director Nobuo Nakagawa
You’ve probably heard that karma is a bitch. Well, director Nobuo Nakagawa’s lurid, surreal vision of Buddhist “Hell” (which is the film’s title), is a relentless, bizarro litany of punishment for irrevocable sin.
Nakagawa’s film, a cult phenomenon in Japan since its release, has long been considered the touchstone of the Japanese horror film, which should no doubt intrigue those excited by the extreme outre-ness of Japanese horror as we have come to know it.
The film starts out with a college student and his Mephistopheles-esque schoolmate and rival, who accidentally run down a gangster on a dark street and fail to stop and assist. Considering our protagonist is not at the wheel and wanted to go back to help, even tries to turn himself in to police, this crime seems a bit on the side of “not really his fault”. But no matter.
As the story unfolds, like a reeling drunk, every character encountered is shown to have some core crime on his soul that would doom him to eternal damnation. What weaves like a waking nightmare through its rather outlandish and convoluted narrative tips over for the film’s final half hour into a tour of the many realms of hell and the graphic punishments that await all sinners.
It’s where the film goes from story to Grand Guignol with amputations, lakes of pus, landscapes of disembodied limbs, and innumerable freaky weird moments and scenes.
It’s modernist and somehow out of left field, yet tied to a very explicit and didactic system of ultimate retribution and punishment from the powers of the universe. Not really familiar with the shape and breadth of Buddhist hells, it’s hard for me to do more than project exactly how specific these depictions are to extant belief systems. It’s pretty safe to say that Nakagawa’s Hell is still something not exactly dreamt of in your philosophy.
Wacky and far-out.
And I’ve already made a suggestion to a friend that it’d be a good double feature with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977).