The 1924 and 1935 Hollywood films entitled Dante’s Inferno offer a sort of precedent for Nobuo Nakagawa’s astonishing horror melodrama-cum-moral tract, but they take an easy ‘it was all a dream’ out so protagonists can get on with applying the lessons learned from a vision of Hell to improving their life. This Japanese equivalent is almost without mercy, though it allows a glimpse of Heaven after an extensive vision of Hell. The hour of set-up is a strange tale which straddles film noir, lower depths miserablism and I Know What You Did Last Summer guilt-mongering as handsome but feckless young man Shiro Shimizu (Shigeru Amachi) wanders in a daze through a mess of sub-plots about horrible, horrible people. I’s no surprise when someone in-the-know is able to accuse everyone at a fairly random gathering of folks of being complicit in a variety of unnatural deaths.
Shiro gets engaged to his (pregnant) girlfriend Yukiko (Utaka Mitsuya), daughter of a respected professor (Torahiko Nakamura), but unwisely accepts a lift home from fellow student Tamura (Yoichi Numata), a major troublemaker in the Iago mode but perhaps also a fiend incarnate. Shiro insists on an out-of-the-way road because he wants to make a stop (never explained) and Tamura runs over drunken yakuza ‘Tiger’ Shiga (Hiroshi Izumida) whose dark glasses and Hawaiian shirt mark him out as a bad lot. The yakuza dies, but his red-dressed slut girlfriend Yoko (Akiko Ono) and scheming mother (Kiyoshi Tsuji) track down the hit-and-run duo, intent on revenge. Shiro wants to turn himself in, but Yukiko is killed in a taxi wreck as they are en route to the police station. Depressed, Shiro goes to visit his parents – to find his mother (Kimie Tokudaiji) terminally ill and his father (Hiroshi Hayashi) cavorting with cackling mistress Kinuko (Akiko Yamashita) in the next room (Kinuko keeps making a play for Shiro, too). Shiro’s father runs a hellish old folks’ home – the existence of such a place shows how traditional Japanese values have been shattered after the war – and is spending so much on an upcoming tenth anniversary ceremony that he is starving his residents, when he isn’t feeding them poisoned fish. A crooked journalist (Koichi Miya) and a corrupt cop (Hiroshi Shiniguji) are also loitering around the place, not to mention drunken artist Taniguchi (Jun Otomo), who is using a lot of red paint on a picture of Hell, and and his daughter Sachiko (Mitsuya in a secondary role), who is drawn to Shiro but senses that he shouldn’t be with him (it turns out her father is Shiro’s real Dad).
In a flurry of nasty accidents, suicides, near-murders, mass poisoning and dumb stupidities, everyone dies! Then, they all wake up in Buddhist Hell, and are mistreated under the direction of the infernal king Enma (Kanjuro Arashi) in widescreen sequences which are at once highly-wrought surrealism and naive religious art. These money shots resemble what José Mojica Marins might have done with a budget, as hordes of extras are stirred in a human stream around a vast studio, sinners are sawn apart, buried upto their necks, racked on a wheel of fire, extensively tormented or stuck in infernal landscapes. Shiro finds redemption by rescuing the innocent soul of his unborn baby, who gets another go on the reincarnation wheel – which means his twinned sister and lover can wave parasols at him so he can get to Heaven. There’s something almost Lynchian in this happy ending – he also tends to have smiling young women angels usher protagonists out of their mire of torture and misery.
Nakagawa had directed a run of conventional Japanese ghost and horror films, but this was an ambitious shot at some sort of an art movie – or perhaps a really mean-spirited take on A Matter of Life and Death. Its depiction of people who deserve to be damned is engaging, but ramped up to eleven so that it’s hard to take all these rotters seriously. Even the nice professor remembers throttling a comrade over the last cup of water during the Malaya campaign, but the square-headed Tamura is an imp of the malign, exaggeratedly evil but mysteriously all-knowing, and capable of surviving at least one death (a spectacular fall from a rope bridge, flawed slightly by floppy dummy-work) to stagger around accusingly as a white-faced spook before he gets his just rewards in Hell along with the rest of the damned. Like A Matter of Life and Death, it uses the afterlife fantasy as a way of exploring state-of-the-nation concerns, and there’s a streak of conservatism in its suggestion that adoption of western dress, manners, values or vices automatically earns a place in a lake of burning oil. A fascinating bad dream of a picture – as if all the things repressed in, say, the films of Yasujiro Ozu, were to pour forth in a volcano of depravity!