Review: Jigoku aka The Sinners of Hell (1960)

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa

Starring: Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya, Yoichi Numata

Release Date: 30th July 1960 (Japan)

Each of us carries our personal idea of damnation; as Oscar Wilde put it, “we are each our own Devil, and we make this world our Hell.” Not everyone’s version of Hell involves double physics on an endless Thursday afternoon sitting directly in front of a grinning sociopath while a teacher spouts gibberish in a leaky classroom but it’s where I might end up if I don’t perform more good deeds and birch myself more than I already do. At the same time however, the traditional religious views of Hell also abide within us, deep-seated visions of the eternal depths of the underworld, realms of endless torment from demons, goblins and monsters doing nasty things to our nether regions.

There is, however, a worse interpretation of Hell – that both the personal and traditional versions are true, and we endure one only to escape into the other, an eternal take on the old saying, ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire.’ This is the terrifying idea explored by the director and co-writer of Jigoku – The Sinners of Hell (1960), Nobuo Nakagawa, who relished providing movie audiences with, in cinema parlance, sneak previews of forthcoming attractions.

In a film which works on many levels, we start with our lead character, Shiro Shimuzi (Shigeru Amachi, who never allows his character a single smile throughout), falling from one level to another. As an ethereal narrator reminds us sinners that our actions are punished even if we escape the immediate consequences upon Earth, Shiro plummets through an unworldly pit of fire. We then cut to a seemingly civilized scene of a university lecture, where theologian Professor Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura) introduces his students to the Buddhist concepts of Hell. Yet something more than this subject matter feels ‘off’; the lecture is sparsely attended, no-one is taking notes, and the lighting is subdued; also, there’s no-one sleeping, making out, or nursing a hangover, though maybe that’s just Western university lectures.

Seated at the back, his notebook blank, is Shiro. A rose drops onto the book and Tamura (Yoichi Numata) appears as if from nowhere. “The guy from last night is dead,” Tamura casually tells the horrified Shiro, and then congratulates him, in the same deadpan manner, on his engagement to girlfriend Yukiko, Prof. Yajima’s daughter. Tamura tells Shiro he knows of a dark secret from Prof. Yajima’s past, and we listen in on Shiro’s thoughts: “Who is this Tamura? Why can’t I get rid of him? If it wasn’t for last night and that damned accident…”

There follows the oddest transition to a flashback I’ve ever seen, with Shiro cast into shadow and Nakagawa holding the shot until it’s almost unbearable. Emerging from this finds Shiro with his new fiance Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), at her family home. The pair steal a kiss, but as with every kiss in Jigoku, it’s as if the character’s lips are numb and they’re just going through the motions. Prof. and Mrs Yajima (Fumiko Mitaya) are full of nervy happiness over the engagement of their only child. Shiro is polite, yet curt, giving one-word answers to his future in-laws’ questions; at best, he seems ambivalent over the engagement.

What enjoyment exists ends with Tamura’s arrival, again holding a rose (a symbol of life, often placed on a coffin or grave). Tamura hands Prof. Yajima a book he’s borrowed, making sure a photograph, placed on top of the book, is in full view; the picture shows Yajima as a soldier, in some kind of dispute with a fallen comrade. Tamura offers Shiro a lift home, but not before observing the Yajima’s clock has stopped (“a bad omen”), at exactly 9 pm. As we go through the film, every clock we see reads 9 pm, suggesting one cannot escape from one’s actions, no matter how far in personal chronology you pass from the deed. Your sin is forever present in the universe, as fresh as the moment it happened.

Driving home, Tamura tells Shiro “I know everything. I know you’ve been sleeping with with Yukiko. I bet she’s pregnant.” Shiro’s only reply it to ask Tamura to take a turning up ahead, which he does, only to run down a drunken yakuza ‘Tiger’ Kyoichi (Hiroshi Izumida). A butterfly sports in a pool of Kyoichi’s blood, as he rises, then collapses to the ground, attended by his distressed mother (Kiyoko Tsuji). Shiro wants to stop the car, but Tamura continues driving: “You made me take this road,” he tells Shiro, “it’s your fault.” “We’re murderers,” states Shiro.

