A silly but visually interesting morality play that concludes in a carnivalesque Buddhist hell.



One-third horror film, two-thirds goofy expressionist morality play, Jigoku would be wholly forgettable were it not for the film's final thirty-five minutes, in which director Nobuo Nakagawa foregoes a strict rendering of Buddhist hell to imitate Michael Powell (The Tales of Hoffmann) doing the choreography for a Faces of Death video. The setup that gets us there is simultaneously trite and histrionic—a religious Reefer Madness—though in their DVD interviews, the deceased Nakagawa's friends and associates insist that serious religious and philosophical themes were being mined. Fair enough, but this assertion is hard to take seriously when its manifestation so neatly resembles Monty Python's "funniest joke in the world" sketch in which numerous people die for the same silly reason.


Jigoku's first corpse is a drunken gang leader run over by the doppelganger duo Shiro and Tamura. Bodies begin dropping left and right, initially as supernatural punishment for Shiro's moral cowardice in not confessing to manslaughter (were this portion of the film directed by Fassbinder, it would likely be titled Whores Fall To Their Deaths). Seemingly every character is morally if not legally culpable of murder, which serves to justify the graphic punishments of the film's final segments, but seriously weakens Jigoku's plausibility. Nakagawa lacked the deeply moral vision (and horror) that Akira Kurosawa shared with Dostoyevsky, and Jigoku's infernal visuals thus come off more like a carnival freak show than the aesthetic catharsis of a horrified humanist.


Still, purely as spectacle, Jigoku has its share of visceral kicks. Even the first hour features evocative lighting, with starkly lit foreground characters frequently set against an opaque background. But as a prototype of the modern horror film marriage of facile fatemongering and creatively gruesome deaths, a more appropriate title for Jigoku would be Penultimate Destination.


--Joshua Avram

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