Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jigoku (1960) - #352

Hear me! You who in life piled up sin upon sin will be trapped in Hell forever. Suffer! Suffer! This vortex of torment will whirl for all eternity.

When I was 14 years old, a high school classmate whom I had recently befriended invited me to a night of free roller skating at a local rink. I had nothing else to do and was glad to be asked, so I took up his offer and went into it expecting a fun time. And it was, for about the half-hour or so that I and the other boys (no girls) were allowed to wheel around on the floor.

Well before I was needing or expecting to take a break from the activity, a signal was given to remove our skates. Chairs were brought out, placed in rows and we were told to sit down to listen to a message that one of the adults had for us. Within a few minutes of his speech, what had been a pleasant night out with a bunch of guys turned into a brutal psychological encounter with the threat of everlasting, unrelenting, intensely painful physical punishment at the hands of an angry God, if I failed to make the right decision, right then, there and now, to accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. I'd been baited and lured by my friend into attending a fierce fundamentalist hellfire sermon, delivered for ostensibly "evangelistic" purposes intended to save my soul from eternal damnation.

Chances are pretty good that just about anyone reading this article has had a similar experience, and even this event was not my first exposure to dire warnings about going to Hell. What made this particular incident stand out so clearly in my memory, some 35 years later, was the speaker's unfettered intensity and sadistic relish with which he described the particular torments we'd be subject to if we didn't yield to his persuasion. He advised to go home that evening, turn on our kitchen stove and just for a few seconds, press our hand on the burner, after it had fully heated up. Then imagine that searing pain coursing through every nerve in our body forever and ever and ever! Lock ourselves in a small closet and scream in agony as loud as we can, then imagine the horrific sound of such pitiful, eardrum-shattering wailing and gnashing of teeth, amplified by the hundreds of millions of souls who will be similarly screaming their guts out without ceasing. Recall the foulest smelling stench that you've ever encountered - a dead animal carcass, nose-blistering ammonia, whatever detestable filth might come to mind - and imagine the terror of being trapped in such a disgusting, vomit-inducing circumstance without any hope of relief or cleanliness. Think of times when you were parched with thirst or famished with hunger, weak and exhausted, and ponder the anguish of never having so much as one drop of cool water or one morsel of nourishing food to alleviate your cravings. And so on, delivered with steely-eyed seriousness and the utmost confidence that everything he was saying, this crew-cut, disciplined, uncompromising molder of young minds, was absolutely, undoubtedly true. Not manipulative, not an exaggeration, not a mind game - but just the pure gospel truth that every person has to be confronted with so that they can be fully held accountable on that great and terrible Day of Judgment that awaits us all.

Well, I was one of the relatively few who did not come forward from my metal folding chair to repeat the Sinner's Prayer that evening. (I did eventually, several years later, but that's another story...) My friend did though, and afterward I asked him about it since I already knew that he went to church and said he was a Christian. I wondered why he had to go up and pray since he'd probably already done that before. His answer was something along the lines of "that's just what we do, I've probably said that prayer a hundred times already." I could sort of understand his reasoning, since we'd also spent time doing things like smoking pot, drinking beer and listening to Led Zeppelin and Kiss records that I knew his church (and Jesus) didn't approve of. But I was still puzzled by his wavering back and forth between "walking the straight and narrow" and "rock'n'rolling all night and partying every day." He told me that he was just "backslid" for now, and that he'd fully repent once and for all someday, once he was an adult.

That's a long diversion away from the film I'm here to write about, but the anecdote certainly came to my mind more than a few times as I watched Jigoku, an influential Japanese horror film and, in its final act, a wildly visual cinematic imagining of Hell, though from a Buddhist, not a Christian perspective. That last half-hour is the part that secured Jigoku's reputation as an early classic of bizarre, extreme, explicit blood and guts on film, so graphic that it was hard to track down for many years afterward, and still quite capable of astonishing viewers today despite the erosion of many taboos about what could be shown on the screen since it debuted in 1960. Dismemberment, beheading, impaling, peeled away skin revealing still pulsating internal organs... it's all here, and more, impressively conceived and executed in an era where there wasn't anything close to the kind of special effects industry that produces such convincingly gruesome illusions of the worst atrocities imaginable.