The issue of responsibility is a recurring one in Jigoku, with Shiro accepting blame for other fatalities during the film, deaths he did not directly cause, yet could not have happened without his presence. This seems odd at first, but Nakagawa’s point is it’s more hellish for Shiro to continually blame himself for something he didn’t do, rather than something he did. Jigoku confounds our expectations of torment, as a guilt that isn’t ours yet one we must accept.

The flashback over, Shiro visits Tamura, wishing to turn themselves over to the police. Tamura refuses: “it’s not worth the best years of our lives…If I go down, you go down with me.” In Hell, no good actions or judgments are possible, as there’s no escape from damnation, and as we find out later, the only way is down – and then, back down again.

At night, Mrs Kyoichi discusses her son’s death with his moll, Yoko (Akiko Ono). The old woman swears vengeance, explaining a truck driver escaped justice after running him down her husband ten years ago. There is no question Mrs Kyoichi forgiving the truck driver for what may have been a tragic accident, but in this world, vengeance is carried out even if nothing is gained from the act except another death. Mrs Kyoichi is doomed to commit revenge, and just as doomed by its consequences. Shiro is therefore damned by the actions of a truck driver ten years prior to Tiger’s death.

Yukiko twirls Jigoku’s first umbrella (one of the more obscure of the film’s recurring symbols) at Shiro, who visits with the news he has killed a man, interrupting his fiance’s announcement (“I’m…”). When we next see the pair, they are outside, engaged in a passive disagreement over whether to take a taxi to the police station, or to walk. Shiro gets his way and hails a cab, only for the driver to briefly transform into Tamura and back again. The driver violently swerves away from something – nothing? – and crashes into a lamppost, killing Yukiko. The first crash happened for a reason, no matter how innocent, and killed a ‘bad guy.’ This second incident happened for no reason, and kills the blameless Yukiko, making Shiro feel doubly bad for not feeling bad enough at her demise; Shiro can no longer marry Yukiko, manifesting the fear of permanence which will haunt Shiro in the worst way possible. The taxi driver’s transformation into Tamura is explained by Jigoku‘s view of fate. The cab crashed because fate wills it so, and Shiro cannot avoid his fate, regardless of whether he takes an active part in it or not. Perhaps Shiro thought no harm could come of taking a taxi, but Tamara, acting as a personal demon, ensures the crash happens anyway, leaving enough room for Shiro to blame himself, for insisting on taking a cab to the police station. Fate, in the form of Tamura, will always intervene.

“Everything hinges on fate,” the grieving Prof. Yajima tells Shiro when he visits. “I may as well have killed her myself,” states Shiro. The older man fails to disagree; a frequent occurrence in Jigoku sees Shiro offer others the chance to console or forgive him, but is ignored. Mrs Yajima strokes a kimono of Yukiko’s and demands her daughter back. Numbed into madness, Mrs Yajima has already found Hell.

Shiro does what any right-minded and wrong-headed man would do, and hits the sleaziest bar in town. Newcomers to vintage Japanese horror might be surprised by how often jazz is used on the soundtrack, but here jazz donates decadence and loose moral values, as this bar isn’t just a place where you can pick up a drink, if you get my meaning. We listen in on Shiro’s inner voice, only it isn’t Shiro’s voice but Tamura’s, taunting the student over the battle for his conscience: “who will win, you or I?”

One thing leads to another and Shiro spends the night at the Hotel Yoshino with Yoko, after they meet at the bar. After injecting herself with opiates to the sound of a speeding train (trains are another recurring symbol in Jigoku), Yoko realizes Shiro is the man who killed Kyoichi. Yoko kisses Shiro and requests he be at the bar again tonight – at 9 pm…

Shiro fails to keep the date, as he’s on a train to Tenjoen, where his father runs an old folks’ home and Shiro’s mother is dying. The Tenjoen Senior Citizen’s Facility, surrounded by jungle-like foliage filled with the incessant buzz of insects, resembles a prison camp of wooden shacks, where residents swelter and fan themselves in the heat. Death is the main occupation here, and we see a ritual in progress to ease an elderly resident’s last moments of life.

