Mention Japanese Horror, and what comes to mind for most people would probably resemble a L'Oreal advert starring Van Halen. The Japanese horror industry has seemingly built itself a creepy niche of films about young female onryō (vengeful spirits) tormenting the living with their fabulous hair. Looking at mainstream J-Horror - Ringu, Ju-On: The Grudge, Dark Water - one can see this particular trend has developed and defined itself as a sub-genre. This is analogous with the advent of the 'jump scare fests' in Western horror; a popular trope that has come to inform preconceived expectations. Not that there's nothing particularly wrong with this - I do not want to be elitist - but it does distort our view of the cinematic landscape. But I suppose even formulaic horror must be infinitely better than the knowledge that your culture has been co-opted by weeaboos writing endless forum posts about how Saber is their waifu for laifu.
Japanese horror cinema can broadly be sorted into two categories: slow ghost stories with a focus on the psychological, and the more visceral type with emphasis on torture, gore and degradation. In the latter camp are films like the Guinea Pig series, Tokyo Gore Police, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Jigoku. Meaning 'Hell' in the Japanese language, Jigoku is a visually startling film from director Nobuo Nakagawa and something of an anomaly. As a precursor to the torture porn genre, it doesn't seem to have much of a precedent in a Japanese horror landscape that was mostly influenced by folk-tales. But, nevertheless, it was a hugely influential film perhaps in part owing to the randomness of its violent excess. Psycho (1960) was released around the same time - to waves of controversy - but Jigoku's violence is far more colourful and grotesque. It seems bizarre that Jigoku simply came out of nowhere, like that one chatty co-worker when you're sat alone in the staffroom.
Attempting to make sense of Jigoku is an exercise in futility as it seeks to depict the Buddhist version of Hell, a harrowing crucible of karmic atonement. It is an exploration of life's journey, how we try to be the best person we can be even when invariably failing to meet our own expectations - only in this case that journey extends beyond death itself and has far reaching consequences. Shirō (Shigeru Amachi) is an upstanding student set to marry his girlfriend, Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya) when he is involved in a vehicular accident that kills a member of the Yakuza. His close friend Tamura (Yôichi Numata), who was driving, feels no remorse for what he sees as an accident responsible for the death of a horrible individual, even as it plagues Shirō's conscience. What follows is a Shakespearean melodrama of hubris, reprisals, and tragic falls.
At first it isn't clear what kind of movie Jigoku wants to be. For the majority of its runtime, the closest it gets to horror is its bleak outlook on the human condition. Shirō's father Gōzō (Hiroshi Hayashi) runs a remote retirement community filled with the abusive, lecherous, war criminals, and the morally debased. Gōzō himself openly cheats on his dying wife, rips off the community and later poisons them with rotten fish. The film slowly builds this sombre atmosphere, made weird through discordant jazz music, giving the viewer the impression of chaos taking over as Shirō's life crumbles around him and he begins his spiritual descent into Hell. But once the tension starts spilling over, the plot becomes a succession of violent trespass after violent trespass; resulting in the type of blood-thirsty scene George R.R.Martin daydreams about in between eating young children.
The Hell scenes only make up the last thirty-something minutes of the movie. But I think that is as long as is needed. We see shards of glass tear through feet and necks, teeth are smashed by hammer wielding Oni, and even people flayed alive. The special effects are the actual stars of the movie; though rather dated and unconvincing by modern standards, in 1960 this would undoubtedly have been pushing the line of acceptability. A psychotic level of detail evidently went into the gore; like a postman biting simulator for small dogs, Jigoku relishes in its depiction of pain and suffering. In one scene, around one hour and sixteen minutes in, a man has his flesh ripped off and is left existing as a sinewy collection of pulsating organs and bones. The effect simulating the act of flaying is as unconvincing as the stories told by a "my uncle works at Nintendo" kid, but the corpse itself is rather grisly - especially considering the Psycho shower scene would never have been allowed to be shot in colour. As a genuinely frightening representation of Hell, Jigoku is let down by age and technical limitation but elevated by imagination.
Jigoku operates on a much higher level. It depicts a savagely beautiful portrait of the afterlife, with artistically minded shots and excellent use of subtle colour palates and eye-catching imagery (such as the burning ring). Shirō's journey through hell to find his dead infant daughter brings to mind Dante Alighieri and his iconographical portrait of the three stages of the afterlife, The Divine Comedy. But it is the Eastern influence that gives Jigoku its unsettling, otherworldly vibe. Geisha-style tormentors with their oil-paper umbrellas speak in cryptic lines, Yama (the King of Hell) proceeds over the ruination of the damned souls; Shirō even has to scale a literal Buddhist wheel of life. This all combines to form a film with the ability to unnerve purely through its sheer strangeness. Some people refer to this movie as 'Japanese Hell' (a misnomer as that was the remake). That's a bit redundant, though. Of course, this is Japanese Hell. There are umbrella twirling kawaii girls over-excitedly stating something that could simply have been whispered. I'm just surprised there aren't any wobbly tentacles teaching school girls how to play hide the calamari.