The Criterion Collection’s release of Nobuo Nakagawa’s “Jigoku” (1960;
translated as “Hell”) offers an early primer for modern Japanese horror. This 1960 film by a director of 97 B-pictures answered the summer audience’s desire for some “chills.” Nakagawa originally had a mainstream horror pic in mind, something like his more traditional “Ghost Story of Yotsuna” (1959). He then worked out a broad philosophical concept concerning salvation and damnation for the deceased. The new focus redirected the project towards the dark realms of social repression and guilt, and the agonizing aftereffects of both. Thus “Jigoku” now plays like a primitive predecessor of the visceral and often sadistic treatments that would come to characterize a modern national genre.

Much of “Jigoku” is rooted in a realistic setting where a series of events leave serious repercussions. The final third locates the central character, Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi), to where the film’s title promises.

At the film’s opening, Shiro gets caught in some unforeseen predicaments. While driving at night with his friend Tamura (a brooding and portentous role by Yoichi Numata), the latter runs down a gang member who shrieks for vengeance in a pool of his own blood. Two women, who we soon learn are the departed’s mother and girlfriend, discover his body and vow revenge. Though Shiro isn’t around to learn of this, guilt and paranoia weigh heavily upon him.

While the real hell still awaits for Shiro, “Jigoku” finds a surreal logic to line up more agonizing dilemmas. Engaged to his professor’s daughter, Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), Shiro goes to this mentor for help concerning the accidental auto death. But while doing so, he suffers another auto crash with his intended, who doesn’t make it out alive. As Nakagawa piles up the issues for Shiro, which include an encounter with a drugged-out prostitute, the danger leaves a taste of repressed sexuality. Any sex he’s had with Yukiko has left him quite distraught, and if he could relax about it, the film suggests, the swells around him would too.

But no such luck. At Yukiko’s parents’ house, Shiro meets a dead-ringer for his deceased beloved, and finds himself in torment over it. A series of bizarre turns climax when a mysterious woman murders Shiro for all of his deeds, and sends him away to begin the “hell” portion of our show. Shiro descends through a fiery pit to find himself aside a ghostly white lake. He soon finds Tamura (now unambiguously preternatural) and other departed souls, all of whom must atone. Many end up in a forever-circling crowd, while the less fortunate must suffer submersion into a river of puss.

As brutal as this hell may be – Nakagawa has plenty of Dantean fun with the set pieces and a good measure of gore – Shiro’s real torment comes when he encounters Yukiko. Her dejected soul informs him that their unborn child died with her. And now, the guilty Shiro must search for it.

While the prevalence of realistic (though fairly surreal) settings may disappoint some, these portions of “Jigoku” play like a loosely plotted B-grade noir. The phantasmagoric netherworld at the end has a design akin to low-budget sci-fi of the 1960s. The two styles play together like downbeat camp, but the loose-cannon structure throughout shows the filmmakers having experimental fun. Though the film strives to create a meditation on sin and guilt, it works best as an expose on what awaits souls sorry enough to be born in a thoroughly existential world.

Since many viewers will finish this idiosyncratic film curious, Criterion includes an informative documentary, “Building the Inferno,” on Nakagawa and the creation of “Jigoku.” Featuring his cohorts and contemporaries, this half-hour feature plays well as an introduction that many viewers will need to this lesser-known but curious filmmaker. The accompanying booklet includes “Hell on Earth,” an accessible essay by Chuck Stephens that’s equally enthusiastic and informative. It works well as fast pre-viewing read and, like the accompanying featurette, should encourage cineastes to do some digging on Nakagawa and his other available titles.

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