Shiro is greeted by Kinoko (Akiko Yamashita), a woman so goofy she’s almost deranged. “They took me in last year,” explains Kinoko, and one wonders where this cartoonish figure of capricious, sensual mischief came from in the first place. Kinoko leaves Shiro with his ailing mother, Ito Shimuzi (Kimie Tokudaiji) to fool around with Mr Shimuzi (Hiroshi Hayashi) in the next room. “I don’t blame him, with me like this,” mumbles Mrs Shimuzi, as Kinoko teases Shiro’s father by saying she might cheat on him with his son. This sets the tone for the Tenjoen sequences, stranded characters running to seed with escape close by (the train goes right past the home), but somehow always out of reach. Here, people are interested only in themselves rather than the welfare of others, even though they’ve little else to do with their lives, long since settled into a torpor of degradation.

The exception is a young woman named Sachiko, also played by the adorable Utako Mitsuya, the very double of the dead Yukiko. Sachiko is the daughter of an old friend of Mr Shimuzi, a painter named Ensai Taniguchi who lives next door. Taniguchi, an aging slob who swills constantly from a bottle of saki as he paints an image of Hell for the Jigangi Temple. Another friend of Mr Shimuzi, a police detective named Hariya (Hiroshi Shinguji) asks Taniguchi if Sachiko will be his. “No,” replies the painter, “not to a man like you.” The detective reminds Taniguchi he knows of a fraud the painter committed in Osaka.

Another fraud, at least in the moral sense, is the center’s resident physician Kusama (Tomohiko Otomo), who attends a dying patient with the scantest of grace and professionalism. An old man accuses Mr Shimuzi of “skimming our welfare payments.” Mr Shimuzi denies this, explaining for every 62 yen the center receives, they spend 70 yen, emphasizing this as a place that is sinking no matter how much, or how little, is done to keep it going. Much the same is true of the characters of those who populate the center.

A visually intriguing shot follows, as the camera pans across a triptych: Taniguchi painting as Sachiko sings; Shiro comforting his mother; Mr Shimizo and Kinuko fooling around in bed. Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, they look – or better still, feel – just the same.

We’re outside again as Shiro walks numbly along the railway line, wearing wooden clogs. In a startling moment, Shiro is next seen standing by the line as a train hurtles past at full speed. Sachiko, carrying flowers and an umbrella, runs to him, fearing for his safety. We learn Shiro has been staying – or hiding out – at the old folks’ home for four days, but his past is closing in, as Tamura materializes out of nowhere, sitting on the tracks. Tamura informs Shiro the Yajimas will arrive soon on a lecture tour. To Shiro’s chagrin, Tamura intends to stay for a few days, at the local tavern. Just when things can’t get any worse for Shiro, things get even worse for Shiro, when Kinuko arrives with the news that his mother is on the brink of death. Kinuko judges this a good time to kiss Shiro, pleading with him to take her to Tokyo.

Mrs Shimizo dies, surrounded by the main characters, an absurd mockery of a family. Sochiko leaves the room crying, but is halted outside by the sight of three large paper umbrellas, coloring under the red sky, as the buzzing of insects continues unabated (why, she might think, might a woman die while insects live on?). A ceremonial song marks Mrs Shimizo’s death with the ominous refrain “this is a tale of things not of this world.”

Some time later, the Yajimas arrive and in Jigoku‘s most ironic line, Prof. Yajima greets his student with “Shiro, let’s make a fresh start.” Almost at once, Mrs Yajima, losing her mind with sorrow, mistakes Sachiko for Yukiko. There can never be ‘a fresh start.’

