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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.

Shinju: Ten no amijima / Double Suicide

Shinju: Ten no amijima / Double Suicide (1969)

Thanks for spoiling the movie, DVD Cover

Director: Shinoda Masahiro
Writers: Chikamatsu Monzaemon (original bunraku play), Shinoda Masahiro, Takemitsu Toru, Tomioka Taeko
Date: 1969

Genre: Love Story
Description: Ninjo vs giri, love and duty, in love with a courtesan, redemption, a loving wife, an inevitable conclusion, bunraku + film, honor, loyalty, metafiction?, desperation

Cast: Iwashita Shima, Nakamura Kichiemon, Fujiwara Kamatari, Kayo Yoshi, Kawarazaki Shizue, Komatsu Hosei, Takita Yusuke

Crew of note: Score by Takemitsu Toru

Runtime: 142 mins.
Color: BW
Trivia: Shinoda and Iwashita were married in 1967. Until now I think.

Jihei, a struggling paper merchant is enamored by Koharu the courtesan. He spends his days and his hard-earned money with her, neglecting his work and his wife, Osan. However, Jihei cannot have Koharu because he is unable to buy her from her contract. Of course, his family soon finds out, and the real story begins.

Pure genius. The combination of bunraku and film is stunning and meaningful. The use of the puppeteers (clad in black like in bunraku), obviously a symbol of something (hint hint), is flawless–it is never obstrusive and serves a natural purpose. Oh, and it’s dang beautiful, too. The sets are a mix of bunraku sets and abstract Japanese design, which shows how far ahead Shinoda is. They move, change, and have a theater’s claustrophobic aura. It is impossible not to admire Shinoda and his crew for their vision, creating this mix of both art forms. It would sound silly for me to throw every superlative at it. This is definitely something that has to be seen. And I stress how important this is, how absolutely essential it is, in the meaning of this film. Thank God for The Criterion Collection, because their transfer really does justice to Shinoda’s black and white, and the shadows are as black as can be, and the whites sometimes blinding.

The story may have a simple premise, but the depth of conflict in the three main characters is amazingly portrayed, and choosing Iwashita to play both women was an inspired choice. It is difficult to imagine Koharu and Osan being played by different women, and the eventualities that overtake the film further emphasize the importance of this choice. Watch, as they make decisions you make think at first impossible.

The whole movie is blanketed by Takemitsu’s brilliant score, which I’d say is one of his best alongside his work for Suna no onna.

Though the title and the poster/cover pretty much tell you the ending, the journey to that end is captivating.

Perhaps Shinoda’s masterpiece. A must-see for all fans of film, especially those with an eye for pretty pictures. Though, perhaps a little background in bunraku will help. Try to see a bunraku in person before this film; or if impossible, after. It will help you appreciate this movie more.

things to take note of
The amazing, amazing sets
Spot what doesn’t belong (in a traditional period film)
That ending
The puppeteers and what they do
Takemitsu’s brilliant score

best moment
Whenever the sets break down or change
That ending

why you should watch this
A great movie that blends film and bunraku (Japanese puppet play)
The fact that it’s film + bunraku!!
Iwashita’s best performance, imo

rating: 9.2

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

similar movies, maybe:
Dolls by Kitano Takeshi’s got bunraku, but actually they aren’t similar at all, except that they’re both great. And have bunraku.



November 2020