Color, 1960, 101m. / Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa / Starring Shigeru Amachi, Hiroshi Hiyashi, Fumiko Miyata, Torahiko Makamura, Yoichi Numata / Criterion (US R1 NTSC), Beam (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

While Western audiences got their first taste of Japanese horror's initial wave with austere, artisitcally respectable films like Kwaidan and Onibaba, other directors like Nobuo Nakagawa were also pushing the genre into far more dangerous, modern territory. Often cited as Japan's first bona fide gore film, Jigoku was released within the same year as other taboo-pushing international offerings like Black Sunday and Eyes without a Face, all of them poetic and worthy cinematic achievements whose graphic imagery was merely a small component of their overall power. Jigoku (whose title means "Hell") never really found an audience in America outside a few festival screenings, but Criteiron's much-needed special edition finally puts this important landmark in proper perspective.

After a curious opening sequence conflating avant garde music, scantily-clad female bodies and funereal imagery, the story begins with a focus on young student Shiro (Amachi) and his mysterious, rather diabolic friend Tamura (Numata), whose accidental hit-and-run killing of a mobster one night sends them on an increasingly dark moral journey to the depths of dishonesty and sinful behavior. Shiro's pregnant fiancee, Yukiko (Miyata), dies soon after in another car accident but seems to reappear in different guises, while vengeful gangsters and decadent senior citizens figure in Shiro's final stop on earth before he and the rest of the cast plunge to hell for their ultimate judgement. Here the final third unleashes an unforgettable visual orgy of extreme carnage and physical punishment, surreal landscapes bathed in primary colors (including seemingly endless misty rivers and an endless torture wheel), and demonic overseers who prevent anyone from ever escaping.

The delirious final act is really what keeps Jigoku's title on the lips of world cinema fans today, and even now its stylized, Boschian vision of the underworld is powerful material, sort of like a cross between early Coffin Joe and the gore-drenched '60s Christian parables of Ron Ormond. While most studios were tiptoing around the horror genre with Godzilla and ghost stories, the less reputable, "low budget" Shintoho Studios had no problem letting Nakagawa leap headfirst into darker, more mature waters here; however, anyone expecting a standard gorefest will be surprised by the experimental, deeply challenging narrative, a theological puzzle that moves its characters according to particularly nasty rules of destiny and ultimately leaves them stranded in a horrific, despairing place that closes the film on a truly creepy note. This would certainly play well co-billed with The Rapture. Also of note is the eerie score, which ranges from plaintive emotional themes to startling bursts of wild jazz indicating the worldly flaws which steer each of the characters to their doom.

First released in an essentially no-frills Japanese DVD edition, Jigoku gets a superior transfer here with less damage on display and healthier black levels, though some obvious digital tweaking in a few spots might bug home theater addicts. The Japanese mono soundtrack sounds fine throughout if a bit limited given the source material, and the optional English subtitles are excellent (not to mention quite a bit more coherent than the previous edition). The biggest extra is a marvelous 45-minute featurette, "Building the Inferno," featuring interviews with Numata, screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa, Nakagawa colleagues Chiho Katsura and Kensuke Suzuki, and current Japanese wunderkind Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse). All of them have valuable insights into the film itself (such as its physicalized portrayal of psychological suffering) and the industry as a whole, placing it in context with the studio's works (including tons of valuable visual material) and the Japanese horror tradition (including Nakagawa's previous The Ghost Story of Yotsuya). Other extras include the original Japanese theatrical trailer, a gallery of poster art for this film and other titles from the studio, and a booklet with fine liner notes by critic Chuck Stephens.