It must have been the hot, humid, sweltery weather yesterday that put me in the mood to watch Jigoku. I bought this movie at least two years ago and have never gotten around to watching it; a bad record, even by my lax standards. The edition I have, by the way, is not the swanky Criterion, but a one-disc Asian import. Most of the DVD menu was in Japanese, but the selections were organized in the obvious way, so no problemo. It is, however, the original 1960 version, and not the '99 remake that proved other countries are willy-nilly redoing their classics, and pissing off the fans. (Screams of "sacrilege!" and "crap!" on the Interweb).
Worth the wait? Oh, yeah. I think I put it off because I knew it was a little more on the serious side; not for when I'm in the mood for Something Weird. But it was one of the stranger horror films I've ever seen, actually. The first half follows an earnest student, just engaged to his professor's beautiful daughter, who seems to have everyhing going for him. Then he accepts a ride home from a sinister buddy, and a drunk walks in front of the car. Suddenly it's a hit-and-run, and before you can say "I know what you did at your engagement party," his life goes to, well, hell, and the deaths start piling up at an improbable level.
They all end up at a nursing home in a country village, where hero Shiro's mother lies sick, and his father is already shacking up with a new babe. Almost exactly at the hour mark, every single surviving character in the movie gets killed off, some individually by other characters, some by poisoned sake, and the rest by tainted fish.
And THEN...the whole cast moves to a Buddhist Hell, which looks as nasty as the Christian one, and the hapless Shiro becomes a hero after death by ignoring his own plight, asking forgiveness from the other characters, and striving to rescue the soul of the unborn baby he didn't even know about when he was alive. The imagery is artistically done, even frequently beautiful, and the torment-effects are quite disturbing. With minimal special effects! This was 1960, after all. But CGI couldn't possibly improve the scenes of the screaming heads on the flayed, skeletal bodies.
Probably not for everybody, but art-film fans need some grotesquerie, too.