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Jigoku - Japanese Hell (Ishii Teruo 1999)


[Japanese Hell]

Genre: Frankenstein

review in one breath

In this world, the acts of man are the foulest of the foul. As the years pass, the number of those in Hell grows, proving what sad shape the world is in! Man only thinks about committing more crimes, turning a blind eye to the horrors that await them.

There are three films entitled Jigoku. The original Jigoku released in 1960 and directed by Nakagawa Nobuo has become a classic among film aficionados but remains generally unseen by Western audiences. A remake by director Kumashiro Tatsumi appeared in 1979 adding to the formula more "contemporary" horror elements. And in 1999 director Ishii Teruo created the version we are here reviewing.

Director Ishii has been a rather prolific director and his film genres seem to run the gamut from space alien sci-fi (e.g., Spaceship of Human Destruction (1957)) to historical piece torture films (e.g, Joys of Torture (1968)) to yakuza violence (e.g, Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition and Torture (1973)). The formula of Jigoku allows him to combine many elements from these prior genre into a piece attempting to present shock, gore and social commentary.


Jigoku presents a thoroughly traditional Japanese perspective of the fate of sinners awaiting them in the underworld. All three versions of this story follow a similar pattern which provides detailed narratives depicting sins committed during life followed by the horrific tortures in hell (jigoku) which correspond to those sins. In Ishii's Jigoku we witness both underworld and earthly scenarios through the eyes of Rika, a young woman graciously granted a vision of hell by the underworld's goddess, Emna. In allowing Rika to see first hand what awaits sinners after death, the goddess Enma hopes that Rika will correct her ways before it is too late.

The film consists of roughly three parts, the first two involving separate depictions of earthly sins and their corresponding tortures, and the last dealing with Rika's escape from hell and repentance.

The first sinner is Iwajima, a serial child molester who kidnaps, kills and videotapes innumerable young girls. When Iwajima inevitably finds himself in Hell, Rika is instructed to observe the torture awaiting him which, Enma promises, will produce suffering and pain thousands if not millions of time worse than that suffered by his victims and their families. Rika then watches as Iwajimi is gruesomely cut into many pieces. Despite the extreme degree of torture, Iwajima remains conscious throughout the ordeal. After he has been completely dismembered, he is miraculously restored to his original, whole form and the process starts over again, ad infinitum.

The second set of sinners strikes much closer to home for Rika, since it involves the "Space Cult" to which she belongs. In following a crazed and libidinous charismatic leader Shyoko who claims to be divinity, a large group of followers engage is several murderous plots against the innocent public. While the group's leader is not raping his female followers, he is masterminding sarin gas attacks and assassinations. In addition to his army of willing accomplices, the group has as its disposal a bastion of deceptive lawyers who defend the group against legal attack using lies and deception.

As Rika is forced to look on in horror, the various tortures awaiting this group's leaders and followers unfolds. For their lies and deception, the lawyers have their tongues slowly pulled out by larger demons using even larger utensils. The disciples of the group are forced to endure the inferno, a large, flat rock glowing red from its heat, against which they are slowly held (like a hamburger patty) until all the surfaces of their body have been severely burned. Worse still is the fate awaiting the cult leaders, who must endure all the tortures of the 8 Gates of Hell (of which the inferno is a single, milder gate). This involves, among other things, being steam rolled by huge slabs of rock, and having the skin repeatedly torn off your face and body.

This torture will not be finished for a thousand years! But don't worry. You will soon look back upon these moments fondly. There are much greater tortures awaiting you in the other Gates of Hell.
~ the burly demon with two large fangs and a hairy mane.

The third scenario follows Rika and her guide as they attempt to escape Hell. Having seen more than she can endure, Rika can only flee from the horrors all around. In her departure she encounters a variety of other bizarre scenes, including the cannibalistic fate of the bulimic and the sheer power of evil samurai who, after having broken all laws known to men, seem capable of entering and departing Hell of their own accord. Finally, with the aid of Enma, Rika is able to cross over the Sanzu River surrounding the borders of Hell, and reenter the world of the living. Once there, she quickly renounces her cultish ways and helps in the rescue of other young women from the cult's influence.


This film was entertaining on several levels, but has a couple serious drawbacks due to both narrative and budget issues.

