Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (Japan, 1960) starts with shots of a coffin in a crematorium and of flames filling the whole screen while horrifying screams are heard from the off. The title in blood-red kanji is followed by the credits next to images of half-naked women in lascivious poses accompanied by a melodious jazz tune. This opening prefigures several of the film’s narrative and aesthetic ingredients – the themes of death and sexuality and the mixture of realism and stylishness that marks Jigoku and also Nakagawa’s filmmaking in general.
Jigoku tells the story of the student Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), who is involved in a car accident in which a yakuza is hit and dies. Tamura (Yoichi Numato), the driver of the car, is unmoved by his victim’s fate and drives on, while Shiro, who has pleaded with him to stop but in vain, is tormented by feelings of guilt. Tamura’s first on-screen appearance already suggests that he is not an ordinary human being. He suddenly appears next to Shiro in the lecture hall at the university. What could at first glance be simply a cinematic trick with no great significance is revealed as an element of fantasy in the subsequent scenes with Tamura in which he materializes next to Shiro in an almost miraculous way. He is the malevolent spirit without remorse and empathy who challenges Shiro’s humanity, and Yoichi Numato plays Tamura with a cynical and devilish smile that matches perfectly this embodiment of evil.
Jigoku was the last film produced by Shintoho (New Toho), a studio founded in 1947 by defectors from the Toho studio following the major strike in the Japanese film industry in the early post-war period. Nobuo Nakagawa (1905-1984), who started his career as an assistant to Masahiro Makino in 1929, was famous for his kaidan (ghost story) films. However, unlike his previous period ghost film The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan, 1959), Jigoku is set in contemporary Japan.
From the very beginning, the viewer is made aware that he/she is watching “a tale of things not of this world” – a phrase from the song that is sung on the soundtrack by a female singer. The presence of the enigmatic Tamura adds a further element of the supernatural to the realistic settings in the first part of the film, whereas by the end, Jigoku has evolved into a film of mystery with graphic depictions of hell.
Not much is shown of post-war Japan except for a few rather nightmarish aspects such as the portrayal of the retirement home run by Shiro’s father (Hiroshi Hayashi), a greedy and lecherous man who treats his residents cruelly, serving them rancid fish to cut costs. This vicious character coldly accepts the death of others, not only of the elderly residents but even of his wife when he cavorts with his mistress while she is dying in the room next door.
The gloomy interiors of the retirement home make it look like hell on earth. In this dark portrayal of post-war Japan, most of the characters have some connection with greed, corruption, murder, or prostitution. The victim of the car accident is a yakuza, and his mistress Yoko (Akiko Ono) is a strip bar worker and a drug addict. Professor Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura), the father of Shiro’s fiancée Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), may appear to be a respectable member of society. However, Tamura reveals that he deliberately caused the death of a comrade at the front in Malaysia by stealing his canteen of water. Japan of the 1950s and early 1960s was still haunted by World War II and had to face its own demons.
Shiro is tormented by the yakuza’s death and intent on reporting to the police his involvement in the hit-and-run accident. Instead of going to the police station on foot as Yukiko suggests, he insists that they take a taxi, but the vehicle veers off the road and crashes, and Yukiko is killed, her death increasing Shiro’s feelings of guilt.
The setting is dominated by a subtle light and shadow aesthetic and a sombre palette of colours. The red colour of the dresses worn by Yoko and the female dancer in the club in which she works contrasts starkly with the gloominess of most of the other settings, and the colour red – associated with sexuality and blood – evokes both life and death and is also an example of Nakagawa’s penchant for stylization.
The most ordinary settings are presented in an unusual way by means of extravagant camera positions and editing. Nakagawa makes frequent use of bird’s-eye shots to create unsettling perspectives on human beings and space. The use of low-angle shots in the scenes with the dancer in the club has a compressing effect that makes her seem to dominate the space in which Shiro, a lonely figure sitting and thus in a lower position, is trying to overcome his grief by getting drunk.
Very often, only parts of a human body are revealed. In one scene for example, Shiro’s feet in geta (traditional Japanese footwear) are framed in close-up as he walks dangerously close to the railway track, suggesting that he may considering committing suicide. Other shots are almost poetic, such as the one in which Yoko’s red umbrella twirls slowly down from the rope bridge into the dark abyss where Yoko herself has fallen to her death in an attempt to shoot Shiro and avenge the death of her lover. In the film’s last sequences, all movement suddenly stops to give way to a montage of static single shots, another means to evoke the unexpected and at the same time to refer to the passage of time and to death, two themes that predominate in Nakagawa’s film.
The stylishness of many of the scenes is fully exploited in the film’s last part, which is set in hell, where the absence of strong colours creates a heightened nightmarish ambience. The title Jigoku means “hell”, and a sequence early in the film shows Professor Yajima giving a lecture on concepts of hell in Hinduism and Buddhism with Shiro and Tamura among the students listening. At the retirement home, Shiro meets the painter Ensai (Jun Otomo), who is working on a portrayal of hell commissioned by Shiro’s father for the nearby Buddhist temple.
Ensai, like most of the film’s characters, has committed a crime – he is wanted for fraud. Others are involved in murder or have driven people to suicide, and the doctor who works at the retirement home has neglected his patients. They all end up in hell. According to its cyclical vision of birth and rebirth, Buddhist hell is a place where the dead are judged for their sins and undergo punishment before entering a new life cycle until they are purified and can enter the Great Void. Jigoku is remarkable for its depictions of hell, which are for the most part inspired by representations of hell in Buddhist temples. The demons, the King of Hell Lord Enma, played by Kanjuro Arashi, who became a star in the late 1920s, the all-devouring flames, the various tortures – sinners being burned, boiled, dismembered, disembowelled – evoke a familiar iconography of hell that is transformed by Nakagawa into powerful cinematic images.
Shiro strangles Tamura because he has shot Sachiko (Utako Mitsuya in a dual role), a nurse and Ensai’s daughter who bears an astonishing resemblance to Yukiko and with whom Shiro has fallen in love. At the same moment, he is strangled by the yakuza’s mother, who has just killed Shiro’s father and his corrupt friends. Shiro finds himself on the banks of the Sanzu, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, where he meets Yukiko, who reveals to him that she was pregnant with their child when she was killed in the accident. She begs Shiro to save his baby daughter, who has been carried away on a lotus leaf by the river.
Shiro enters hell in search of the infant, whose name is Harumi, written with the kanji for “spring” and “beauty”. This name evokes life and hope, as does the lotus, a vital symbol in Buddhism that represents the womb, Buddha’s throne and also the solar plexus of the human body. Charged with great significance, it is associated with life, love, rebirth, the purity of the heart, fidelity and with other values.
In one of the film’s last sequences, the naked baby on the lotus leaf is seen rotating helplessly on a wheel while Shiro tries desperately to reach his daughter and save her from eternal suffering. The wheel is another important symbol in Buddhism, inspired by Vedic cosmology. According to Buddhist thinking, it evokes the endless cycle of suffering that we must pass through before being enabled to discover the way to enlightenment.
The final shot is of Yukiko and Sachiko, the true identity of the latter having been revealed by Shiro’s mother, which makes it impossible for Shiro to kiss her as Sachiko is his half-sister. Lotus petals fall onto the two women, both dressed in pastel coloured gowns and each holding a pink umbrella in her hand. The colours evoke spring and therefore hope, and the smiling women, calling to Shiro, suggest that he has saved his daughter and that they are now all purified and can find enlightenment.