Japanese Hell
(Jigoku) (1999)
Directed by Teruo Ishii

Artistic Value: * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Rika (Miki Sato), a young woman, is taken on a tour of hell, during which she is shown the punishments that are to be inflicted upon a child murderer, the leader of the cult to which she formerly belonged, his high ranking followers, and their lawyers. Before she witnesses the torments of these persons, Rika is, however, shown their deeds, how the murderer hunted and killed little girls and how the cult leader exploited his followers and killed numerous individuals, most of whom died during a poisonous gas attack on a train that he orchestrated.

Although I am an admirer of Teruo Ishii's work, I have to concede that his Japanese Hell is a dreadfully bad film. Fortunately, it is, largely thanks to its faults, reasonably entertaining.


The whole of the movie is completely over the top. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine how anyone could present a vision of hell that is not extreme, but those portions of the film that relate how particular individuals made it to this land of punishment are just as exaggerated. Nothing is nuanced in this vision of the universe. The villains here are cackling, monstrous fiends without a shred of decency. They murder, torture, rape, and lie, and, apparently, make sure that they behave in such ways that any person will be able to tell that they are murderous, vicious, lecherous, deceitful scoundrels. Happily, their nefarious deeds, like those of a supervillain from some comic book, are so excessive, and are presented in such an overdone manner, that they are always amusing to watch. Of course, the scenes set in hell make it clear that Ishii's vision is just this simplistic, just this divided into black and white. There, his sinners get their comeuppance; they beg for mercy and are brutally tortured, dismembered, and reconstituted so that they can be tormented again. The movie does seem to posit a world divided between those who are decent and those who are so utterly evil that they deserve the most vicious of punishments.

I should note that while I did enjoy the overblown details of Japanese Hell, the director's vision was occasionally a little disturbing. Ishii makes it clear that no sin will escape being punished and that it is right that such punishments are horrifyingly severe. What is more, the director's ideas about who is worthy of such treatment are very strict. He even has the lawyers who defended the cult leaders condemned to hell for doing so. There, the tongue of each of these persons is pulled out of his mouth by a leering, grotesque demon. Ishii's morality is pretty harsh and pretty narrow.

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Unfortunately, this nasty morality is not Japanese Hell's only problem. For one thing, the movie just looks cheap. Although I do not care if special effects are realistic, I do demand that they be well done. Those used here are just atrocious. I cannot even begin to list the number of awful effects Ishii has included. Several of the scenes telling the story of the cult use rubber cockroaches and wind-up toy mice to depict what are supposed to be the live vermin infesting the religious group's unsanitary compound. The scenes that are set in hell include some even worse effects. At one point, the director shows bodies being tossed into a molten lake, but the bodies are clearly plastic dolls. Later, he reveals a fierce rubber dragon chewing on one of these toys. I cannot begin to describe how laughable such effects are. These elements might be awful, but their very awfulness does at least make them entertaining. I doubt if the director intended to make the viewer laugh, but he did make me laugh on several occasions.

That said, Japanese Hell does have some visual flair. For one thing, Ishii includes several impressively conceived images. The gates of hell, for example, are shaped like a cyclopean vulva. The fiends inhabiting the other world, though created with lackluster rubber masks, are well designed and either hideous or fearsome, and some of the images of torment are shocking or just weird. The tortures inflicted upon the lawyers mentioned above are, for instance, a hoot. The tongue of each is pulled out of his mouth and stretched to such a ridiculous length by a demon that the sinner looks like a bizarre, rubbery chameleon-human hybrid.

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Japanese Hell is a bad movie. It is, however, one of those movies that is so bad that that it can be a pleasure to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

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