Friday, January 21, 2011

Going To "Hell"

Enjoy a steaming bowl of "Hell" at Japan Society. Photo (c) Everett Collection

"Jigoku is more than merely a boundary-pummeling classic of the horror genre—it’s as lurid a study of sin without salvation as the silver screen has ever seen," notes Chuck Stephens in his wonderful essay for Criterion.

Regarded as a seminal cinematic depiction of Hell, Nobuo Nakagawa’s Hell (1960), or Jigoku is far less known outside Japan. Serving later as the basis for two remakes, one by Tastumi Kumashiro in 1979 and the other by Teruo Ishii in 1999, Nakagawa’s original was "[b]orn from some unholy union of Goethe’s Faust and Genshin’s Ojoyoshu, a tenth-century Buddhist treatise on the various torments of the lower realms."

Depicting sin, suffering and punishment, Hell brings to screen beautifully the complexities of human intentions, choices and their consequences. Stephens continues:
Resolutely unafraid of incomprehensibility, Jigoku proves ultimately less an articulation of the moral and postmortal consequences of sin than a free-associative head-on collision of righteously motivated evil intentions and well-intentioned innocents who capriciously lose their souls.
Nakagawa started his film making career in 1924 and made some 90 feature films by the time of his death in 1984. During his tenure at Shintoho, he earned a distinction as the "master of Japanesque horror" in addition to his earlier reputation as "the Japanese Alfred Hitchcock". Hell was the last in a "nine-film string of innovative and deliriously eccentric horror films" made by Nakagawa during the 1950s at Shintoho and given the backdrop of the studio going out of business, the film was subject to budget-saving strategies.

In anticipation of Japan Society's screening of Hell, Steve Dollar at The Wall Street Journal wrote that the movie "sits very near the foundations of the Japanese horror film." He continues:
[Director] Nakagawa's stark and gripping imagery has the punch of a surrealist noir, hypnotizing with poetic visual flourishes before diving into the fiery, forsaken pit of the title—which is realized with an extreme flair for the grotesque and hallucinatory.
The U.K’s Eye for Film comments on the movie's capacity to shatter reality:
Jigoku is a beautiful film. Its play with lighting effects, colour gels and jarring camera angles makes everything - both on earth and below - seem an off-kilter nightmare, while the soundtrack of jazz, wood percussion and theremin only adds to the sense of disorientation. Realism this is not, but Nakagawa is nonetheless concerned with depicting a society that has lost its moral balance, at a time when memories of war-time horror were still fresh in the Japanese mind, while post-war modernisation was engendering its own anxieties about over-permissiveness and the dissipation of traditional values.
Hell plays today, Friday, January 21, as part of the monthly classics series Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House. Tickets are $12/$9 Japan Society members, students & seniors. The Zen & Its Opposite series concludes February 18 with Okamoto's Sword of Doom.


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