The concept of the afterlife, and more specifically Hell (which is what Jigoku translates to in English and is an alternate title for the film, which is also known as The Sinners Of Hell), is a common one that seems to appear in almost every major religion. It's been explored and discussed in thousands of different ways in films, books, paintings, and probably any other kind of media you can think of. Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku manages to remain a fascinating movie regardless of how overdone the subject may be, and despite the fact that the film is over forty years old.
Shiro (Shigeru Amachi, who went on to appear in a couple of Zatoichi films) is a young Japanese student, who, while out driving with his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata who played Takashi in Hideo Nakata's Ring) one night, inadvertently runs over and kills a drunk Yakuza on the way home from visiting his fiancé, Yukiko, who is the daughter of a local professor named Yajima. Shiro and Tamura keep mum about the accident, though Shiro's conscience catches up with him and he decides to tell Yukiko (who has just found out that she is pregnant with Shiro's baby) about the accident. The two go for a drive but end up in a horrible car accident themselves, and Yukiko is killed by the impact.
Shiro is then summoned to visit his dying mother at a senior citizen's home, run by a crooked doctor. Here he finds out that his father is having an affair with a younger woman in the very next room to where his mother lays ill. Also living in the rest home is an alcoholic painter who is, at the same time, being visited by his daughter who happens to bare a striking resemblance to the late Yukiko. Unfortunately for Shiro, the mother and daughter of the dead Yakuza are out for vengeance and have found out who he is.
Out of nowhere, Tamura shows up, just in time for the festivities to begin in the celebration of the rest home's tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, through a few strange twists, everyone in the home, visitor and tenant alike, end up dead and literally fall into Hell where they are judged for their actions. If the film wasn't weird enough up to this point, from here on out, it spirals into a bizarre fury of imagery, symbolism, bizarre sets and gore effects.
In one sense, the film is reminiscent of Jose Mojica Marins' (a.k.a. Coffin Joe) masterpiece, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse the way that it switches from the land of the living to the land of the dead, but Jigoku predates Marins' film by almost six years (though the films do share similar themes and a similar narrative). Interestingly enough, whereas Marins' vision of Hell was definitely influenced by the Catholic Church and his own bizarre imagination, director Nobuo Nakagawa paints his version of the inferno in colorful hues and fills them with traditional Japanese representations of the demonic and the spiritual which adds a unique cultural perspective to the movie.
The finale through Hell takes up at least the last third of the film, but that's not to say that the film is only a series of loosely connected scenes of shock value. The gore set pieces are there, and are considerably fiercer than almost anything else from the era (as they predate not only Marins' work but also Herschel Gordon Lewis' infamous Blood Feast - considered by many to be the first 'gore' film - as well) but there is more to the movie than just sinners suffering for their sins. The end of the film confirms it for you if you don't see it coming, but manages to do so without feeling contrived or like a 'cop out' ending.
Having a soft spot for religious horror might help with one's appreciation of this truly bizarre work, and an interest in surrealist filmmaking can't hurt either, but Jigoku is never the less a memorable and thought provoking movie. It brings about issues not so much relating to 'fire and brimstone' or the eternal suffering of one's soul but about how life can so easily spiral out of control despite our best intentions. In that respect, it was a powerful film with an amazing and unique visual style that captivates and disturbs at the same time.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is excellent even if it's not quite perfect. The colors in particular look amazing here, each hue and tone as vibrant and bold as the next and sometimes appearing to literally jump off of the screen at you, particularly during the final third of the film. While there is some very moderate print damage noticeable in a few scenes, the picture has been cleaned up nicely as this is only really apparent if you're looking for it and it serves not to distract but to remind you that you're watching a film in the first place. There are no problems at all with mpeg compression artifacts and edge enhancement is never an issue either. Flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural, which is good because you'll see a lot of them in the film, and the black levels stay strong and consistent. The image has plenty of both foreground and background detail present throughout, and overall, the movie looks great. The only issue that might irk some viewers is the grain – while this is an older movie that wasn't made with a massive budget and some grain is to be expected, Jigoku is just a bit grainier than you might expect from a Criterion transfer. With that being said, this transfer trumps the Japanese R2 NTSC release in pretty much every way and grain aside, the movie really does look quite good.
As is to be expected, Criterion presents Jigoku in it's original Japanese language mono mix with optional subtitles available in English and English only. There's a faint bit of distortion in the high end of the mix but it's minor and not really distracting at all. For a forty year old film, Jigoku sounds pretty good on this DVD. The levels are well balanced and the background music and sound effects never overshadow the dialogue at all.
The main extra feature on this DVD is a forty-minute documentary entitled Building The Inferno which covers the making of Jigoku and manages to give a nice career overview of the film's director, Nobuo Nakagawa. Interviewed in this featurette are actor Yoichi Numata, screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa, Nobuo Nakagawa collaborators Chiho Katsura and Kensuke Suzuki, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (the director of modern Japanese horror hits, Cure and Doppelganger). With as many interviewees as there are in this piece, it proves to be very informative and interesting in that we not only hear from people who had first-hand involvement in creating the film and working on the set but also from one of Nakagawa's contemporaries who speaks of the movie's influence.
Rounding out the supplements is a selection of poster art for Jigoku and other Shintoho Studios productions, the original Japanese language theatrical trailer for the feature itself, menus and chapter stops. Inside the keepcase is a fourteen page booklet containing liner notes from film critic Chuck Stephens who does a fine job explaining the importance of the film and it's cultural significance.
A unique work of horrifying surrealist filmmaking, Jigoku is a hallucinogenic slice of morbid beauty and a distinctly Japanese attempt at addressing the afterlife. It's well acted and incredibly well photographed and there are scenes in this film that will stick with you for some time to come long after the end credits have hit the screen. Criterion has given the film a very respectable DVD debut in North American and this release comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.