"Hell Girl" Vols. 1-4: Beautiful, But Oh-So-Repetitive
The concept for the anime series Hell Girl couldn’t be simpler: if you enter a name on a website at midnight, Enma Ai—the Hell Girl—will immediately condemn that person to an eternity of suffering. However, the price for her services is that you yourself will join your tormentor in Hell at the end of your lifetime.
The first episode of the show is a beautiful, striking piece of work, following a tormented high school student who is finally pushed beyond the brink by a horrible bully. The results are dark, moody, and full of chillingly creative images of damnation, as the Hell Girl and her trio of otherworldly assistants run the bully through a gauntlet of horrors before finally consigning her to the fiery pits. The brilliantly simple concept of the show brims with potential. Knowing the series is set to run for 26 episodes, one might easily envision further episodes tackling thorny questions about the ethics of revenge, the price one must pay to get it, the degree of hatred one must have to enter such a harsh covenant, and the challenges and consequences of wielding such terrible power. One may also hope there will be enough room for backstories of the Hell Girl and her assistants.
Unfortunately, after 18 episodes spread across four volumes, the series shows depressingly little interest in exploring any of these possibilities, opting instead for an incredibly banal, repetitive, and shallow treatment that completely squanders some absolutely beautiful animation. It seems satisfied to deliver nothing more than terribly simple-minded revenge fiction, with each episode introducing a nasty, horrible, no-good, Very Bad person inflicting all kinds of worldly suffering on an upstanding, virtuous, Very Good person until the Very Good person has no recourse but to send the Very Bad one to their just rewards in the hereafter, after which the Very Good person mopes a bit at their eventual fate before moving on with life. This is passable for an introductory episode, but after four or five or a dozen, the one-trick pony begins to wear its one trick incredibly thin. A rare episode might seem to introduce ambiguity, suggesting that the Very Bad person may not be Bad enough to deserve an eternity of torment in the afterlife, but this is always a harbinger for an 11th hour revelation of some deep and unspeakably ugly trait in the Very Bad person. It’s as though the show had no faith in itself or its audience’s ability to look at the world in anything other than stark black-and-white moral terms, and its simplicity and repetitive nature ultimately undermine its otherworldly shocks and chills. It doesn’t help that nearly all the stories feature people who are character traits rather than characters. It’s all they can do to achieve one-dimensionality. What else can be said when not one but two of the villains so far are defined by being terrible people who kill puppies, thereby robbing an innocent little moppet of her only true friends? It also doesn’t help that many of the characters are too stupid to see the obvious solutions to their problems that don’t involve eternal damnation.
One might believe that the voice actress for Hell Girl only needed one extended session for her entire role, because it feels like 90% of her dialogue is recycled. Hell Girl explains every single one of the rules to the latest Very Good person in every single episode. There are even some recycled animated sequences, such as the scenes of Hell Girl donning her kimono and riding a flaming cart to our world to mete out her harsh justice. We also get more or less the same scene near the end of every episode as Hell Girl ferries the damned soul past the gates of Hell. Between the completely formulaic stories, the thin characters, and the endlessly recycled elements, one can’t even get very far into the first volume before the promise of the show has been reduced to tedium. There are intermittent flashes of interest in the three volumes that follow, but in the end only volume 3 manages to rise a little above the morass of sameness.
Much of the interest that the show can generate is due to the recurring characters. Hell Girl is far less interesting than her assistants: the slacker spirit Ichimokuren, the sexpot Hone Onna, and the mischevious elder Wanyuudou. These three usually present a wry commentary on the goings-on, and usually provide the show’s few laughs. Episode 8 of the show also introduces Hajime Shibata, a former reporter who has been reduced to blackmailing celebrities with compromising photographs, and his daughter Tsugumi, who has a strange connection with the Hell Girl. Hajime soon begins investigating Hell Girl on his own time, using Tsugumi’s link to Enma Ai to try and convince those who have made their Faustian bargains not to condemn themselves to Hell in the name of revenge. It is his searches that lead to some of the most interesting episodes of the show, such as the atypically pensive “Purgatory Girl” on volume 3.
There are good points to Hell Girl. It is one of the best-looking series to come out of Japan in recent memory, with work of near-feature film quality in every single episode. One must also admit a grudging respect for the show’s creativity in finding novel ways to torment its damned souls before their final ferry ride to Hell. It makes marvelous use of an animation trick where an animated figure moves over a stationary pattern, giving the character’s clothing a strange sense of motion (Cartoon Network’s Chowder is the latest American show to use the same technique). It is also blessed with almost universally excellent voice-acting performances in both the original Japanese and the English dub. Finally, it must also be said that the show has been getting slowly better and more interesting due to the addition of Hajime and Tsugumi. The progress may be glacial, but it is there nonetheless.
There is a much better show in here if you’re willing to do some creative editing to excise some of the tedium. You can compress the high points of the entire season so far into a handful of episodes:
– Episode 5 (“The Woman in the Tall Tower”): This episode zigs a bit before it settles into the formula, and has a nicely ambiguous ending. It also experiments a bit by suggesting that Hell Girl will ignore some unjustified requests.
– Episode 8 (“Silent Friendship”): This fairly mundane episode is important only because it introduces Hajime and Tsugumi Shibata, and Tsugumi’s odd relationship with the Hell Girl.
– Episode 12 (“Spilled Bits”): This one features a tangled, twisted relationship that breaks from the show’s usual tormentor-tormentee pattern.
– Episode 13 (“Purgatory Girl”): The first episode that deals with the aftermath of entering the covenant with Hell Girl. It also digs a little bit into Hell Girl’s history.
– Episode 14 (“Beyond the Dead End”): The first episode to suggest that the person being sent to Hell may not actually deserve it, and that the condemner is simply irrational or acting from less-than-sterling motives.
– Episode 17 (“Glass Scenery”): A more traditional ghost story that is genuinely creepy, and also swings far away from the show’s usual formula.
Episode 11 (“Broken Threads”) isn’t too bad, either, with some interesting character moments for Hajime. Episodes 11-14 are all on volume 3, making it the only disc that’s really worth watching from start to finish. It’s even possible to start watching the show straight from that volume, or to replace the first ten episodes with the clip show in volume 2’s special features (which also explains several things about Hell Girl’s assistants that are completely unstated on-screen). With eight more episodes to go and growing roles for Hajime and Tsugumi, the show may yet pull a rabbit out its hat, but it’s hard to get too excited about a series where more than half of the episodes can be considered filler.
FUNimation has done their usual excellent job presenting this deeply flawed series. All the episodes are presented in a crystal clear anamorphic image that brilliantly showcases the beautiful animation. The English dub is every bit the equal of the original Japanese, and the show can be watched in either language without any loss. The discs may be a bit light on extras, although each one comes with something new. The most interesting extra is probably the voice actor round-table on volume 3. Other extras on each disc are clean opening and closing credits and a set of trailers (including one which is annoyingly unskippable at the start of each disc).
Hell Girl has become its own small industry in Japan, spawning two more seasons of the animated show, a manga, and a live-action version. I am hard pressed to understand why, although the second season sounds like it may begin to capitalize on the potential of the concept. Still, no matter how beautiful the animation is, it’s hard to recommend a series very highly when it doesn’t begin to get interesting until volume 3. Boredom turns out to be the worst horror that Hell Girl can offer so far.