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Jigoku - Hell (Nakagawa Nobuo 1960)


[Hell / Sinner's Hell]

Genre: Classic Gore-laden Morality Tale

review in one breath

When the good-natured Shiro gets mixed up with his rather sinister classmate Tamura, his life takes a drastic turn for the worse as he suddenly finds himself in the depths of human depravity. Inevitably he and those he caused to suffer find themselves within the horrors of the Eight Gates of Hell where they all will suffer eternally to atone for their sins. But once in Hell, Shiro learns a tragic secret which spawns within him the power of hope. This is a 1960 classic.


other films by Nakagawa Nobuo
The Ceiling at Utsunomiya Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo 1956
Ghosts of Kasane Swamp Kaidan Kasane ga Fuchi 1957
Mansion of the Ghost Cat Borei Kaibyo Yashiki 1958
The Lady Vampire Onna-kyu Ketsuki 1959
The Ghost Story of Yotsuya Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan 1959
Hell Jigoku 1960
Snake Woman's Curse Kaidan hebi-onna 1968
Quick-draw Okatsu Yoen dokufuden: Hitokiri Okatsu 1969
Okatsu the Fugitive Yoen dokufuden: Okatsu kyojo tabi 1969

There are three films entitled Jigoku. This is the 1960 original directed by Nakagawa Nobuo (1905 - 1984), a classic figure among film aficionados, but relatively unseen by Western audiences. Nakagawa directed many early horror films from a specifically Japanese perspective. Several of these film, including this one, became classics within the genre.

The first remake of this film was directed by Kumashiro Tatsumi in 1979, adding more "contemporary" horror elements. The most recent remake is director Ishii Teruo's 1999 version which I have reviewed here. Unlike the other's, Ishii's version focuses upon very specific social crimes committed by the Aum Shinrikyo Cult which were at the forefront of Japanese news during that time.

Director Nakagawa is seen as a pioneer in the Japanese horror genre during a time which also marked major transition in Western horror films' style and depictions of violence. Nakagawa's earlier work includes well known films such as The Ghost of Kasane (1957) and Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959). The lead character in Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan was played by Amachi Shigeru who appears here in the lead role of Shiro. (In fact, Amachi appears in several of Nakagawa's horror films, as do other members of this cast.)

Jigoku is intended as a morality tale, demonstrating in gruesome manner the consequences awaiting those who commit sinful acts. Unlike Ishii's 1999 version (which is a focused condemnation of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult), Nakagawa targets a more generalized immorality which audiences of any era will readily recognize and associate with. More hauntingly, perhaps, is that both intentional and non-intentional sins are equally punishable here. Thus audiences are not allowed a simplistic sense of ease that only the obviously evil will suffer such fates.

Also noteworthy here is that Nakagawa (as does Kumashiro and Ishii) depicts classical, traditional (Japanese) notions of Hell. This consists of a vast subterranean realm separated from the land of the living by the Sanzu River. Crossing this Sanzu River is the sole path into (and out of) Hell. The realm of Jigoku consists of Eight Gates or Levels, each of which is ruled over by a powerful and fierce Lord Emma. (Nakagawa's Emma is a ferocious male deity, while Ishii's version depicts Emma as a powerful yet compassionate female deity.)

Depending on the degree of one's (your) earthly sinfulness, an individual (you) is required to endure one or more (or in your case ALL) of the eight specific tortures of the Gates. Despite this seemingly structured supervision over the nether regions, both Nakagawa and Ishii depict a great amount of unsupervised wandering throughout Hell. I supposed you'll also be happy to know that both directors also suggest the possibility of finding your way out of the Torturous Inferno and back into the Land of the Living (no doubt with a nice, new sunburn).

Unfortunately I must confess that I do not know a great deal about Shinto and Buddhist theological notions of Hell. Thus while the larger elements such as the Sanzu River, the Eight Gates and Lord Emma are indeed taken directly from actual religious doctrines, I have yet to learn what the eight specific Gates consist of and whether or not they are here depicted accurately. I will try to look into this and post my finding here. Until I do, I strongly recommend you do not DIE!


Our main character is Shiro (Amachi Shigeru), a well-meaning university student who is dating the lovely Sachiko (Mitsuya Utako), his professor's only daughter. All would seem well and good in the world if it were not for the fact that: (a) Sachiko's professor-father is fixated on the doctrines of Hell; and (b) Shiro's only apparent friend Tamaru (Hayashi Hiroshi) is the devil incarnate.

Tamaru is undoubtedly the key figure in this narrative and his propensity for evil mischief is almost beyond the pale of normal human endeavor (toward evil mischief). He knows, for example, the ancient, simmering sin of the professor. He also knows that mild mannered Shiro and Sachiko are already enjoying hot and libidinous romps in the futon. He also seems to know that Sachiko is pregnant... And he flaunts this information, ridiculing everyone, pointing fingers to expose hypocrisy and humiliate others.

Shiro makes the mistake of getting into the car with Tamaru one evening, the consequence of which is a murderous hit-and-run, which Tamaru laughs off but which Shiro is unable to hold inside, eventually confessing his guilt to Sachiko. They both agree to go to the police station to report/confess the crime. On the way Sachiko strongly refuses to board a taxi (as if protecting something), but Shiro has his way and forces her into the car, a decision they will both gravely regret.

Whether through madness, suicide, murder or simple death, all of our main characters find themselves thoroughly enmeshed in the depths of Hell. Once there, Shiro encounters Sachiko who informs them (after they make out for a bit) that she was PREGNANT. Their child, which they (in Hell) agree to name "Harumi", is floating aimlessly through the waterways (and bloodways) of the Eight Gates. Thus with every ounce of his effort and despite experiencing the most arduous of tortures, Shiro attempts to find and rescue Harumi.


This is indeed a classic horror tale which had significant impact on the styles and imaginations of subsequent Japanese horror directors. It proves interesting to Western audiences for the Eastern theology which serves as the backbone of this morality tale. It is a relatively complex plot and moves along rapidly throughout the entire 101 minutes. Only in the depiction of the film's climax might you notice a certain over-prolonged indulgence in the scene involving a certain large prop.

This is definitely one to see both in terms of its own historical merit and due to its having been remade by later directors. Heck, it might even make you live your life more carefully. (Nah..)

Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD with English subtitles

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Classic 1960 Nakagawa horror film depicting the gore of Buddhist Hell. Plenty of death, flailing and torture. Special "cringe factor" for drinking the River of Pus. (!!) Nada, despite tempting nudies here and there. (They turn into snakes, btw.) A classic and interesting film which fans of Japanese horror owe themselves.

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