Jigoku (1960): Film Review

What happens when you give the director of Ghost of Yotsuya $1.95 and a ham sandwich (or, in this case, 195 yen and an onigiri), say the studio is on the brink of bankruptcy and tell him to make a horror film – you get Jigoku. This is a dark, grim, surreal, and truly nightmarish film.

Oni in hell from Jigoku.

Our protagonist is Shirou. He’s a young college student who is due to marry Yukiko, the daughter of his professor, Mr. Yajima. After taking a ride home with his… friend(?) Tamura, they end up taking a shortcut and hitting a drunk Yakuza wandering in the road. Tamura refuses to stop to check on the victim. Things proceed to get worse and worse from there, with more and more deaths unfolding over the course of the film, with some, but not all of the dead each having their own dark secrets that come out in and around their deaths.

Jigoku finally concludes with an anniversary party at the retirement home that Shirou’s parents run. Through a cascading series of consequences related to everything in the movie thus far, everyone ends up dead, and in turn, they all end up in hell, where in the last act of the film we end up following the characters through the various torments of Japanese Buddhist hells.

So, it’s hard to talk about this film, at least for me, without making comparisons with the Shaw Brothers film Heaven & Hell. Both films have fairly modest budgets, and both conclude with horrific depictions of hell. However, Jigoku is far more surreal in its depiction, in part due to the fact that the studio, Shintoho, was so close to bankruptcy, that the sets for hell were basically a heavily shadowed soundstage with a dirt floor, and several holes dug for use with several of the particular gags in this sequence.

It is an incredibly dark, incredibly bleak, cynical, and very dour film, but one that is executed tremendously well, and should go down in the annals of the best of Japanese horror cinema.In addition to being available for streaming (as of this writing) on the Criterion Channel, Jigoku is also available on DVD from Amazon.com – buying anything through that link helps to support the site.

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