The next scene takes place in the local tavern, though such are the disorienting techniques employed by Nakagawa, we’re never sure where the tavern is in regard to anywhere else; at times it feels as if the tavern is part of the old folks’ home itself. With all the main characters present, including a corrupt journalist, the one-eyed Akagawa (Koichi Miya), Tamuta taunts the others for their failings. “Everyone here is compliant in murder,” he claims: Dr Kusama, for malpractice in the death of Mrs Taniguchi; the Police Detective, who bribed a man who committed suicide in shame; the journalist, who “killed a man with an inaccurate article.” Taniguchi adds to the fevered air by revealing he and Mrs Shimizu were once lovers, but Mr Shimizu stole her away. Tamura adds Mr Shimizu has another mistress in the next town. And as for Prof. Yajima…

Mr Shimizu and Dr Kasuma are called back to the old folks’ home, where another resident has died. “You two have killed him,” cries an old man. “All you think of is that damned tenth anniversary festival!” And then the day of the festival is upon us, a time to ‘celebrate’ the passing of time, with much bowing and drawn-out brass band music. A fisherman catches already-dead fish in a river and these are delivered to Mr Shimuzi, disinterested in their providence: “who cares, they’re for the old people, not for us!”

Sachiko and Kinuko cause a scene over Shiro, who receives a letter from his other love interest, Yoko. Meeting on the rope bridge high above the river, Yoko kisses the beleaguered student, letting her umbrella fall far down to the river below. Yoko reveals she was Kyoichi’s girl, draws a gun and advances on Shiro, only to catch a heel between the planks of the bridge, and fall to her death upon the rocks. Tamura appears: “I knew that would happen. I know everything.” Shiro and Tamura fight, and soon Tamura joins Yoko in the foaming waters far below.

Back at the festival, the elderly residents chow down on the fish, while at the tavern, Mr Shimizu and his cronies lap up beer and saki, while the landlady sings “the scything is finished.” Kinoko finds Shiro in a barn; clasping him, she cries, “I’ll never let you go!” The idea of this doting chatterbox never letting you go is hellish enough, but underlines the point that Jigoku‘s characters can’t let go of what drives them to Hell, be it love or hate, passion or revenge, or in Shiro’s case, his need for guilt and fear of commitment.

The partying grows more raucous as Mr Shimizu finds his mistress and son together. Furious, the older man chases the pair up into the roof of the barn. Shiro fights with his father, and when Kinuko tries to intervene, Mr Shimizu pushes her away, and the girl falls to the ground, dead. Despite the increasing number of fatalities, Nakagawa plays it totally straight, ensuring this is farce only of the very blackest nature.

Staggering out of the barn, the Shimizus find the Yajimas leaving for the next train to Tokyo. Mrs Yajima’s umbrella is closed, and her feet bound. The train blares in the background, its bells tolling, just as it does throughout the Tenjoen scenes, the machine mocking the daintier bells we see used in the death rituals.

Mrs Kyoichi visits the tavern, posing as a relative of a former resident, and plies Mr Shimuzi, the journalist, police detective, doctor, and Kinuko with sake, assuring them the drink isn’t poisoned, which maybe should have told them something. Tamura, or his ghost, appears as Sachiko runs in with the news that the Yajimas have thrown themselves under the Tokyo train. Misery and death runs rampant; Tamura shoots Sachiko, as the lethal sake takes effect, with Mrs Kyoichi also dying, having imbibed the brew herself. There’s life in the old girl yet though, as she strangles Shiro, who is busy strangling Tamura, still claiming to “know everything.” In the center, the elderly residents die of food poisoning, caused by the rancid fish.

A deathly calm descends. All have perished, yet are cursed to continue existing. The time is 9 pm. Shiro screams as he falls again through the circle of fire.

We have now arrived in the traditional Hell of Buddhist belief. Given the film’s budgetary restrictions (Shintoto Studios were going out of business during Jiguko‘s production), Nakagawa and his crew (especially designer Haruyasu Kurosawa) work miracles, focusing on the simple rather than the spectacular – but this doesn’t mean there aren’t a few shocks in store for the audience.

