With the pending ascendancy of a squealing manchild to the most powerful position in America, I thought it was a good time to talk about horror.
No, I’m really not over it. The next four years are going to be trying.
This weeks anime spotlight falls on the 2005 series from Studio Deen, the creative talent behind Ranma 1/2, Fruits Basket, Rave Master, Fate/Stay Night, Hetalia, and a ton of other stuff. When not handling the production directly, Deen is often involved in key animation for a ton of shows, which means you’ll see their name pop up a lot in closing credits.
Hell Girl, for those of you who haven’t seen it, revolves around an urban legend that says come the stroke of midnight, should your need be great, you can access a website called the Hell Correspondence. There’s you can enter the name of your tormentor, and summon the Hell Girl, who will exact revenge for you by dragging your tormentors soul down to hell.
The reality, as it often is, is somewhat different.
The Hell Correspondence is real, as is the Hell Girl herself. It’s the rest of it that’s not exactly as advertised by the urban legend. Should you be truly tormented, you can access the website. Should you truly need help, the Hell Girl will come. However, should you accept her help, you will condemn your own soul to hell as well.
Lucky for those who meet her, the Hell Girl, Ai Enma, explains all of this, leaving the choice of what will become of two souls in their hands. To say it never ends well would be a massive understatement.
As a series, Hell Girl draws strongly on both kabuki theater, and classic shows such as The Twilight Zone, where each episode is a sort of morality play. Much of the series is handled in a very episodic format, with an overarching plot not being introduced until episode 8 of the 26 episode run, and not really coming into focus until about half way or more through the series.
Most of the episodes revolve around a person contacting Ai and requesting her help. Once the terms of the agreement are set, Ai leaves them with a straw doll that has a red string tied around the neck. All they must do is pull that string, and the contract is set in motion. Ai and her three servants will then give the tormentor the chance to repent, and should they fail to, they will be ferried to hell.
Everyone pulls the string. I cannot stress this enough. Everyone pulls the string. Even knowing that they are damning themselves to hell as well, everyone pulls the string. The thrust of the show is to ask you, the viewer, if you would have done the same, knowing the full situation the protagonist of each episode is in. The idea is to have you, as the viewer, put yourself in their shoes, and question what you would have done. Allow someone to get away with something terrible, or damn yourself to hell?
We all tend to think of ourselves as good people, who would never do such a thing. We all like to tell ourselves that we’d find another way. A lot of episodes of Hell Girl will challenge that view of yourself, when you find that yes, given the circumstances, you would pull that string, knowing the consequences.
In episode eight, the character of Hajime Shibata begins to make recurring appearances, along with his daughter, Tsugumi. Hajime is a former journalist, renowned for cracking down on corrupt politicians. After the death of his wife, he collapsed, and now works as a tabloid journalist who collects scandalous photos of prominent figures for blackmail purposes. He soon becomes aware of Ai Enma and the Hell Correspondence, and begins actively trying to stop people for exacting revenge, bringing him into conflict with Ai. His actions, late in the series, bring about the revelations of Ai’s origin as the Hell Girl, as well as how he and Tsugumi are connected to it.
Due to the morality play nature of the series, some episodes are stronger than others. There’s a couple that are a bit trite, but others that are deeply affecting, while others are blatantly horrific, including one that I’ve only seen once, and can’t ever watch again, even though I own the first season on DVD. It was a bit too much for me.
As a character, Ai is remarkably effective. She comes across as alien with her perpetually wide eyed stare and monotone speaking style. Yet, there are moments we glimpse the person behind that, in a simple gesture, a moment of sympathy, or a particularly vicious reaping of a soul.
Personally, I highly recommend episode 16, “A Night Among Traveling Entertainers”, as a powerful moment not just in terms of how hard it is to pull that string, but Ai’s own understanding of the suffering involved, and kindness towards someone who never wanted to do it. It’s a powerful episode, not just of this series, but of television in general.
Episode 18, “Bound Girl”, I could only do once, though. That one still haunts me, and I have nightmares about it.
The final two episodes, “Hell Girl” and “Basting”, are particularly powerful, and solid examples of quality writing. The emotions just jump out of the screen at you. Not only do they tie up the first season beautifully, they remain some of the finest anime writing out there.
I’ve never had a chance to watch the second or third seasons, so I can’t say how well the quality continues, but as far as the first season goes, it’s a strong series that focuses on emotion driven decisions, morality, and consequences over spectacle.
