DVD REVIEW: JIGOKU
Nobuo Nakagawa’s HELL on DVD from the Criterion Collection
Author: Keith Aiken
Source: Criterion Collection
“Shocking, outrageous, and poetic, JIGOKU (HELL, a.k.a. THE SINNERS OF HELL) is the most innovative creation from Nobuo Nakagawa, the father of the Japanese horror film. After a young theology student flees a hit-and-run accident, he is plagued by both his own guilt-ridden conscience and a mysterious, diabolical doppelganger. But all possible escape routes lead straight to hell— literally. In the gloriously gory final third of the film, Nakagawa offers up his vision of the underworld in a tour de force of torture and degradation. A striking departure from traditional Japanese ghost stories, JIGOKU, with its truly eye-popping (and -gouging) imagery, created aftershocks that are still reverberating in contemporary world horror cinema.” – from Criterion publicity materials
The award-winning Criterion Collection continues their tradition of top-quality DVDs with JIGOKU, the 1960 Japanese horror classic directed by Nobuo Nakagawa. The film has never before been available on home video in North America.
JIGOKU was one of the last movies produced by Shintoho, the studio formed in the wake of the “Flag of Ten” labor strike at Toho. The studio’s labor practices had led to a series of strikes, and in 1946 ten of Toho’s directors and top actors led hundreds of employees to form their own union. After negotiations, Toho gave the strikers old, unused studio grounds which were renamed Shintoho (New Toho). Despite the acrimonious beginnings for the new studio, business was business so Shintoho and Toho formed a working relationship. Toho initially handled theatrical distribution for Shintoho’s films, and actors (including SEVEN SAMURAI and GODZILLA star Takashi Shimura) and crew worked for both studios.
After the box office success of the romantic melodrama 365 NIGHTS (Sambyaku Rokujugo-Ya, 1948), Shintoho was able to set up its own distribution system and separate completely from Toho. They got off to a strong start with acclaimed films like Akira Kurosawa’s STRAY DOG (Nora Inu, 1949) but soon ran into difficulties competing with the established Toho, Daiei, Toei, and Shochiku for theater screens. By 1951 Shintoho was in severe financial trouble.
In 1955, theater owner Mitsugu Okura became the head of Shintoho. To keep the studio afloat, the new boss focused on the genres that would attract the biggest audiences: war movies, science fiction, nudity, and horror. Under Okura, Shintoho had a massive hit with EMPEROR MEIJI AND THE GREAT RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR (Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso, 1957), produced the SUPER GIANT (aka STARMAN, 1957-59) serials, and made a lot of ghost movies.
One of Shintoho’s top directors was Nobuo Nakagawa, a creative filmmaker who had started at Toho back when it was still called PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratories). Nakagawa made 97 films in his career, but is best remembered for a handful of well-regarded horror/ghost films such as VAMPIRE MOTH (Kyuketsuki-Ga, 1956) and BLACK CAT MANSION (Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, 1958). In 1959, he directed what is widely considered the definitive version of YOTSUYA GHOST STORY (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan), a Kabuki tale written in 1825 that has been filmed many times. YOTSUYA GHOST STORY was a success for Shintoho, so Mitsugu Okura was receptive when Nakagawa and screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa (STARMAN) approached the producer with a movie idea based on the 13th century hell scroll paintings from Buddhist temples. Okura approved a film he called HEAVEN AND HELL (Tengoku to Jigoku), but Miyagawa delivered a script the cut Heaven completely out of the picture.
In JIGOKU, a kind young student named Shiro Shimizu (YOTSUYA GHOST STORY star Shigeru Amachi) is engaged to Yukiko (Utako Mistsuya, STARMAN), the daughter of college Professor Yajima (Torahiko Nakamura). One night Shiro gets a ride home from his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata, RING), and the car hits and kills a drunken yakuza named Tiger Kyoichi (Hiroshi Izumida). Tamura speeds from the scene and convinces Shiro to keep quiet about the hit and run. But Shiro’s guilty conscience overwhelms him and he confesses to Yukiko… with disastrous results.
Nobuo Nakagawa and Ichiro Miyagawa pulled out all the stops to create a visual depiction of psychological suffering. The last third of JIGOKU takes place in Hell itself, and featured a shocking amount of graphic violence for a movie made in 1960. Due to Shintoho’s tight finances, Nakagawa paid for a portion of the film’s budget out of his own pocket, and was able to create some striking images with minimalist sets and creative camerawork.
JIGOKU may have been ahead of its time. The violence and subject matter was shocking for audiences at the time of its initial release and reviews were mixed. JIGOKU was made as Shintoho’s distribution system collapsed and — while it did well in the theaters it played — was given a spotty theatrical release. It became Nakagawa’s last film at Shintoho; the studio went out of business in 1961, and the director moved over to Toei.
JIGOKU’s reputation grew over the years, and the film and its director are now seen as major influences on the next generation of horror filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa (CURE, PULSE) and Takashi Miike (AUDITION, GOZU). It was remade by Toei in 1979 as THE INFERNO, and again in 1999. JIGOKU was rarely seen in the United States, but in 2004 the Japan Society of New York and the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles screened an English subtitled 35mm print from distributor Kokusai Hoei.
Criterion’s new DVD presents JIGOKU in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. There is a bit of grain to the print, but the image is sharp and the colors are stunning… not surprising, as the disc features a new high-definition digital transfer created on a Spirit Datacine from a new 35mm print. In addition, the MTI Digital Restoration System was used to remove dirt and scratches. There are 24 chapter stops. The original Japanese language soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical track. There are excellent, removable English subtitles, which were newly translated for this DVD.
Extras include the original theatrical trailer, a gallery of 14 theatrical posters for Nobuo Nakagawa films (including JIGOKU), and a gallery of 10 posters for Shintoho horror movies like NUDE ACTRESS MURDER. The main supplement is an excellent documentary entitled BUILDING THE INFERNO: NOBUO NAKAGAWA AND THE MAKING OF JIGOKU. Newly produced by Criterion for the DVD, the 40 minute feature gives a look at the film as well as the studio and men who made it through interviews with screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa, actor Yoichi Numata, Nakagawa’s friends Chio Katsura and Kensuke Suzuki, and director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. BUILDING THE INFERNO is dedicated to Yoichi Numata, who passed away on April 29, 2006.
Also included is a 16 pg booklet with an informative essay on JIGOKU by Film Comment editor Chuck Stephens. On a personal note, it was nice to see that friends Norman England (director of THE iDol), Chris D of the American Cinematheque, and Tomoo Haraguchi (director of SAKUYA, SLAYER OF DEMONS) were credited for their contributions to this DVD.
JIGOKU is a benchmark in Japanese horror, presented in top quality, and supported by great extra features. The Criterion Collection DVD is highly recommended.
Running time: 101 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1, Anamorphic
Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
Japanese language with English subtitles
DVD Release: September 19, 2006