After officially announcing his engagement with Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), the daughter of his professor (Torahiko Nakamura), Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi), a young theology student, is urged by Tamura (Yôichi Numata) to go home. While taking a side street at Shimizu’s request, Tamura accidentally hits and kills gang leader Kyoichi Shiga (Hiroshi Izumida). Kyoichi’s mother (Kiyoko Tsuji), who has witnessed the hit and run, vouches together with Yoko (Akiko Ono), his girlfriend, to avenge his death.
But disaster strikes soon again for the guild-ridden Shimizu; his girlfriend dies in a car accident; his mother falls ill and he’s forced to return to his parental home, … . Not long after his arrival in Tenjoen, he meets Tamura, an enigmatic person confronting each and every person with their sinful existence. Once again disaster lurks right around the corner.
From the way the introduction is staged – and as the name of the narrative also suggests, it’s immediately clear that the concept of ‘hell’ is the real main “character” of the narrative. Instead of trying to situating the narrative (i.e. introducing characters, introducing the main storyline), we’re treated with various evocative imagery of death and sexuality while being slowly introduced to the theory of hell. After this evocative introduction, the concept of hell is left to linger – nevertheless ever present, in the background, to make way for the unfolding of the narrative.
Jigoku boasts a rather simple Catholic axis that structures the entire narrative: i.e. those who sin go to hell. Because we’ve positioned hell as the main character, the unfolding of the narrative characterizes itself as the introduction of the sinners. This introduction of the sinners, using the story of Shimizu (and the enigmatic Tamura) as catalyst, nevertheless proves to be very elaborate and interesting drama. In some ways this unfolding seems a precursor to the structure of Miike’s audition, where the first part of the narrative is presented as a normal drama, which eventually, in a second part, turns quite abruptly into a full-blown nightmare. Nakagawa’s abrupt turn, the descend into the eight spheres of hell, is effective. From a narrative perspective Nakagawa’s hell proves to be a very personal matter, personalized according to the sins of those who enter.
Furthermore, the narrative can be split into three distinctive stages, the ‘evocative and even dreamlike’ introduction/first sin, the Tenjoen drama narrative and then the descend into Hell, the full blown shock/horror finale. These stages are only revealed when one takes the cinematography into account, a cinematography that elevates the elaborate drama narrative to pure greatness.
Jiguko has an amazing cinematography and style, enriching the already interesting substance of the narrative. The first aspect in which the cinematography of the narrative excels in is the use of colour (reds, blues, and greens (note 1)) and the use of lighting. Lighting, or better said the shifting of lighting, is used to focus in shots and to guide the looking of the spectator. In the beginning of the narrative, the lighting is also used to move ‘unseen” from one scene to another. The second aspect in which Jigoku excels is the use of camera movement, i.e. the way the camera is used to move into the narrative space. This movement is used to shift focus in the scene as well as to introduce the characters in a given situation and situate them in the narrative.
These two first aspects, the camera movement and the use of lightning and colour, are also effective in underlining the mystery and the strangeness of this horror narrative. The third and last aspect concerns the use of long(er) shots, an aspect that obviously correlated with the spatial movement of the camera; The narrative of Jiguko, for the most part, is framed using carefully well-crafted long shots. Nobuo Nakagawa successfully utilizes interesting camera perspectives and realizes inventive scene transitions which underlines the change of scene as well as preserve the character related unity of those subsequent scenes.
It’s solely the cinematography that structures the narrative into three ‘implicit’ stages we’ve mentioned above. Each stage/chapter corresponding to and underpinned by a slightly different cinematography. The introduction/first sin is staged evocatively and dreamlike, the Tenjoen stage boasts a more straight forward cinematography and hell is framed in an incoherent, chaotic way (note 2).
The staging of hell is slightly disturbing and thus effective. This is caused by a more loosely free floating succession of scenes and imagery. Even though the eight spheres of hell and the various deaths are situated by voice-over, a sense of disorder and chaos is maintained. This is partly caused by letting imagery break up the coherence of the scene. The strange incoherent linking of imagery, imagery that cleaves to the chest, is further empowered by the theatrical way of bringing Hell into existence, the theatrical way of positioning of characters in a given image/scene, the dramatic music, and the abundance of long and loud screams. Besides constructing a cinematography that in a way resembles ‘hell’ itself, Nakagawa’s use of space stages Hell as a rather desolate place. And it’s by way of these desolate, empty spaces that the interaction between Yukiko and Shiro is effectively injected with a sensible affectivity for the viewer.
Jiguko is a narrative that, by way of the cinematographic versatility of Nakagawa, is elevated to a true Japanese horror classic. The pure artistry in which the dream-like evocative introduction, the human drama middle part, and the ‘attack on the senses’ Hell are staged, is meant to be seen. So everyone with an interest in Japanese cinematography, even if it’s only a slight interest, or an interest in Japanese culture in general, is obliged to watch this masterfully crafted horror narrative: It’s a hell worth watching.
To conclude – and in part as an addendum, it’s not unimportant to underline that the narrative, given the importance of sin, redemption, and confession in the story, is extremely interesting because it bears witness of the influence Christianity – even though it is a small religious minority in Japan – has had on the structure of the Japanese Other.
Note 1: The attention to colour is also observable in how the characters are dressed. The female characters are mostly dressed in brighter colours (red, white, purple), which underlines their femininity, while the men, especially Tamura and Shimuza, are, for the most part, dressed in more bland colours (black, white…). It could be – we didn’t check it thoroughly – that colour of clothing has a connection to which characters have sinned and which haven’t.
Note 2: A difference worth pointing out is that the use of a spatially moving camera is almost absent in the framing of ‘hell’, whereas it’s used abundantly in the introduction. Another difference concerns the use of the sound; it’s only in the introduction that sound is used to frame shifting perspectives and introduce the sparse use of externalization of inner speech.