Not that Hell Girl doesn’t have spectacle. Every scene in which the condemned is given a chance to beg forgiveness, and escape, is insane. Graphic, nightmarish, and overflowing with horror elements, they are the high point of each episode. Especially the moment Ai shows up to damn the antagonist of the episode to hell.
“Oh pitiful shadow lost in the darkness, bringing torment and pain to others. Oh damned soul, wallowing in your sin. Perhaps it is time to die.”
That shit is chilling, lemme tell ya.
In terms of animation, Hell Girl gets A’s all across the board. The visual nature of anime is on strong display here, with otherworldly landscapes, supernatural instruments, and hellish torments appearing every episode. The backgrounds are simply stunning, especially when Ai is at rest in whatever plane she calls home, a land of perpetual twilight, with strong reds and and a dark color palette used all around.
The torment scenes are vivid and frequently nightmarish, drawing on the antagonist and their crime to present them the chance to repent, which they never do. Well, almost never. There is one instance, but I won’t spoil that, cause it’s damn beautiful.
The character design work is also excellent. Ai, in particular, is a terrifying character with her wide eyed visage a marked contrast to her teen age. Her movements are always slow, deliberate, and somewhat menacing. She’s a scary character, is what I’m getting at. Yet, also sad and sympathetic. A lot is conveyed with just her character design, making it some solid work.
Her assistants are all equally well presented. Wanyudo, who normally appears as an old man in a yukata and fedora, also serves as Ai’s hellish carriage and the straw doll she gives out to those who summon her. During judgement scenes, he appears as a face affixed to a flaming wheel. Ren, Ai’s second companion, usually looks like an attractive man in his twenties, and is skilled at seduction. He is able to project a large eye that allows him to see anywhere he wishes, and in judgement scenes, becomes that same giant eye.
Then, there’s Hone. Easily the most curious of Ai’s companions, Hone is an attractive women who frequently tries to be the leader of the trio, but always ends up deferring to Wanyudo’s wisdom. During judgement scenes, her true form shows, as a partially decomposed woman, with her skeleton showing through.
The series was directed by Takahiro Omori, who worked as the storyboard artist and episode director for Haibane Renmei, director of Baccano, Natsume’s Book of Friends, and Durarara. His camera angels in Hell Girl are especially noteworthy, as he uses it to create a sense of distortion, sometimes by rotating the camera slowly, other times by using dutch angles. (Not to be confused with Dutch angels.) Mostly, however, it’s just by using it to create interesting shots that highlight the sense of panic or fear the protagonist of any given episode feels. His use of lighting is especially interesting, as it frequently sets the mood for everything that happens with stunning skill. Overall, his work in Hell Girl is some of his finest, and considering the projects he’s directed, that’s really saying something. He has a firm grasp on horror and how to use the camera and lighting to create the right setting. I’m a bit surprised he hasn’t done more horror anime.
The writing was handled by Natsuko Takanashi, who did script work for shows like Asura Cryin, Bleach, Chrono Crusade, FullMetal Alchemist, and Romeo x Juliet. He’s also done series composition for things like My Love Story, and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. That’ doesn’t even count his inbetween animation work, which includes things like freaking Akira. So, yeah, the scripts are stone cold awesome. Even the weaker stories have a lot of strong elements to them, and the series overall is extremely well written.
The music was done by… uh… according to what I’m reading here in my notes, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Which seems a bit recent for him.
Most of the music credit seems to be attributed to Hiromi Mizutani, Yasuharu Takanashi, and REMI, so I’m not sure who was in charge of music composition overall. Between the three of them, however, are a lot of credits, with Mizutani being known for Hyakko in particular, Takanashi being known for Fairy Tail, as I discussed last week, and REMI being known for Shiki and SAO.
Which ever one of them was in charge of the overall composition of the music knocked it out of the park, however, as the music for this show is stellar. In particular the theme that plays when Ai heads out to reap a soul. The soundtrack for this one is a must own for the powerful musical pieces featured all through it, and that Ai theme in particular.
As an episodic series that deals in morality issues, and one not based on any per-existing material, Hell Girl succeeded at being a powerful character driven horror anime the likes of which had never been seen before. Featuring a constantly changing cast of protagonists, antagonists that were relatable as every day villains, and a strong overarching story, Hell Girl upped the ante for every horror series that came after it. In many respects, it’s fair to say Hell Girl defined horror anime in ways no series had ever had before.
Making it a must watch for any fan of anime, at least through the end of the first season.
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about episode 18. *shudder*