Say an alien visitor to Earth files a formal request for an explanation of the mental processes that compel regular folks to line up and spend their hard-earned money for the privilege of having their wits scared out of them by horror movies. The world’s cinema scholars congregate, form a consensus, and then translate their findings into layman’s English. Their answer would be something along the lines of “Horror cinema affords the viewer an opportunity to experience fear and its attendant catharsis in a sanitary and safe environment. Being scared is, excuse the obviousness, scary. But the realization afterward, that what’s frightening onscreen has no power to do harm in the world beyond the four walls of the theater, is cathartic and even comforting.” Maybe they’d even mention the episode of The Sopranos in which psychoanalyst Dr. Melfi compares the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz — as apt an expression of purely fictive childlike fear as any — to a roller coaster, where the individual can access the sensation of terror secure in the knowledge that he’s not in any real danger. Surely the aliens have HBO Go.
Nobuo Nakagawa, the director of the 1960 J-horror masterpiece Jigoku, excels in this mode of horror filmmaking. With vividly imagined gore the likes of which Japanese audiences had never witnessed, Nakagawa painted an indelibly haunting vision of hell replete with severed limbs, blue-skinned demons, and rivers overflowing with gaunt souls of the damned. But in a more meaningful sense, Nakagawa frontloads the most potent, lasting horror in the two acts of the film that precede protagonist Shiro’s much-vaunted descent into the netherworld. Nakagawa understands that the fears with the power to stay with the viewer for years after the credits roll, the fears that creep up when audiences go to bed later that night and find that they can’t sleep, those originate in a different part of the brain entirely. Jigoku has earned its enduring reputation as a cornerstone of Japanese horror because its best frights are existential in nature, not fanciful. The film climaxes with a room full of dead bodies, but the grisliest casualty takes place offscreen. Nakagawa starts with the death of God, and as he goes, so goes the world’s order and decency.
Nakagawa’s got a knack for conjuring mature-minded scares. Even when he indulges his every dark creative whim in the phantasmagorical hell he creates to torment wayward theology student Shiro (Shigeru Amachi), he tends to root the visible monstrosities onscreen in a decidedly real concern. Though Nakagawa employs surreal means of expressing them, his nightmare scenarios often revolve around covertly commonplace fears that would’ve been intimately known to his viewers. While in hell, Shiro’s taunted and tortured by the specters of his wife-to-be and their unborn child, the latter of whom leads Shiro on a walking tour of the many realms of hell as he attempts to rescue her. In evoking the images of the dead spouse and child, Nakagawa goes right for the emotional jugular. These images may not be unfamiliar to the folks in the audience, for whom such a situation presents a fate too terrible to envision. To parents, the fearsome element resides not in the ghostly apparitions but the loss that their presence literalizes. The psychedelic atrocities that Shiro witnesses in hell stem from eminently reasonable fears for a right-minded adult to have, which must surely be the worst fears of all.
Nakagawa’s most unsettling suggestion, however, may be that the workings of the universe are an arbitrary scramble of chaos. He takes a darkly existential approach to justice, cosmic or poetic or otherwise. As the film begins, we find Shiro in rigorous pursuit of academic success, sitting in rapt attention during a lecture from his theology professor. He’s a good boy, on the fast track to marry his professor’s daughter and advance into a life of success and comfort. He’s got a bright future laid out for him, and it seems like he deserves it, too. Nakagawa shows him to be a progressive and open-minded student of life, devoting equal time to East Asian religions as well as the Judeo-Christian tradition in his studies. Most importantly, Shiro’s especially fond of the notion of everything happening for a reason, that the universe operates under a grand schematic towards some larger good.
Time and again in the film prior to Shiro’s death, Nakagawa challenges this notion of good befalling good and bad befalling bad. In Nakagawa’s world, he doles out the bad pretty indiscriminately, dealing a few tragedies apiece to each and every character. The event that first sends Shiro down the garden path to hell strikes at random and without any sort of transgression to precipitate it. Shiro gets a ride home from suspiciously broody friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata), but when he convinces Tamura to take a less-traveled sidestreet, the car lays out a yakuza kingpin (Hiroshi Izumida). Shiro’s not even the party behind the wheel, but he has no trouble accepting all culpability when Tamura shifts blame to him for having selected the road, spiraling into a vortex of guilt and paranoia over a comeuppance he’s certain must be on its way. When days tick by and no misfortune befalls Shiro (though it will, oh, it will), the guilt hastily consuming him intermingles with the creeping doubt that the universe adheres to any sense of existential rules. To add grievous injury to injury, Nakagawa then takes the life of Shiro’s betrothed for what appears to be no good reason, and in a twist of even crueler irony, he does so as Shiro’s on his way to the police station to confess to a crime that he didn’t even commit. If there is some higher deity pulling all the strings — a prospect that gets fainter with every passing scene — it’s a miserable bastard, smacking Shiro in the face every time he tries to do the right thing.
All that, not to mention the cesspool of moral bankruptcy that Shiro confronts when he visits his ailing mother Ito (Kimie Tokudaij) at a care facility for infirm old folks run by his father. The assisted-living community is no kindly home for the elderly, but more a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Along with Shiro, the audience discovers one by one that all of the residents have conducted lives marred by sin and wrongdoing. Shiro’s pops has been philandering while his mother circles the drain, a painter entered the facility in an effort to evade criminal charges in another city, a soldier’s haunted by the memory of stealing his comrade’s water during the war and effectively sealing his doom. Shiro’s shaken to his core when he realizes that these people have essentially gotten away scot-free, quietly and peacefully wasting away in relative comfort without any divine retribution to speak of. Nakagawa recognizes that the disturbing qualities of seeing someone evil get away with what they’ve done go bone-deep, more than superficial scares of fantasy. God has taken leave of this forgotten corner of the world, and what remains on Earth is a lawless quagmire.
The senselessness of evil on Earth makes the torrents of punishment that Nakagawa unleashes on his characters once they migrate en masse to hell all the more disturbing. It’s hardly an oversight that the film includes not even the slightest whiff of salvation until its very final moments; Nakagawa throws every torment he can dream up at Shiro, reducing him to nothingness before the onslaught relents. If Shiro hopes to free himself from the maelstrom of pain and suffering, Nakagawa ensures that he’ll have to earn it. The only realm that operates under any sort of justice is Nakagawa’s hell, dealing apropos eternities of torment to its deserving inhabitants (the soldier who took his brother-in-arms’ water will die of thirst until the end of time, an oasis just beyond his reach). All is out of whack in Nakagawa’s universe, existentially speaking: fate strongarms the good into a life of evil, and then withholds just desserts until it’s too late and everyone’s been dragged to hell. Life around here’s an arbitrary game, when not actively stacked against the player. It’s all too appropriate that while in hell, Shiro stretches to free his infant child from the wheel of fortune, indifferently spinning.
Good horror makes adults feel like little kids again; extraordinary horror has no need to de-age viewers to scare their shorts off. Nakagawa spins chilling observations from the ugly realities of adult life, in particular the sad realization that everything does not work out as it should. We joke about student loan payments and the inevitability of obsolescence being the spookiest frights on Halloween, we laugh a little too loud because we’re trying to prove something, mostly to ourselves. Evil demons, lakes of bubbling pitch and hordes of soulless ghouls can be mentally written off once we’ve outgrown them. The void is for real.