Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is due to marry Yukiko Yajima (Utako Mitsuya), but their happiness is cut short by a fatal accident. While in a car with his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), Sora is involved in a fatal hit-and-run. Tamura doesn’t believe they should go to the police, realising that the man they killed is a lowly gangster. Things go from bad to worse for Shiro when Yukiko is killed as they are on their way to the police station in a taxi. Sora escapes to a rural old people’s home where his parents are living. This offers little reprieve as he discovers his mother is dying; his father has taken a mistress; there is a nurse who looks uncannily like Yukiko (also played by Utako Mitsuya); and when Tamura, Yukiko’s parents, and the crash victim’s mother and former lover turn up looking for revenge, it seems that Sora will never escape the consequences of his actions.
With a screenplay by director Nobuo Nakakawa and Ichiro Miyagawa,”Jigoku” is a film that is divided quite neatly into two parts. It begins as a crime thriller involving Sora and Tamura’s hit-and-run incident and the fallout from this and Yukiko’s subsequent death. In the latter half of the film, the characters find themselves in hell, with Sora attempting to rescue his unborn daughter Harumi. This is the point at which the film becomes a straight horror, with gruesome depictions of people wallowing in rivers of blood and filth; being flayed alive or sawn into pieces. The fantastical depictions of hell, the Sanzu river, and the King of Hell who oversees these punishments, stand in stark contrast to the human drama that precedes it, with the film’s dissection of guilt and morality suddenly ramped up by the carnage that awaits the sinners. The cinematography by Mamoru Morita creates an atmopshere of dread from the beginning, with characters often isolated by deep shadows in dimly lit environments. The effects in hell are well done, often relying on simply techniques, or juxtaposition of imagery to create a disquieting feeling of tormented souls. The flayed bodies, piercing by spikes, sawing, are interspersed with sombre moments of lost children piling stones, suggest an underworld that is both a place of despair and torture depending on what landed you there.
Part crime thriller, part dark fantasy, with an element of tragic romance thrown in for good measure, “Jigoku” is a highly entertaining moral drama. The film’s outlook is bleak, with almost every character eventually ending up in the infernal realm regardless of the nature or severity of their sin. Shiro is a sympathetic protagonist: largely swept along by others, when he does attempt to make things right it always ends up making matters worse. In this sense, along with the seemingly indiscriminate way punishments are handed out in hell, the film makes us question the nature of this afterlife. Early in the film a professor delivers a lecture on the various perceptions of hell in religions throughout history and across the world. “Hell” as a concept has reappeared in almost every major religion. As “Jigoku” demostrates, it is an idea that is fantastical and often only loosely connected to a genuine attempt to punish sinners, more often simply a vicarious imaginary pleasure for survivors or those who believe they are morally superior. Here there are few who escape the tortures of Hell, whether they are fully deserving or not. This depiction, with its excesses and horrors, asks us to re-evaluate our own morality and ask what our conception of hell tells us about our desire for revenge.