Along with the gore, director Nobuo Nakagawa conjured up elaborately choreographed scenarios of bodies and limbs in various configurations, writhing heaps of humanity helplessly groping, grasping, clawing, crawling and staggering in vain, looking for escape, lamenting the wicked choices they made that led them to their fate of present and unending misery. Though the film was produced too early to give any significant credit to the psychedelic upheavals soon to come in popular culture, the forty-minute tour of Hell that Jigoku takes us on is remarkably prescient in its trippiness.

A bad trip, that is...

As stunning and dynamic as those scenes are, what makes Jigoku work for me is the hour that Nakagawa spends building us up to that revelatory vision of the afterlife. There is a story, after all, and that story tells us the reasons that these characters wound up in, and ultimately deserved, such dire afflictions. Shiro, the main character around which all the activity revolves, is a young man just entering into adulthood - engaged to his lovely girlfriend Yukiko and wrestling with questions of purpose and ethics that people at that stage of life ought to be thinking through as they establish themselves in this world. We first meet him in a lecture hall, where a professor is expounding on "Concepts of Hell," helpfully pointing out that the doctrine of punishment after death for the wicked is not unique to Buddhism, but is also taught in the world's other great religions. (Hmm, my 14-year old self thought that Christians were the ones who came up with all that stuff!) His friend Tamura, who has an uncanny knack for showing up out of nowhere, tends to put a benign twist on various forms of temptation that he and Shiro face, and it leads to them covering up a fatal car accident where they run down a drunken pedestrian who happens to be the leader of a minor yakuza gang. His crime committed, Shiro is now fearful of getting caught, and that leads inevitably to other moral indiscretions, each one cascading into the next until our bewildered protagonist finds himself ensnared in a web of deadly sins: lust, greed, drunkenness, deception, hypocrisy, murder...

Along the way, he crosses paths with a number of others whose carnal abandon also put them on a path to the netherworld: a doctor who callously exploits his patients; a prostitute and her mother who use sexual favors to lure their victim into lethal traps; adulterous lovers who cavort shamelessly in the presence of an ailing spouse and other family members, and wind up  cheating on each other. Crimes of the past, like the snatching of a canteen that denied a dying soldier his last request for water, continue to haunt the conscience, pouring fuel onto the flames of perdition that await. Drunken orgies, shameless vulgarity, coldly calculated revenge and the wanton defilement of all that is noble and pure - it's a vile catalog of sins that Jigoku compiles over its first sixty minutes, though the misdeeds are not necessarily waved in our face or made glaringly obvious. Despite a weird camera angle or two (actually, quite a few more than that!) a lot of what we see happening in Shiro's world doesn't come across as so bad. The actions of him and those around him have the look of everyday life about them, and just like my young friend from years ago, the characters all operate on the assumption that whatever they may have done wrong, there's a long future ahead when they can make up for it. But alas, that's not what's in store, as events lead up to a massive die-off at a crowded nursing home that shuttles the poor souls gathered there across the River Sanzu to reckon with Enma, the King of Hell.

The darkness that surrounds Enma, and dominates most of the scenes in Jigoku, even those set amongst the living, gives the film a strong and strange dream-like quality. The surrealistic vibe is further enhanced by eerie, sinister music and vocalizations, unpredictable narrative transitions that may take a couple viewings to fully fathom what just happened, and an ending that is as ambiguous and inconclusive as a film that depicts eternity really ought to be. I know next to nothing about Nakagawa's intentions in making this film, even after viewing the supplement on his career and its interviews with a few people associated with Jigoku's creation. A mature director well into his career at the time, on a peer level with Kurosawa and Ozu, he was coming off the financial success of Ghost Story of Yotsuya (available on Criterion's Hulu Plus channel) and had creative license to make just about any movie he wanted. He chose this direction, inspired as much by the legend of Faust as he was traditional Buddhist teachings. It's hard to know if he was sincerely trying to warn his audience about the judgments he depicts on screen or if he simply saw the opportunity to create vivid tableaux that triggered the imaginations  of people regardless of where they fall across the spectrum of cultures or religious beliefs. While the garish imagery and profuse screaming of Jigoku's suffering victims puts the film at risk of being seen as an insane black comedy, as my hellfire anecdote above and the real-life experiences of billions of others remind us, its themes of malicious human sin and relentless divine punishment continue to resonate with and provoke primal anxieties deep within human nature that the passage of time and ever-increasing scientific knowledge has not thoroughly extinguished.

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