Ishii's narrative spends way too much time exploring and delineating the sins of the "Space Cult". This is understandable, however, since Ishii's depiction of the cult is clearly intended to depict the real-life Aum Shin Ri Kyo doomsday cult responsible for the 1994 sarin gas attack on innocent commuters within the Tokyo subway tunnels. The entire infrastructure and crimes of the Aum cult is thoroughly recreated by Ishii, including the (real life) narrow-eyed, unkempt leader Shoko (renamed in Ishii's film as Shyoko).

Ishii is clearly presenting Jigoku as a type of social catharsis whereby some sense of justice and retribution against an otherwise senseless social crime might be perceived. Unfortunately for viewers coming to this film from either another decade or another culture, the prolonged emphasis upon the Cult's crimes comes across as overly prolonged and unjustifiably slow. Ishii's intent, however, in this second and longest section of the film, is to use his directorial inclinations toward gore and torture to enact some form of vicarious judgment upon the Aum cult. (By the way, the Aum cult continues to be prosecuted to this day thanks to amazingly slow and inefficient Japanese judicial procedure.)

Everything presented here would have been easily accomplished in the original 1960 version using the technology available THEN. The only hints of this film's modernity (this is 1999!!) are its reference to the Aum cult and the tall buildings appearing in a few scenes. Apart from these hints, however, audiences will be convinced they are watching a low-budget B-movie from several decades prior. There are even scenes here which rival the infamous special effects of director Ed Wood's 1959 Plan 9 from Outer Space, of which I am a big fan and thus kid you not. (For example, check out the scale model "boats" crossing the Sanzu river!)

Similarly, the gore here, which is indeed emphasized, will likely be shocking only to those with a deep disdain for brutality toward rubbery mannequins. Though indeed graphic in its depiction, there is very little either haunting or life-like. This includes the huge styrofoam mallets wielded by rubber-suited demons, the jello-mud bath apparently symbolizing molten lava, the nude interpretive dances by bare breasted girls intended to convey the convulsions of hell zombies (etc etc etc).

Despite the many flaws, however, this film is indeed entertaining, if not solely for the effort it attempts in providing a moral message. Though indeed primitive, the special effects here are more colorful and creatively graphic than a lot of the mindless, low-budget horror fodder one runs across. Perhaps most interesting for me, as a Western viewer, was the depiction of traditional Japanese notions of Hell.

The surprisingly kind-hearted goddess/demon Enma, ruler of Hell, suggests that Rika should avoid "strange beliefs and keep your prayers true to the Eternal One... the Sun". This is pure Shinto perspective with Ame no Terasu O Mikami (the Shinto Sun Goddess) as the heart of Japanese cosmology. Thus the film concludes with Rika and her fellow cult sisters worshiping the Sun at dawn. Unlike traditional Shinto worship of Ame Terasu, Ishii's version requires these maidens to strip naked and prostrate themselves in various, camera-friendly positions. (!!)


Fans of historical Japanese horror will undoubtedly enjoy seeing Jigoku. But this film's value and appreciation truly exists only in reference to the original 1960 version. Nearly forty years separate this remake from the original. Ishii's commitment to (then) contemporary themes of social sin (i.e., the Aum cult) may indeed have been compelling at the time of his film's debut, but his scenario-centric approach makes the film's value to later (post-Aum) audiences less relevant or compelling, except to those viewers interested in truly era-specific pieces. Nakagawa's 1960 "classic", on the other hand, does not rely upon exclusively era-specific crimes, but rather focuses upon far more general human malaise and their corresponding punishments. This characteristic of generalization is in many ways what makes Nakagawa's version a "classic" and Ishii's version a highly dated film. (There's also the issue of Ishii's near-campy special effects.)

If you had to choose one, it would be better to see Nakagawa's original 1960 film than this. Once seeing the original, however, Ishii's approach will indeed be worth viewing.

Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD (includes English subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
For those unfamiliar with the organization and crimes of the (real) Aum Shinri Kyo cult, here's your B-movie synopsis! Plenty of implied and explicit violence. All violence against human actors, such as against children or subway passengers is solely implied. Those violences of Hell are predominantly inflicted upon over-expressive actors or rubbery mannequins. I am happy to inform those of you going to hell that the vast majority of the population there is comprised of healthy, topless women constantly engaged in writhing, interpretive dance. (The bad part is the large, toothy saw blades and the red-hot stone slabs.) One green skull for bizarre Shinto/Buddhist eschatology. And one for memorable examples of wildly unbelievable special effects.

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