"Once drawn by that merciless wind, the fair youth of morning is at dusk naught but bones. In the end, all must die. Numberless are the sins committed on the way to death. For those sins, there may be punishment in the law. Some may slip through its net, but the awareness of sin cannot be escaped. Religion imagines a world after death, dealing punishment in place of the law. That world is Hell."
— opening narration
Theology student Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) is engaged to Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya), the daughter of his respected teacher, Professor Yajima. He also maintains a strange relationship with the uber-creepy Tamura (Yoichi Numada), who seems to know the intimate and sometimes shameful secrets of all and sundry. Showing up uninvited to the professor's house as Shiro announces his intention to marry Yukiko, Tamura makes it clear to the professor that he knows of an atrocity that the man committed during WWII and leaves with Shiro. As Tamura drives Shiro home, Tamura lets on that he knows Shiro has been sleeping with Yukiko and asks him to consider the possibility that she may be pregnant. (The guy's a total buzzkill from the word "go.")
Tamura (Yoichi Numada) and Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), on a road trip to a dire destiny.
Seconds later, Tamura runs over a drunk named Tiger Kyoichi, a leader of the Gondo yakuza syndicate, and drives away. Shiro demands that Tamura stop the car so they can see if the victim is alright, but Tamura stoically refuses and blames the accident on Shrio, citing that it would not have happened if he had not asked Shimura to deviate from his planned route of travel. While Shiro silently contemplates his culpability for murder if the man dies, the gangster's mother (Kyoko Tsuji), alongside his floozy girlfriend, Yoko (Akiko Ono), grieves over her son's corpse and vows vengeance should she ever find the hit-and-run perps. Upon reading of the hit-and-run in the paper the next day, Tamura could not give less of a shit if he tried, while Shiro tries to convince him to go with him to the police and turn themselves in. Tamura notes that Kyoichi was only some piece of yakuza scum and not worth the best years of their lives, but the guilt-ridden Shiro confesses the accident to Yukiko, who suggests that her father might know what to do. While on their way to see the professor, the cab the pair are riding in crashes into a telephone pole and Yukiko is tragically killed. After Yukiko's funeral, Shiro frets over whether he or Tamura will "win" their battle of conscience (or lack thereof) and finds himself hanging out in a sleazy nightclub, where he meets, picks up, and puts the bone to the yakuza's bereaved girlfriend (who is also revealed to be a heroin addict, in a narrative bid to up the vileness quotient). Yoko twigs to the fact that Shiro is one of her lover's murderers, so she reports back to the gangster's mother and, with the target now identified, the plot for revenge escalates.
As if Shiro were not already fucked up enough by his fiancee's untimely demise, he heads to a rustic retirement community upon being notified that his mother if terminally ill, and while his mother lays there slowly expiring, her husband cavorts in the very next room with some kimonoed hoo-er. (Yeah, this movie's a roller coaster ride of sunshine...) Suddenly, a cutie named Sachiko shows up and she happens to look exactly like the dead Yukiko (which only makes sense, as she's played by the same actress). Sachiko sent the letter that alerted Shiro to his mother's illness, and she is his mom's nurse, as well as the daughter of Ensai (Jun Otomo) an alcoholic painter who lives nearby and drinks heavily while painting a depiction of Hell. We also meet other assorted residents of the community, all of whom are quite sleazy and/or pathetic, and are each responsible for murders and other acts of awfulness in the past. Tamura, the professor, his wife, the yakuza guy's mom, and the yakuza guy's lover all converge on the retirement community and in short order all are killed, via natural death, suicide, a fall from a great height, hanging, consumption of rancid fish and poisoned wine at a party, gunshot wounds, or strangulation. Thus, every fucking character in the story is consigned to Jigoku, which is the Japanese word for Hell. Well most of them go to Hell, but I'm getting to that...
When I first sat through JIGOKU — aka SINNERS OF HELL — I was disappointed to discover that it's basically a slice-of-life drama focusing on the sleazy doings of some Japanese folks in 1960 whose climax features an infamous depiction of the culture's concepts of Hell and what becomes of those whose vileness during life earns them a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. Loaded with enough sleazy characters and situations to fuel several schlocky soap operas, the melodrama just keeps on coming, piling on atrocious behavior after atrocious behavior with the kind of glorious excess for which Japanese cinema is renowned. In fact, things get so over-wrought that it all verges on self-parody. But the most bizarre aspect of this flick is its dual nature as a two-way mind-fuck of a film. If one approached this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it, it at first reads as a straight drama picture, which is totally understandable, but then it turns into a balls-out gruesome and gory festival of the torments of the damned brought to life. It's like someone swapped out the last reel for the ultra-nasty and surreal final twenty-plus minutes of an unabashed horror movie.
Just one of the creepy images seen once the film quite abruptly turns into a straight-up horror movie.
Upon his death, Shiro ends up in Limbo, where he again sees Yukiko, who tells him she was pregnant with his daughter, whose soul has been sent along the river into the underworld, so Shiro must brave the horrors of Hell itself to save her. What follows is a journey through hideous punishments, tortures, and other such wholesome sights, coupled with a few shocking revelations along the way. Packed with creepy and gore-filled imagery, the Hell sequence features a cornucopia of folks being graphically beheaded, sawn in twain, flayed, disemboweled, tormented by naked temptresses, being boiled in oil, impalement, tongues torn out, walking barefoot through a landscape of three-foot-tall glass shards, and the general hopelessness of existence.
Not even Hammer films went there like this back in 1960, so once again Japan delivers.
Even by today's standards, some of this stuff is very extreme and disturbing, and it's worth making one's way through all of the soap opera mishegoss just to get to it. That said, the ending is simultaneously disappointing and corny, but the film overall packs serious balls and must have been quite a shock to Japanese audiences in 1960. And if you're wondering why you've never heard of this movie, despite there having been a ton of Japanese horror and sci-fi flicks released in the States during the 1960's, trust me when I tell you that this film's content did not have a hope in, well, Hell of ever getting past American censors. Even without its visceral diabolical slaughterhouse segments, the film's adult content would have been tough for watchdogs of media decency to let by, and an edited version would have ended up as a very short and incomprehensible mess.
Though its 100-minute running time may occasionally drag a bit, which has a lot to do with the film's utterly joyless/hopeless tone, JIGOKU is never boring and the final reel makes it worth a look for all horror completists.
Poster from the theatrical release.