The greater portion of Jigoku is essentially a complicated melodrama presented from Shiro's perspective. The viewer is shown the man's initially pleasant and happy world, how he is studying at a university and is engaged to a beautiful young woman, and then the destruction of this world by the various calamities that befall the protagonist and all those around him. The sufferings of these individuals are not, however, invariably related to Shiro. Nakagawa exposes the crimes of virtually every character in the movie, usually, though not invariably, through the demonic Tamura's cruel omniscience. He reveals how Yukiko's father stole water from a dying comrade in the Second World War, how a local doctor causes numerous deaths through his incompetence, how a policeman abuses his power, how Shiro's father's adulteries so hurt his dying wife as to sap her desire to live, and so on and so on. There is hardly an innocent character in the whole of the film.
Though this portion of the narrative is consistently involving and often affecting, it is Jigoku's final act, which is set in hell, that is its best part. In these scenes, Nakagawa takes Shiro on a tour of hell and so shows how each of the film's characters is punished for his transgressions. One man is flayed so that his skeleton lies upon the ground, before his eyes, filled with still pulsating and quivering organs. Groups of sinners are immersed in a river of blood and pus. Another sinner is sawn in half, and so on and so on. One horror follows the next until the moviegoer is himself immersed in the director's grim vision.
Admittedly, these elements are not by themselves enough to raise Jigoku above mediocrity, but the film's visual details do. Throughout the movie, Nakagawa presents the viewer with one impressively crafted image after another. While relating events set in the world of the living, the director uses simple, pleasantly shot locations to create feelings of domesticity while, simultaneously, using shadows, odd camera angles, and the like to arouse a sense of haunting danger. The scenes set in hell are, however, the film's most memorable. They are like images pulled out of a nightmare. With brilliantly colored lights, whether these are red, blue, pink, green, or white, the director exposes various strange, hallucinatory tableaux inhabited by sinners howling in pain, while leaving virtually everything that is not in the foreground in complete blackness (except for the occasional weirdly lit sky). This land of shadows is truly fascinating. The place is like no other.
Though Jigoku is not a masterpiece, it is a noteworthy film. It is certainly well worth watching.
Review by Keith Allen
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