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Film Review: Jigoku: Japanese Hell (1999) by Teruo Ishii

🎞 Asian cinema; Japanese film

Film Review: Jigoku: Japanese Hell (1999) by Teruo Ishii

❗️True Masterpieces missing in non-Translation


Jigoku: Japanese Hell (1999) is one of the extremely underrated film masterpieces and sheer evidence of ‘missing in non-translation.’ The so-called missing in non-translation is that a well-made film in itself is long buried in extremely limited or improper distribution due to the lack of any translation for it in the era of internet. Of course, there is another category of cases, such as terribly authorized or unauthorized reedits that ruin a film. Hence, what we have to do for unfortunately buried masterpieces is revaluation, translation, and remastering for re-distribution. The best example of this resolution in Hong Kong is the redistribution of the cult horror classic for Mainlanders, the Cantonese version of The Era of Vampires (2002). As I know, before that, the film was a major victim of improper distribution, including the internet, which resulted in landslide negative reviews based on fatal flaws in distribution that ruined the complete and original film version. Jigoku (1999) can also be salvaged similarly today. 

▪️ Social Commentary of Jigoku: Japanese Hell (1999)


First, a film or an art as a social solution to a social issue is principally impossible because it is limited in its ideological nature and designated function by the ruling class who runs the business. Moreover, a film or art itself can’t replace the material and practical effects of activism by the mass or policy by government or lawmakers. Both Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein clearly concluded that a film doesn’t fit handling theoretical matters mainly due to its time limitations and stage presence. In other words, it is to show a simple answer itself, not to have audiences / spectators to think or analyze anything behind the sounds and images. That’s the form of its narrative power and effectiveness. As a result, social commentary in film is limited to the moral and ethical aspects of a subject if it’s well presented by the cast and crew of a film. This can be solved in the narrative itself completely as an ending.  


▪️ What are the main features of Jigoku (1999)?


  1. Enma Daiou / The Lord of Hell (played by Michiko Maeda) is a literal personification of social commentary itself and the director Teruo Ishii himself. In narrative, it’s a storyteller in an anthology like Boris Karloff in Black Sabbath (1963). Thus, her role is actually a triple role, three as one. One is The Lord of Hell, who is in the narrative itself; the second is a storyteller of an anthology; the third is the social commentary itself or the director himself. We can see that the cross-field structure of the character itself is dialectic unseen in Black Sabbath (1963), while there is no clear and complete separation between her roles. This is a clear sign of a well-made character.     

  2. It’s relatively easy to condemn Tsutomu Miyazaki (1962-2008) of The Tokyo/Saitama Serial Kidnapping Murders of Little Girls (August 1988-June 1989); Shokou Asahara (1955-2018) and his Aum Shinrikyo (1987-present) of the Sakamoto family murder (November 5, 1989), Matsumoto sarin attack (June 27, 1994), and Tokyo subway sarin attack (March 20, 1995); Masumi Hayashi (1961-) of the Wakayama Poisoned Curry Incident (July 25, 1998) for their brutal crimes. In these, the traditional dualism of black and white is crystal clear. These collective memories of Japan are skillfully staged in the film as symbolical signs of the Lost Decades (1991-present). Damnation of these real events is done by this film literally. One is law-enforcement by the establishment; the other is imagined law-enforcement in another world by Ogres of Hell (Blue Ogre is played by the famous Godzilla / Pulgasari / Hedorah actor Kenpachiro Satsuma). However, the latter appears as some kind of lynch by ‘heroes.’ Their sadistic and excessive punishment on criminals in Hell lead to my favorite actor, Tetsurô Tanba’s Asu Shinou’s self-defensive act. Thus, staging Asu Shinou from a cult movie, Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight (1973) is not an illogical insert at all, while it is not only a morally necessitated punishment for the cruelty of Ogres, but it’s also a cinematic freedom, a cinematic response to the religious dogma of Japanese Buddhism. No cinema character ever overthrew the order of Hell in fiction like Asu Shinou. This is why he’s so attractive to us. Moreover, this solution itself is also commentary. It’s the best example of a meaningful cameo appearance in cinema.  In general, the mise-en-scène and editing of this film skillfully omit unnecessary or costly or heavily excessive movements of the brutal crimes. It can be done by implication and even cutting out before the critical movement. This film is the best example of handling exceeding violence in a minimalist way.

