If you ask me, Hell is the ultimate horror setting. Sure, creepy castles and abandoned outposts are great and all, but a realm of eternal torment just strikes me as a tad more terrifying. And of the major cultural interpretations of Hell out there, none are quite as grisly as the hell of Japanese Buddhism: Jigoku. Sure, there’s a way out of it, but the torments inflicted upon the damned in Jigoku make the ones Dante wrote about seem fit for children’s birthday parties. Jigoku consists of sixteen separate hells (eight “hot” and eight “cold”), with eight great hells that consist of tortures ranging from being charred in massive frying pans to being eternally smashed into paste and revived by massive rocks. It’s a brutal, depressing place where hope is faint and mercy can wait billions of years away. Naturally, it makes for a great topic for a horror movie.
The first director to really take a major stab at exploring the location was Nobuo Nakagawa, a Shintoho staple who made popular adaptations of Kaidan (Edo-period ghost stories and folktales) including Black Cat Mansion and The Ghost of Yotsuya. Yet while those films got plenty of love and acclaim, he wouldn’t reach western audiences in a big way until his 1960 hellish masterpiece simply titled Jigoku.
Jigoku (also known as The Sinners of Hell) is a deceptively simple film. Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is a stand-up young man. He’s a hardworking and humble theology student with a surefire shot at a promising career as a scholar, and has just become engaged to his professor’s kind daughter Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya). Shiro’s future is looking bright.
Until it isn’t. While being driven home from the proposal with his oddball friend Tamura (Yochi Numata, later seen in Ringu), Tamura kills a drunk yakuza in a hit and run. Hoping to protect his friend, Shiro doesn’t turn him in, and soon finds his life unraveling around him as the dead yakuza’s friends and family hope to get revenge.
What follows is an hour of ingeniously plotted setup, building up the forces barreling down on Shiro as well as the many sinners that surround him. Even while Jigoku is still grounded in the real world, it’s hard to find the film’s vision of humanity as anything other than a farm for new tormented souls. Nobody in Jigoku is without sin, and according to Jigoku, nobody will go unpunished.
It’s truly a dour hour, and it’s an atmosphere that bleeds past just a downer of a script. Despite the aforementioned Ghost of Yotsuya having vibrant Technicolor, all the scenes on Earth are filmed with a muted palette, darkening the lush colors to give even the prettiest scenes an air of gloom.
Yet what separates this first hour from just being a depressing drama instead of a depressing capital “G” Genre picture is Tamura. Functioning like a cross between an exposition-dumping prophet and a trickster god, Tamura moves through the first hour with seemingly little regard for the bounds of reality. He simply shows up where and when he wants to, always more knowledgeable than he lets in on. It’s clear that Yochi Numata is just having the time of his life in the role, relishing in his opportunity to play the most annoying, devilish character in any scene. Much like the contrast of knowledge, Tamura’s offbeat personality compared to the relatively subdued characters he shares the screen with only serves to drive in the idea that there’s really something off about this guy. Truth be told, he’d be a goofy addition if his presence wasn’t so ominous, an omen of things to come.
See, I can’t properly discuss the genius of Jigoku without diving into the nature of the third act, so consider this your spoiler warning. Because at the end of the second act, everyone dies. Everyone. Every single prominent character dies over the course of one fateful night, Shiro included, and they’re all headed straight to Hell. But death is not the end—it’s only the beginning of Jigoku’s mind-blowing, unparalleled third act genre shift.
Hell is everything Earth isn’t. While Earth was drab, Hell is full of eye-popping, proto-Bava colors. Earth has a clear, coherent geography. Hell is an endless abyss of torments against a sea of black. It’s quite the dramatic shift in focus and style, but Jigoku manages to hold together by never losing sight of its grim thematic through line—everyone sins, and no sin goes unpunished.
Even for a film made in 1960, the punishments make for disturbing watches. Presented in a series of guided vignettes à la The Beyond, viewers witness the characters so well established and humanized in the first hour be ruthlessly broken by merciless oni. They’re forced to drink pus instead of water, they’re cut into bits, they’re flayed alive, they’re impaled in fields of needles—each torment bloodier and meaner than the last. Yet unlike the contemporary splatter films of H.G. Lewis, there’s nothing sadistic about the camera’s gaze. The carnage isn’t enjoyable, or funny, or even particularly disgusting. Instead, it’s just heart-wrenching, painting a vision of hell where the worst humanity has to offer languishes in the darkness with everyone else.
