the 50's with many Super Giant (aka. Starman) films, and progressed to yakuza, Edo torture, rebel youth, and samurai films like Blind Woman's Curse, as well as karate flicks like Sonny Chiba's The Executioner and Streetfighters Last Revenge. No matter what, the man has that manic energy and talented eye for the eccentric that makes for a good, trashy cult film.
Now in his 80's, Teruo Ishii is still working and in 1999 he delivered Jigoku or Japanese Hell. You'll find a couple of films with the title, most notably the 1960 pseudo art-gore classic by Nobuo Nakagawa. None of the films have any relation to each other, though they all take a similar approach, that being some callous sinner or would-be-sinner getting a guided tour of what is in store for them in the underworld.
Rika meets Miss Enma, the Lady of Hell. It seems the mistress of the underworld has decided that things are getting a little crowded, so she gives Rika the rare opportunity to tour Hell and inform the living of what awaits them if they do bad things. First they go along the River Styx and through the (very vaginal) Gates of Hell. Rika looks into the karma mirror and sees the life of one sinner, a mouse voiced pedophile with a hand deformity who preys on little girls. She then sees his damnation- the lout is laid out on a table while Mighty Morphin Power Ranger lookin' demons delight in sawing off limbs and then reattaching them so they can do the whole thing over again. Meanwhile the molester listens to phantom condemnations from his victims families. So, remember folks, don't molest little girls.
Rika then sees her own karma as a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (a real cult- google it). Their disheveled leader talks of coming Armageddon, but it isn't coming soon enough so he has them start to make biological weapons- specifically sarin gas- that they will use to instigate The End. Of course, when he isn't planning Armageddon or itching himself, he's also having his way with female members of his sect, insisting that he's helping them release pent up energy. Rika and some of the members are starting to have second thoughts, like "Gee, we've got terrible living conditions and medical care, and I'm paying out my life savings for vials of out precious leaders bathwater." In the end she sees the fate of her fellow cult members and the lawyers that defend them. The attorneys get their tongues pulled out with pliers. The sarin attack perpetrators are shoved I front of a burning wall and seared. Their leader gets the worst of it and has his skin torn off.
And, just for good measure, Rika is shown Hunger Hell, Fighting Hell, and some more grisly business so she can inform the world of what lies ahead for sinners in the great beyond
Japanese Hell feels like two films, one a traditional Jigoku film and the other being a sensationalist exploitation view of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Apparently, that was the case. Teruo Ishii merged two projects together when the financing fell through on one of them. At first, it looks like Rika is getting the tour of the underworld to see different sinners fates, thus an episodic story structure, but then the bulk of the film ends up being her bearing witness to her as a member of the misguided cult. So, you can tell, it is like an Aum Shinrikyo film got wedged into a Hell movie. Luckily, this is the kind of cinema (and Teruo Ishii is a director) that can make such a thing work.
I can sum up why I liked Japanese Hell in two words- Plastic Cockroaches. I'm talking Chucky Cheese, one ski-ball ticket, fake, plastic cockroaches. In the Aum Shinrikyo segment, there are plastic cockroaches glued on the walls or bedsheets. If it wasn't enough that you were clearly staring at fake, dime store cockroaches, then you see fake rats being pulled by a string in the background. Teruo Ishii is just that kind of guy. He is unashamedly old school. These are the tools he knows, and these are the tools he uses. When it comes time for the re-enactment of the Tokyo subway gas attack that the cult perpetrated, Teruo Ishii clearly didn't have the money for actual location or complicated stage shooting, so he shoots the scene against a black backdrop, the only props being some metal poles and passenger handles. Throw in some flashing lights and some actors dressed like train passengers, and you have your scene, now taking on a dreamy atmosphere. Of course, when Teruo Ishii does it is called "cheap", but when Lars Von Trier does it, it is called "art."
Now, the digital age is doing wonders for film. The tools that are available to new film makers are nothing short of astounding. But, call me old fashioned, I still love to see film makers who work with limited means, practical fx, and are still damn good at it. It worries me that we may not see
Teruo Ishii 's kind again because there is a boldness and imagination when you don't have a vast bag of tricks and numerous ways to add polish. In a scene where a lawyer working against the cult is attacked, the actors movie in slow motion, so it is almost like a play, and in Teruo Ishii's hands it is all at once odd, low rent, and brilliantly innovative.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the film looked. There are some flagging issues that leave the details a bit soft and lacking contrast depth. But, you know, I'm a forgivable man when it comes to my genre films and one cannot quibble too much when they are staring at gown men in fright wigs sawing limbs off of dummies. The print is at least clean with generally good details and, though on the muddy side, it is better than I expected.
Sound: 2.0 Japanese Stereo. Optional English subtitles. Pretty simple. Dialogue is clear but has the low budget quirks of some out of synch post-dubbed bits. The score varies from forgettable to some good operatic cues. Given the limitations of the actual film, the audio presentation does a decent job.
Extras: Trailer for the film, plus trailers for other Media Blasters cult-leaning Japanese releases.
Conclusion: Japanese Hell is a true old school cult film. Do you like gore, some boobies, psychedelic backdrops, and rubber monsters? The film delivers a horn-a-plenty of cheap thrills. The presentation is pretty solid and the lack extras shouldn't deter a cult film fan too much. The film itself will warrant a casual spin late Saturday nights.