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The Criterion Collection's latest special edition DVD is a heaven-sent taste of hell.
Jigoku The first time I saw Nakagawa Nobuo’s film Jigoku (Hell, a.k.a. The Sinners of Hell) was almost two years ago at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Jigoku was part of a series of old Japanese “horror” films coinciding with Halloween falling on a weekend, anticipating traveling retrospectives of Nakagawa’s oeuvre this year. At the Silver Lake Film Festival this past spring, I was privileged to see some of Nakagawa’s black-and-white films; Jigoku was also part of the retrospective but ended up not being screened due to time lost on the constant delays of the arrival and rewinding of reels – surely a Hell for any filmgoer. With the Criterion Collection’s release of Jigoku, however, I can now arrange my own circles of Hell viewing, as nonchalantly and as fiendishly as Tamura appears at Shiro’s side.
Beyond the question of freeing the spectator from the Limbo-like wait for a film like Jigoku to appear in a local cinematheque through the purchase of a DVD, I want to take this particular Criterion Collection release as an opportunity to bring up the issue of Criterion’s own historical and historicising role in the redefinition of what can be called “world cinema” for lack of a better word, and the form of consumption of the special-edition DVD for which Criterion has become known that is challenging and extending the study of film.
It should not strike one as simply coincidental that the Criterion release of Jigoku follows the series of retrospectives of Nakagawa’s films that have been occurring this year around the world. Given that the meticulous research and restoration or transfer that has made Criterion’s name requires extensive collective efforts, the Jigoku DVD production amounts to a retrospective in its own right – but beyond showing the director’s other works that follow auteur-driven analyses, the DVD “extras” in the form of a poster gallery, trailer, subtitle option and a documentary (Building the Inferno) that interviews Japanese film industry figures from the past and present expand the notion of a film outside of the film itself. Criterion can be accused of promoting the cult of the image and the director’s cut/signature to signify “special edition,” which is in keeping with film studies canons when one is talking about, say, Citizen Kane. However, I want to emphasise that such an accusation is nothing short of misguided since it ignores or refuses the fact that Criterion is in the vanguard of changing the face (literally) of film.
This is where the issue of “world cinema” comes in. But let’s begin with the national context. In terms of Japanese cinema, what has been called the “classics” characterises Criterion’s releases of Japanese films: Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi. One also comes across titles by Suzuki Seijun and Imamura Shohei, which point to an attempt to break away from a canonical look at Japanese cinema, but the fact that the appreciation of these two latter directors has been cemented brings us back to established chapters in the primer on Japanese film history – not to say of course that these titles are not important. But the DVD release of Jigoku marks new terrain in the redefinition of Japanese film history that allows a B-studio film to receive high-definition digital attention and, in the process, gain new screen life on a scale larger than anything that Shintoho could have provided domestically. In the context of Jigoku’s bold colors and contrasts in order to make visual the themes of guilt, the double, and the concepts of Hell and evil, the accusation of the cult of the image misses the actual objective: the power of the image.
It goes without saying that a film purporting to present the multiple circles of Hell à la Dante holds visual power, which makes Jigoku’s place in the horror category all the more reductive and misleading. True, Nakagawa’s films, culminating in Jigoku, developed the visual template for what is presently known as “J-Horror,” but to approach it merely as a stepping stone to Ringu or Ju-on betrays Criterion’s own reasons for deeming it DVD-worthy. Jigoku is more than just some gory scenes amid flames and bodies in pain; it presents an interesting meditation on the double, or doppelganger, within a moral framework in a way that is almost clinical. The film begins in a lecture hall as a professor discusses the concept of Hell in several religious systems and in fact, the lecture hall anticipates a similar scene in William Wilson (1969), itself based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same title about one’s double. Attending the class is Shiro – played by Nakagawa regular Amachi Shigeru – at whose side Tamura (Numata Yoichi) appears suddenly. The meeting of these two young men results in nothing but misfortune and death in Shiro’s life, beginning with a hit-and-run, while try as he might, he cannot shake off the enigmatic Tamura. Furthermore, their continued but unintended encounters eventually result in mass death, including their own, which marks unofficially the first half of the film.
The second half presents the descent into Hell and its various tortures. Shiro discovers that even in the afterlife, he cannot escape from Tamura. As with hope, any semblance of plot is also left behind once the river Sanzu is crossed (roughly speaking, the Buddhist variant of the river Styx in Greek mythology) and we are led to experience the different circles of punishment in Hell – needless to say, no one is spared. The emotional effect provoked by Jigoku is not reduced due to a limited production budget, despite the fact that the production led to Shintoho’s bankruptcy in 1961. Part of the film’s appeal is that it revels in and reveals its production limitations, but as a result enhances the psychological implications of the delicate balance between forgiveness/resignation, guilt and punishment – translated visually, no less. As such, the art direction anticipates some of Kimura Takeo’s colorfully inventive look and style in some of Suzuki’s sixties films. I am always surprised with the year of Jigoku’s release (1960), as it looks forward to the late sixties/seventies, most notably Moju (Blind Beast, 1969). Thanks to Criterion, Jigoku’s innovation in terms of its visual style and treatment can be viewed historically vis-à-vis that of the “classic” Japanese titles in the Criterion Collection and better yet, redefine what “classic” means, for example, in terms of the different ways in which widescreen was used by the likes of Nakagawa, Kurosawa and Kobayashi.