It’s excruciating. Even a horror fan well-seasoned in the dark like myself felt scorched. In these moments, Jigoku feels similar to Cannibal Holocaust, a misanthropic rage against a species that it feels can’t help but be cruel to each other. But what separates Jigoku from the aforementioned exploitation staple is the conclusion it draws. While Cannibal Holocaust believes nothing can redeem us, Jigoku presents a path to salvation through one thing and one thing only: humanity’s ability to be selfless, to sacrifice, to offer up life and limb for the love of others. Despite its unrelenting grimness, Jigoku is not a testament to the evil that humans are capable of. Instead, it is an example of how even in the very worst of situations, humanity can still embrace the best of us, even suffering through the worst torments Hell itself can offer for the sake of what’s important to us.
Of course, Jigoku wouldn’t be the last film to take a trip into this particular vision of Hell. In 1969, arthouse darling Shiro Toyoda directed Portrait of Hell, an adaptation of the famed short story “Jigokuhe,” with Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo, Harakiri, Sword of Doom) playing the part of a painter depicting Hell. While it is quite an incredible story (and one written by Rashomon scribe Ryunosuke Akutagawa at that), it doesn’t directly dive into Hell, and as such, doesn’t count for this piece.
There are other Jigoku-based films that followed, sure, but many of them took the same vision of Hell as Nakagawa did. Ironically enough, the next real interesting look at Hell wouldn’t come until Jigoku would get a loose remake: 1999’s sleazy gore flick, Japanese Hell.
Japanese Hell was directed by one Teruo Ishii, an immortal staple of Japanese exploitation. During the ’70s, he directed a great number of fascinating pinku films (sex-focused, nudity-heavy genre fare), including Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) and Female Yakuza Tale (1973). These films were wild, colorful, and unfathomably sleazy, showing a new depraved display of sex or violence at every other turn. Japanese Hell is no different.
If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Japanese Hell of, it’s having a weak opening. Right out of the gates we are introduced to Enma (Michiko Maeda), a demon queen who bursts into monologue about the torments one will encounter in the depths of Hell. Instantly, there are visions of Hell (read: a barely-disguised sound stage) full of worms, oni, and screaming souls. It’s quite the memorable first scene, which only kicks into higher gear when we’re suddenly transported to Earth to get the start of an actual story.
Rika (Miki Sato) is a sixteen-year-old with a troubled life. While it’s unclear what she did or what happened to her at first, it’s apparently dire enough to warrant a visit from Enma, who gives Rika a proposition. Enma will grant her one trip to Hell, showing her what tortures await those who continue down her sinful path, before putting her back on Earth to save them. It’s quite an insane pitch, but Rika takes it anyways, getting a Dante-esque tour through a fiery inferno of absurdity.
Hell in Japanese Hell isn’t like Hell in Jigoku. Not even close. They share the central concept of being a place where people get tortured, but the texture is entirely different. Hell isn’t a surreal void of pain, rather, it’s something akin to a linear trek from one samey-looking, oddly lit location to the next, with the same oni dishing out punishments. This isn’t to say it’s short on any weird or disturbing imagery, but it’s never really treated as anything more than a theme park ride, zipping past tortures without any context or emotional attachment to them. The fact that the only major piece of unique set dressing in Hell is a painfully on the nose gateway shaped like a vagina with spikes doesn’t quite help either.
Unfortunately, Hell isn’t helped by this tour’s seemingly schizophrenic tone. When Rika first arrives at the banks of the river Styx, she witnesses the souls of the damned being forced to strip (unsurprisingly, I only saw women in the lineup) by an oni. A bizarrely comic scene ensues where Rika’s friendly guide explains what’s going on to the oni, all while damned souls writhe behind them. This would be an odd interlude in any context, but considering that it’s literally followed by a deadly serious montage of a serial killer murdering children on earth, it’s just a downright baffling scene.