Tamura informs Shiro he has arrived at “the path to Hell, the border between life and death.” The Sanzu no Kawa, the river of death, flows nearby, an effect achieved with only subtle lighting and dry ice. The demonic Tamura tells Shiro a baby cries for him, calling for Shiro. The next thing we know, Shiro is suspended upside from with a metal shard penetrating his neck. Before him is the mighty King Enma, lord of the underworld’s “eight hells of ice, and eight hells of fire,” who sentences cursed souls to their punishment. Forced to look into “the all-revealing mirror,” Shiro sees those whose deaths he has ’caused.’ For this, Shiro’s hands are subject to fire, yet his hands do not burn, for burning would end the agony.

Shiro enters a special area of Hell, a rocky shore upon the riverbank, where children who died before their parents endure a purgatory of building piles of pebbles until their time of salvation. Here, Shiro is reunited with Yukiko, who explains the baby heard crying is their child; Yukiko was indeed pregnant at the time of her death. Scared of raising the child by herself, Yukiko set the child afloat upon the river. If Shiro had secretly hoped to evade his parental responsibilities, there’s no hope of that now, for in Hell there is no hope of any kind. For the rest of the film, Shiro is compelled to chase after their baby daughter, whom Yukiko names Hurami, as she floats down the river of death, always out of reach.

The chase takes Shiro to the Aimless Wanderers of the Six Paths, souls who shamble together in no particular direction, awaiting their fates. Shiro meets Prof. and Mrs Yajima, and asks for forgiveness, as he did with Yukiko: “if it were not for me, none of this misery would come to pass,” once more accepting the blame for Tamura’s actions. Again, no forgiveness is forthcoming, the statement ignored.

Time for Prof. Yajima’s torment, based on the Malaya incident where, as a solider, Yajima stole the water canteen of a comrade dying of thirst for himself. Yajima now joins others in crawling through the dust to a receding pool of water. The voice of King Enma commands the thirsty to file into a lake of pus and waste fluids, where they may drink their fill.

“You who are dead,” announces King Enma, “this is the first great Hell of fire. Here, flesh is peeled, bones crushed, eyes plucked and limbs severed. For each time you cry out, you are returned to life to face the torments of Hell again.” Dante, in his Inferno, packs the lower levels of Hell with sinners frozen under ice, unable to ease their agony with so much as a scream; here, screaming causes the torment to start anew, but silence isn’t an option as the pain inflicted makes it impossible not to scream; there is no worse torment than an impossible possibility of escape. Shiro, as with the others, is compelled to act upon instinct, rather than reason, as instinct is irresistible and so, in Hell, unending.

Mr Shimizu receives his sentence, as do his cronies. Without giving away too much, Dr Kusuma learns a new definition of the old term ‘sawbones,’ Detective Haiya won’t be needing his favorite handcuffs anymore, and everyone else can forget about needing toothpaste. The most horrific punishment is reserved for Mr Shimizu, “the epitome of corruption,” whose skin is flayed from his body. It’s not the first flaying in a horror film (Boris Karloff lost his skin to Bela Lugosi in 1934’s The Black Cat), but this is by far the most graphic to date, with only Mr Shimizu’s screaming head left intact as every other organ in his body is left exposed to view. Lady Gaga’s meat dress had nothing on this, and although the effects used are obvious to the modern viewer, this makes the image is no less startling.

Harumi’s cries continue, but Tamura reappears to tell Shiro “loving someone, suffering for them – all useless now. Do you think you can escape from Hell?” In this terrible realm, caring and suffering are the same, as there’s no-one to care that you care, no-one not indifferent to your suffering. What good is love in Hell, where only anguish can thrive?

After a brief stop at The Lake of Blood, Shiro appears within The Field of Swords, and impales his foot. Sachiko is also here, looking for her father (many in Hell search for someone who looks for somebody else – there are no shared objectives in Hell, only selfishness of every sort). As for Taniguchi, who we later learn hanged himself, he paints further images of Hell as he did in life, only for fog to forever erase his work, a kind of hell-within-hell, where Taniguchi’s vision of what Hell looks like is confounded by its terrible reality.

