Jigokuhen / Portrait of Hell

Jigokuhen / Portrait of Hell (1969)

It just screams of horrors of hell doesn't it

Director: Toyoda Shiro
Writers: Akutagawa Ryonosuke, Yasumi Toshio
Date: 1969

Genre: Horror
Description: Painting a picture of hell, stubbornness, Heian period, living hell, really really scary and depressing, insanity

Cast: Nakadai Tatsuya, Nakamura Kinnosuke, Naito Yoko, Amamoto Eisei, Oide Shun

Crew of note:

Runtime: 95 mins
Color: Color

Poverty, cruelty and evilness in general during the Heian Period have disillusioned Yoshihide, a famous painter, of life in Japan. Lord Hosokawa, aware of his talents, employs him to make fabulous painting. Yoshihide declines, however, stating that he sees nothing worthy of painting, that all he sees is.. hell on Earth. The lord, at first, is angered by his callousness, but soon decides to challenge him to make a painting so frickin’ amazing and real that even he will be impressed. Painting and crazy shit ensue.

I labeled this as a horror movie, because any film about hell on Earth should be considered pretty horrific, right? I suppose a more appropriate description might be “freaky psychological inquiry into suffering and obsession that will make you very depressed, or possibly want to paint.”

Okay, so it isn’t so much about a physical hell on Earth (no demons, no monsters, not even a sexy mistress of destruction) as it is about obsession and cruelty. Nakadai’s character isn’t really a bad person, and when compared to Nakamura, Nakadai is an absolute bambi. But all men are capable of some evil–can painting be evil, too?

It’s a very interesting premise, one that could have gone very far, especially with the right music, appropriate set design, and frames that subtly emphasize this hell on Earth–crowded rooms, sharp objects, shadows, fire, etc. The movie, though, is but average in 2 of those 3, only excelling in set design. The music fails to create an atmosphere that is haunting/scary yet beautiful, opting to stick with instruments and perfectly progressing harmonies and neglecting found-sounds and odd unnerving notes. This hell on Earth sounds more like a stuffy oldtimes concert. I also don’t think that sliding transitions and a spinning upward-tilted camera works in this context.

Despite my gripes, there is enough in this movie to warrant seeing. The dynamics between Nakadai and Nakamura carry the film, and their respective talents shine. Not quite a horror, not quite a drama, not quite a psychological thriller, but probably something in between.

For some reason, whenever a Japanese film contains the word “jigoku” (such as Jigokumon and the aptly titled Jigoku), I feel compelled to see it, even though I hate being scared out of my pants by movies. With an intriguing premise and two great leads, there is enough to recommend even to those who are chickens in the theater like me.

things to take note of
The painting
Nakadai’s cameleon-like face
Hell on Earth?

best moment
The fire. Crazy.

why you should watch this
Stars two of the most popular actors of the day
Nakamura Kinnosuke in his craziest role
Nakadai in his wimpiest role

rating: 7.25 +.25 for Nakamura’s obnoxious expression + .25 for Nakadai’s facial hair = 7.75

Plot: B
Cast: B+
Cinematography: C+
Music: C+
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
I generally don’t watch movies that will freak me out, so I’m not sure? I guess other films with “jigoku” in the title.