This is a weird film. The first hour or so is a drag - an intriguing, sometimes darkly ironic drag, but a drag nonetheless. Amachi Shigeru is nowhere near as effective here as a morally-torn student as he was as a nihilistic samurai in Yotsuya kaidan. The story veers between the trite and the semi-intentionally surreal, and at all times literally drags - the stately pace of the previous film felt like an artifact of the time, but here it just feels like awkward filmmaking. And the device that kills everybody is no more believable here than it was when it was (accidentally?) parodied in Monty Python's Meaning of Life.
Then they go, as the title says, to Hell. Of course this is why you see this movie: to see the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell brought to life onscreen. (And the next time somebody tries to tell you how mellow and spiritually laissez-faire and cerebral Buddhism is, show them this film: Dante's got nothing on medieval Japan for hellfire and brimstone.)
The thing is, even in Hell, some of what you see is ludicrous - hokey and dumb. The ox-headed torturers (always one of my favorite Hell motifs) look like fat guys in bad makeup waving tinfoil axes, which is what they are. King Enma looks like a souvenir mask from Taiwan.
So overall I guess I'm saying this film isn't quite the classic that some make it out to be, at least not in my book. But I will give it this: some of the images Nakagawa comes up with for Hell are amazing. Haunting. I saw this a week ago, and some of the images are still with me. The luminous mists of the Sanzu River, for one, snaking across the dark screen. For another, the recurring image of what looks like hundreds of extras, in gray muddy clothes, tramping and stumbling in a slow-motion spiral of numb torment.
Sometimes moments are all you need.