Shiro and Sachiko find each other again and try to kiss, only for Mrs Shimizu to intervene with a shocking revelation – when she left Taniguchi for Mr Shimizu, she was already pregnant – Taniguchi is Shiro’s real father and Sachiko his sister, making their love incestuous, yet another sin. The siblings are joined by Tamura: “wherever you go, I go with you.” Not quite true Tamura, who screams in agony on touching Sachiko and runs away, finding his punishment for selling his conscience to evil: “all the torments of bottomless Hell.” Wrapped in futile bandages soaked with his bleeding wounds, Tamura screams as loudly as anyone he helped condemn to this dreadful underworld. Siding with evil doesn’t make you evil’s friend, but its plaything.

Lost among tortured souls whirling in an endless circle like a weather current, Shiro tries to reach Harumi, the baby now lodged in a Buddhist wheel of birth and death. King Enma announces Shiro has one last chance to save his child, but we sense he can never reach the baby, and this is just one more cruel, false hope.

Tamura screams “this is Hell!” And his wounds vanish, and his suffering ceases, perhaps due to accepting his fate. The others do not, or cannot, accept their fate, and call for each other, but never for the person who searches for them. There is no mutuality in Hell, not even the community of victimhood. We last see Shiro upon the wheel of life and death, straining to reach Harumi.

The action freezes. The time is 9 pm. We see the dead bodies in the tavern, with Shiro and Sachiko facing each other, as if moving towards a kiss, but as with the figures upon Keats’ Grecian urn, their lips will never meet. Our final image is of Yukiko and Sachiko, dressed in heavenly white robes, smiling as Hell rumbles on in the background. Both call for Shiro.

This obscure ending has caused controversy, with some critics interpreting it as showing Yukiko and Sachiko, two of Jigoku‘s less reproachable characters, ascending to Heaven. However, if we take Jigoku‘s theme as inescapable punishment through many varieties of Hell, then the message is more ominous. Despite the bliss the two women display, they both still need their lover/brother Shiro, who can never escape Hell. They smile and glow with love, for the very nature of Heaven allows for nothing else. Their happiness is false, forced, as they will never see Shiro and cannot express sadness at this, only its opposite, meaning Heaven itself is a form of Hell, just another trap of exquisite injustice. Paradise, in Jiguko‘s twisted take on the universe, is the ultimate level of suffering.

Nakagawa’s intricate use of the differing levels of Hell may confuse a first-time viewer, but Jigoku is a film worth a second watch, and indeed the act of repetition ties in with the film itself, as the characters play out their moves, doomed to their eternal fate from the first moment, and viewing Jigoku again heightens, in a meta-sense, the misery inflicted on Shiro and company. This provokes a similar feel to the much later Ringu (1998, also starring Yoichi Numata), that of an endless chain of suffering, from which you can enter, but not escape.

There’s something here for all horror fans, those who get their kicks from shock effects and the fantastic, as well as those who appreciate a more realist, thoughtful approach. Gore fans in particular need to watch Jigoku, arguably the grisliest horror film made by this point, beating Herschell Gordon Lewis’s infamous, and infinitely worse, Blood Feast (1963) by three years. As with other Japanese horrors of the time, there is a sense of sweaty, clenching desperation to Jigoku, despite Shiro’s lack of emotion as he travels the course of his fate(s), gritting his teeth as his life literally turns to Hell. The world we see during the first half of Jigoku is one more layer of Hell, several versions ‘downwards’ of our own reality, a shadowy, hollow place where nothing turns out well, and love is no different or meaningful than hate, leaving everyone too involved with their own sorrow to help each other.

Perhaps there is yet another level of Hell beyond that which we see, for Jigoku teaches us, as did to a certain extent Repulsion, it’s that Hell is the worst thing imaginable becoming worse. In infinity, there is always room for more sadness.