The Criterion Collection presents
"Everything hinges on fate."- Professor Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura)
Stars: Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya, Yoichi Numata
Other Stars: Torahiko Nakamura, Fumiko Miyata, Hiroshi Hayashi, Kimie Tokudaiji, Tomohiko Otani, Hiroshi Izumida
Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for brief nudity, violence, adult themes, gore
Run Time: 01h:38m:47s
Release Date: 2006-09-19
DVD ReviewIf you're a believer in one of the multitude of religions out there, I would assume the scariest thing you can imagine is hell. We've seen numerous representations of the Devil onscreen, but not too many of hell itself, at least that I've seen. After all, even with the magic of the movies, it's something better left to the imagination. That did not stop Nobuo Nakagawa from putting his embodiment of hell onscreen in 1960's Jigoku (Hell), a jittery, grotesque oddity of a film, not what I would term an "easy" viewing experience, but containing many weirdly compelling moments nonetheless.
The story centers around Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), a theology student, who is friends with Tamura (Yoichi Numata), a sinister fellow student who is evil through and through. Shiro's problems begin when he bums a ride home from Tamura. Tamura blithely runs over Kyoichi Shiga (Hiroshi Izumida), a yakuza out on a drunken walk and doesn't bother to go back. But Shiro is plagued by guilt over his presence at the scene; while he ponders what to do, his life begins to disintegrate, as those around him fall prey to corruption and death. This leads to the film's final section, as the damned suffer their punishments in hell.
If I had to describe Jigoku briefly, words like twitchy and agitated would certainly do the trick. Until the film segues into its hell segment, nothing ever feels at rest; something always seems around the corner and we're never allowed to get completely comfortable as an audience. Strangely, the mildest part of the film, dramatically speaking, is, to me, the sequence in hell. Throughout, however, Nakagawa's eye for arresting images is on display—this is worth seeing for its imagery alone.
The acting is a bit of a mixed bag, with Numata taking top honors in scenery chewing, especially once the film transitions into hell, as Tamura suddenly becomes much more deranged and over the top. Presumably, we are to believe he's in his natural habitat, and consequently can act to his true nature, but his histrionics get a bit ridiculous at times. He is fun to watch, though. His whole character serves more as a symbol than anything else, representing the daily temptations we all face. Indeed, for much of the film the question lingers as to whether Tamura is in fact the evil side of Shiro's personality, rather than a separate entity. His habit of suddenly appearing in a scene without warning, and knowing more than he should about other people's secrets make us question him further.
The representation of hell is striking, but after years of heightened gore and effects in film, let alone horror films, it isn't especially scary or gruesome, at least to this somewhat jaded viewer. That isn't to say it doesn't look good, as it often does, but it isn't scary at all. The idea that Shiro is allowed to use his trip to hell as a chance at purification is one I appreciate, and allows things to wrap up in a somewhat unexpected fashion, given the ceaseless parade of grim events up until then. This makes some sense if the film is considered as a morality play of sorts, especially given its theatrical nature. Consequently, characters such as Tamura make more sense as well, representing an idea rather than an actual human character.
In the end, it isn't perfect; there are moment that provoke unintended laughter, and the effects in the hell sequence are often dated. But what can't be denied is the overall power of the story, and as such, it deserves to be seen by any fan of horror and Japanese cinema.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||2.35:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Image quality is fine, though the film's color occasionally looks a little more faded than I would have expected. I did not notice any obvious flaws otherwise. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The optional English subtitles are white and clean.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The original Japanese mono track sounds fine; it isn't excessively shrill, though its inherent limitations are still present. Nothing really to complain about though.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
- Poster gallery
- Booklet essay by critic Chuck Stephens
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsVisually arresting and dramatically compelling, Jigoku heralds Nobuo Nakagawa's long-awaited debut on Region 1 DVD. Criterion's single-disc release presents a solid transfer with an excellent documentary about the director and the film. Fans of Japanese horror should take a look at this without question.
Jeff Wilson 2006-09-17