The context of a film’s original aspect ratio necessary to view all of Hell’s colours puts into perspective Criterion’s crucial role in the popularisation and even spectacularisation of the DVD format, which did not begin with the advent of the DVD. Rather, the renowned quality and commitment of the Criterion image and package is an extension of its pioneering work with the laser disc format when the company started in the early eighties. At the time, the widescreen format received little affection or understanding, which made home theater viewing something like watching a series of details of cubist paintings. Criterion’s decision in the late nineties to switch from LD to DVD as the principal format through which to continue its ground-breaking restorations, transfers, and extensive research surrounding the production spectrum of a film is uncannily perceptive, to say the least. DVD has become crucial in terms of market sales for the studios, alternative exhibition/distribution circuits for filmmakers and spectators alike, and interactive vehicles for the study of film. In an interview with James Emanuel Shapiro, president of the Criterion Collection Peter Becker (son of William Becker, the founder of Janus Films) discussed the inception of Criterion, whose “original releases had more to do with publishing than movie-going. These were important ‘texts’ and they needed to be published much the same way a book needs to be published, and here was a medium that allowed that.” The medium in question was the laser disc, but the same comment can be made verbatim about the DVD format. Since the launching of its DVD line in 1998, shortly after the dissolution of parent company Voyager, Criterion has presented convincing arguments on the importance of film texts both recognised and unrecognised. Even those whose importance is suspicious, such as Armageddon, in terms of including it in the same collection alongside, say, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and La Bataille d’Alger. To those who ask “Why?” Becker has this to say: “The fact that somebody could say ‘I don’t understand why that’s in the collection’ is a little indicator that there’s a mission, that there are criteria, and that the Criterion Collection has reasons for everything we put out.”
Contrary to what Becker says, movie-going as much as publishing has been affected by Criterion, as witness its collaboration with Rialto Pictures to screen the new prints of La Grande Illusion in theaters in 1999. Due to its close ties with the premier distributor of art-house films in the fifties/sixties, Janus Films, Criterion’s DVD collection is both a nostalgic and forward-looking project for cinema, summed up by critic Michael Sragow: the re/creation of a “home-viewing world that echoed the art houses of the fifties and sixties.” Taken together with Becker’s audacious claim of the “end of film” from where new digital/media publishing takes over, and DVD sales in the billions, movie-going via Criterion now connotes explicitly not only the film text, but the process and research that it undergoes to get to one’s home theater.
Jigoku’s arrival in the home theater circuit follows Criterion’s commitment to presenting an eclectic array of films on DVD to introduce new audiences to old films or new films to (young)/old audiences. This point finally brings me back to the notion of “world cinema” and Criterion’s leading role in the historical reformulation of what “world cinema” means. Personally, the degree of quality that Criterion delivers with each release has introduced me to films/directors that I would not have discovered outside of a festival or book targeting the niche art-house audience: for example, Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto and I Fidanzati, which take neo-realism to a new political and aesthetic level in the context of Italy’s “economic miracle.” The trust cultivated between spectators, technology, technicians and distributors in the choices of Criterion’s special-editioned films create a space where “world cinema” is not pitted against “commercial cinema.” That trust is also manifested between the director and Criterion. Case in point: Michael Bay, while still shooting Armageddon, was in contact with Criterion in order to initiate the opportunity to make a special-edition DVD. Aside from movie-going and publishing, the shooting of a film has undergone changes in the sense that part of the filmmaking process mobilizes material that would otherwise end up on the cutting room floor. Criterion has made obsolete, or at least questionable, the very notion of leaving bits on the cutting room floor and is thus changing the perceptions of the components of a film. Building the Inferno, a new documentary on Nakagawa and Jigoku’s production history, provides a critical look at Jigoku’s position in Japanese film history in terms of theme and style and demonstrates how special-editions DVDs resuscitate archival work with the help of different media. My only bone of contention is the absence of an audio commentary by Jigoku screenwriter Miyagawa Ichiro and/or director Kurosawa Kiyoshi, given their insightful comments in the documentary.
I mentioned earlier that Criterion is changing the face of film. I add now that it does so by multiplying the ways in which film is approached because, despite Criterion’s own admission of being director-driven in its selection process, the collection stands for a complex global interplay between distributors, technicians, critics, writers, actors as well as filmmakers, of which the resulting DVD is just but one symptom. I think Criterion understands this fragility of the image, especially in terms of licensing rights for a film that expires, consigning the likes of This is Spinal Tap and Salò to a kind of viewing purgatory. How wonderful, then to have Jigoku on earth.
Jigoku: Criteron Collection will be released on September 19, 2006.
“Criterion DVD Collection,” by Neda Ulaby. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=195613
"The disc master,” by Michael Sragow. http://www.salon.com/ent/col/srag/2000/03/23/criterion
“DVD Royalty,” by James Emanuel Shapiro. http://reel.com/reel.asp?node=features/interviews/criterion
Date Posted: 9/7/2006