Nobody in Hell in Japanese Hell is just a misguided human being. It’s a land of monsters. Every soul pointed out to Rika is the worst of the worst, and its clear Japanese Hell is doing this for one reason and one reason only: to make the violence enjoyable.
Japanese Hell is sadistic. The enjoyment of the movie—at least the bits in hell—is based entirely around seeing bad things happen to bad people. Tortures are drawn-out and laborious, taking minutes to showcase subjects getting maimed in increasingly gruesome ways ranging from being chopped apart by a giant saw to having oni stretch and rip out a man’s tongue with rusty pliers. While there’s no denying that all the effects involved are rubbery (some of which look incredibly worse than their 1960 counterparts), the subject matter alone can make some scenes cringeworthy.
However, much like Jigoku before it, Japanese Hell spends more time out of the inferno than in it. This is accomplished through two visions in the Karma Mirror, a device that shows the lives of damned souls when they face judgment. It’s worth noting here that with the exception of Rika and the background characters, every soul being tortured in Hell is clearly based on a real infamous criminal in contemporary Japan. For example, the first time the Karma Mirror is demonstrated, it’s to show the aforementioned child killing segment. The killer? A clear pastiche of Tsutomu Miyazaki, the Otaku Killer.
It’s an incredibly gross bit of exploitation that probably looked better on paper. After all, it’s clear Ishii wants to mock the killer in the flashback, and his lengthy torture sequence suggests some sort of proto-Inglorious Basterds revenge fantasy, but the movie just can’t pull it off. Fortunately, this segment is brief. Unfortunately, the next one is not.
See, after showing Hell for a bit, Japanese Hell decides to shift its focus entirely by having Rika look into the Karma Mirror and view the dark future that awaits her. This second gaze into the Karma Mirror takes up a good majority of the film, and is where the bulk of character development and interaction takes place. It also has no bearing on Hell whatsoever.
Instead, it focuses on a cluster of characters caught up in Space Cult, a very obvious pastiche of the infamous Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult who performed multiple sarin gas attacks across Japan in the mid-’90s. Or more specifically, the segment works as a slow, steady build-up to a recreation of those horrifying events, and the conviction of the film’s version of cult founder and mastermind Shoko Asahara.
As you can imagine, it’s a far cry from the over-the-top antics of the Hell scenes. In fact, the Aum Shinrikyo segment is a complete tonal and stylistic 180 from the two Hell bits that bookend it, lacking any of the slapstick gore, weird humor, or lighthearted performances. Instead, it recalls ’70s “true crime” exploitation scuzz like the Jonestown exploitation piece Guyana: Crime of the Century. It aims to “faithfully” recreate the horrors the cult perpetrated, and by that, I mean it aims to show grimy sex and violence under the pretentions of being a dramatization of real events.
The segment mostly drifts through a haze of sex and violence, rarely engaging with its subject matter past the very obvious “death cults are bad.” It’s frustrating, because even though I’d argue this material couldn’t ever work with the comedic pulpy Hell scenes, it doesn’t even aim to have some sort of thematic through line between the two locations. It’s like a different movie altogether.
By the time the sarin gas attacks are actually portrayed (with all the tact you’d expect) and the film shifts back to Hell, it’s impossible to make heads or tails of what it’s even trying to accomplish: just a barrage of cheap, bloody special effects. Now, while I’m certainly a fan of cheap, bloody special effects, they just don’t work here. The tonal whiplash is too great, and the emotional impact of any scene is nonexistent. Japanese Hell commits the worst sin of all: it makes visions of Hell boring.
While I ended Japanese Hell incredibly disappointed, it’s hardly a film worth dismissing. Beyond any qualities it has, it works as a great contrast with Jigoku, showing how two creative teams can take the same material and turn it into two wildly unique, almost antithetical films. It’s perhaps one of the wildest examples of a loose remake upending everything, and for that reason alone, I’d say it’s worth checking out.
Plus, there’s a bit where a random character arrives in hell to have a bizarre, anime-esque sword fight with the oni before leaving. If that doesn’t sound entertaining, I don’t know what does.