Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zen and Its Opposite: Jigoku

Dante truly tapped into something significant. His visions of Hell are compatible with not just the Christianity, but the tenets of many world traditions, including Buddhism. In fact, it is the Buddhist conception of Hell that graphically informs Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (or Hell), which fittingly screens this Friday as part of the Japan Society’s continuing Zen & Its Opposite film series exploring the darker side of Zen Buddhism.

Shiro Shimizu is going to Hell. In his case, the road is paved more with cowardice and compliance than good intentions. He is not really a bad person, but he is no match for Tamura, his self-appointed frienemy. Whenever his Mephistophelian fellow student is present, bad things seem to happen. After crashing Shimizu’s intimate engagement celebration with Yukiko Yajima, his fiancé, and her parents, Tamura insists on driving Shimizu home. However, at Shimizu’s insistence, they take a fatal detour resulting in the hit-and-run death of a low level yakuza. Wracked with guilt, Shimizu is intent on confessing. However, on the way to the police station, Shimizu’s cab has a freak accident, killing innocent Yukiko.

Believing himself truly accursed (and not without reason), Shimizu descends into a boozy bender of vice, attracting the attention of the late yakuza’s mother and lover. Yet, he somewhat pulls out of it when he is called home to his dying mother’s sick bed. There he meets Sachiko, the perfect likeness of his beloved Yukiko. Of course, the malevolent Tamura materializes soon enough, not that the unsavory characters surrounding Shimizu, most definitely including his dissolute father, need much help choosing the path to damnation.

There are a number of “wait, what just happened?” moments in Jigoku, but once Nakagawa has everyone in the fiery underworld the film suddenly makes perfect sense. Though usually labeled a horror film, Jigoku is better described as a feverish metaphysical head-trip, sort of a forerunner to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. Fifty years later, the brutal and surreal imagery is still disturbing thanks in large measure to the striking cinematography of Mamoru Morita. (One cannot miss the color red in his color palette.) If nothing else, Jigoku will convince viewers Hell would be a good place to avoid.

Later to star in the original Ringu and its sequel, Yôichi Numata is just creepy as all Jigoku in the role of Tamura. Luxuriating in pure evil, he is an unforgettable movie devil. Conversely, Utako Mitsuya expresses an endearing vulnerability as Yukiko and particularly as Sachiko. Though his meek character is maddeningly passive, Shigeru Amachi is at least credible enough expressing his pain and angst.

Visually, Jigoku at times suggests a kinship with Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), which also screened during the Zen and Its Opposite series. Yet, where Kwaidan is Da Vinci-esque, Jigoku is Boschian. There is indeed a bloody grisliness to some sequences that must have been shocking for 1960. Perhaps most impressively, Nakagawa wraps it all up with a conclusion open to positive interpretation while staying true to all that precedes it. A far richer film than Noé’s Void, Jigoku is quite a hallucinatory journey. A true cult classic, it screens this Friday (1/21) at the Japan Society.