  3. If you want to find a film about The Tokyo/Saitama Serial Kidnapping Murders of Little Girls (August 1988-June 1989) and Aum Shinrikyo (1987-present), Jigoku (1999) is the best film. Technically, Teruo Ishii used stage drama methods to solve the low budget problem while depicting highly costly locations like the high court and Hell. Even a train is abstractly staged in the way of a stage play. The merry-go-round trick of the film is the most costly one in this film. Among aesthetic aspects, the most brilliant one is the creation of Aum Shinrikyo facility in Kamikuisshiki simply because it achieved a similarity in both its construction and atmosphere, as I saw the real facilities in the early 1990s even before the news of 1995 broke out. It was really like some kind of film studio outlook at that time rather than a paper factory. On acting, we must specifically praise Youichi Wada (1955-) who played Asahara in the extreme similarity while other actors from stage play, V-Cinema, soft-core porno did their brilliant, less restrained acting. In comparison to the most restrained acting of so-called mainstream actors, independent actors like Kinako / Miki Satou (who played the protagonist Rika) are closer to the reality of society than the mainstream actors due to their less restrained acting. This is nothing bad, while all genres are professional categories of film and art. Here, we can’t exclude some categories of people who either totally deny film art or art itself. Unimaginable kinds of people do exist in contrast to what is taught in art schools. Although they affected those brilliant actors of this film to some extent, obviously, it is mainly due to cultural unsophistication of society. 

  4. Symbolism is like Shûji Terayama’s Fruits of Passion (1981); two sequences are remarkable. One is in Satian, when two cult members try to escape from there with a Parkinson's patient trapped in the clinic, chasers wear big Shoukou head masks. In this action, the Shokou head mask means the order by the guru, Asahara, and their obsession with cult worship; the other is the end title credit roll. In which, all female Cult characters take off their cult uniforms. This means their spiritual liberation. Hence, it is not just depthless, meaningless nude appearances of actresses. 

  5. The use of Sarin, the notorious nerve gas, is in the historical context. First, Nazi Germany invented Sarin as a pesticide in 1938, then, the Pinochet regime of Chili, who was guided by ex-SS Commander, Walter Rauff (1906-1984) weaponized Sarin to terminate political opponents globally in DINA’s Operation Andrea. Finally, Aum, the anti-Semitic cult of Japan caused the two Sarin incidents in 1994 and 1995. The history of Sarin can be put into the history of anti-Semitism. In detail, the conspiracy theory of Zionism was first fabricated by the feudal Russian Empire, then it was continued by Nazi Germany and Aum. Aum was obsessed with the so-called world conspiracies of Jewish financiers. Thus, it’s literally anti-Semitic. Politically, it’s closer to radical right-wing extremism, while it opposes any other authorities other than Asahara. Hence, Aum was and still is one of the big significant reactionary phenomena in the Lost Decades. 

  6. One of the important political principles embodied in this film or Aum issue is that any organizational form is all interchangeable. Aum itself is not only a commercial organization, a company, it was also a religious entity, non-profit, non-governmental, charity, political party, terrorist organization, dissident group etc. at the same time. Separate arms in the entire network of the group formed one big multi-faced organization like a concern. Thus, Aum is purely a product of capitalism. 

  7. While Aum continues its existence in Japan even after those terrorist attacks, foreign countries, mainly Russia, banned it in 2016 after its creation in 1987. Other countries that Aum was active in are Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Montenegro. On this, what is important to know is that, in Russia, after Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japanese cult religions like Unification Church and Aum were thriving. They have got many foreign members in those countries. In Jigoku (1999), this wasn’t explained. 

  8. The most important moral challenge in Jigoku (1999) is expressed in the final court sequence. In which, Aum lawyers morally harass the family of the victim. Their point is that if the family willingly agonizes the family of offenders in the same way. Is that morally correct? This is moral harassment of the victims by offenders. What distinguishes lynch and justice lies in the collective will, if a legal system properly reflects the collective will that is based on the public interests. It needs media and moral literacy to judge the whereabouts of the public interest against any capricious judge and individual desire. Lynch is caused by capricious and individual desire, not any collective will which corresponds to the public interests. Hence, a lynch by a hero in the form of justice is unjust. This is the most difficult part for people of Japan in such a culture in which ‘heroes’ often find a solution to lynch against supposed ‘social injustice.’  During the 1990s, the era of Lost Decades and Missing Idee, a maxim is still right that law offenders are absolutely wrong, and they can’t blame their victims for any misdoing while it can only be justification of their criminal intent and law offense. This was summed up by a situational conversation, ‘a thief says that he stole other people’s stuff because the door is unlocked. Wait, it doesn’t matter if the door is locked or unlocked by the victim, because you can still avoid committing the crime even if the door is fully open.’ 



In conclusion, a film can tackle the ill mentality of the age yet not its root cause in society. Jigoku (1999) is not only a good film about the collective memories of Japan during the 1990s, especially about Aum terrorism, but it also cinematically handled what Akira Kurosawa realized yet could not artistically accomplish on the Aum issue. The confusion of morality and vulnerability of people due to lack of media literacy and philosophy. 



To live is hell, to die is also hell. This world is Hell. Hell is also Hell. It’s all the same.




Film Review: Jigoku: Japanese Hell (1999) by Teruo Ishii

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