From 1960's "Jigoku."

Jigoku April 15, 2022


Nobuo Nakagawa



Shigeru Amachi

Yōichi Numata

Utako Mitsuya







1 Hr., 40 Mins.


igoku (1960) is an hour-and-40-minute-long movie that could do without the first hour. Those last 40 are probably why you’re checking it out at all, and you can tell that its director, Nobuo Nakagawa, knows they’re the main event. In that final stretch, the movie jumps into, with gusto, what it’s most famous for: painful, shockingly-explicit-for-1960 imaginings of the unthinkable

physical torture and psychological torment anyone banished to Hell is supposedly forced to endure eternally. Basically smacking his lips, Nakagawa goes all in: limb severing, teeth bashing, flayings, and wades through pus pools. This all is made even more destabilizing by a propensity for clammy blue lighting and a spareness of set design that makes it look like you’re wandering inside shadows that will happily swallow you whole if you move in deep enough. 


The first hour of Jigoku would in all cases probably pale in comparison to this famous extended final sequence. Still, there’s got to be a version in a different universe that isn’t this pale. The non-Hell stuff in the movie is little more than an overbaked, chintzily melodramatic morality tale functioning mostly as an excuse to get its principal characters you know where, made to pay for the many sins incurred on Earth but for which they never had to “properly” pay. 

Jigoku is about a college student named Shirō (Shigeru Amachi) who becomes complicit in the accidental hit-and-run killing of a yakuza gang leader (Hiroshi Izumida) by Tamura (Yōichi Numata), a colleague he’s carpooling with. Tamura says he doesn’t feel guilty because his victim was standing in the middle of the road at a bad time and, to his eye, was met with the correct consequence for that. This guilty duo doesn’t go to the police; Shirō’s building and building self-hatred becomes its own kind of punishment. 

Although Shirō prematurely heads to Hell for reasons I won’t get into, the path leading up to that destiny is hellacious enough to seem like a warmup. Personal tragedies start popping up so frequently it’s like the universe was putting all its karmic comeuppance galaxy-wide on hold to torment just him. None of it hits us very hard, though, because the plotting is so excessively soapy and has no clear moral ideologies (nearly all the chief characters end up in Hell during those last 40) to give it additional tension. 

Nakagawa may be a clumsy dramatist, but at least the film regularly looks great. He particularly has a knack for chiaroscuro staging, and when the Hell set pieces arrive you’re struck by how he can make them subversively beautiful without impeding the strong sense of evil emitting off them. But if he were a good dramatist, Jigoku might have been a horror masterstroke rather than cumbersomely bound to a gimmick that is, for what it’s worth, pulled off unforgettably. B