Hell Girl (Jigoku Shoujo)

Title: Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl - Translated Title)
Rating: 3.5/5
Genre: Horror, Drama, Animation
Duration: 25 mins (26 Episodes)
Language: Japanese

“Oh Pitiful Shadow Bound in Darkness,
Looking Down Upon People and Causing them Pain,
A Soul Drowned in Sinful Karma,
Will You Try Dying This Once?”

It is the rumour that is pivotal to the story, the rumour of ‘Hell Correspondance;’ that on the stroke of midnight, those who bear a deep hatred within them and a desire for revenge are able to access their website and request assistance. If their wish is granted, it is the girl from hell who will shortly greet you, offering you the doll contract with a thin red silk string tied in a bow. Upon untying the string, the revenge will be granted and the victim immediately ferried to hell, but there is a high price to be paid for this service: you will be permanently given the black mark, forever serving as a reminder that when your time to leave this world has come, you are also bound to serve an eternal torment in the bowels of hell.

Whilst a promising premise, it becomes tedious all too quickly; each episode taking you to a new short story with new characters that will end in the exact same way as before, and then comes the realisation you can recite a good 5 minutes of each episode word for word before having actually seen it. The constant influx of new characters preventing any long-term development and resulting in little more than another face to remember briefly, characters hurriedly forced into obvious ‘villain’ and ‘victim’ roles for the sake of performing their vengeance, and many situations begin to blur into one another. As a result of the lack of empathy for the characters situations, combined with a rapid de-sensitization to the ‘horror’ style, what should have been cold, harrowing tales filled with despair and desperation are transformed into an altogether ‘lighter’ tone; a morbid curiosity of how things are to unfold, but even that fails to sustain overall interest in the series. Instead it is the very thin thread of the enigmatic Enma Ai, mysteriously delivering the dolls, ferrying victims into hell and with each appearance succeed in resurfacing questions as to her origins and the nature of the contract she makes with those who seek her.

Fortunately, before my attention had altogether vanished we are introduced to the adorable 7-year old girl, that whilst felt more mature than even the most capable child of that age – dealing with more hardship than she should have to bear – it is her dysfunctional yet endearing relationship to her inadequate father, clearly caring for her but not entirely sure of how to show it, that lends a believable relationship that grounds the series, giving some form of continuity which as it becomes more prominent only improves the quality of the plots that unfold. The second half of the series succeeding in taking us away from the monotony of the main city to new places, unusual situations with original characters, and exploring in far more detail the ‘Hell Correspondence.’ Despite the slow and steady pace, and whilst much of the questions I had about the characters seen were left unanswered, enough information was delivered to give the impression that the answer is simply a matter to be reached upon in due course; just because it has yet to be divulged properly is not to say that it hasn’t already been given an answer.

The animation looked a little dated for a series released so recently, particularly in the manner that the motion stuttered; the detail varying in quality but always easily sufficient to distinguish between the plethora of characters that were introduced during the course of the series. Despite the oddly flat style – striving for somewhere between the artistic realism and the overt ‘cute’ designs that are often utilized – it feels very middle of the road, often remaining simplistically elegant. Indeed this is somewhat unusual ground to be trodden genre wise, failing to match up to ‘Paranoia Agent’s versatility in this regard – allowing it to twist the perceptions in a chaotic way, forcing you to fear for your own sanity – this has taken an altogether ‘normal’ route, less focused on the psychedelic paranoid twist to the horrific depictions and far more akin to a constant shifting and fluctuating expectation like the more serious of horror films gone by. Rather more linear in the way the scenes of being dragged down to the underworld unfold, whilst it fails to have quite the same psychological impact as the series progresses, it compensates with an (eventually fairly intense) dramatic one.

The soundtrack is for the most part superb; the sounds in the ethereal purple of the underworld absolutely beautiful in the manner it combines with the unusually great care taken with the animation – a rather fortunate outcome given its prominence in the series – and often accenting the pivotal scenes with an array of choral, upbeat, ambient, mysterious and aggressive passages, aptly applied without being used frivolously so as to become repetitive. In fact, the only real complaint as far as this is concerned is that horrendous introductory track that is not only grating and annoying (even considering that after the first few times I only caught the end, skipping through it) but completely unsuited. Can you imagine a J-pop introduction for whatever the most recent Saw film happens to be? I’m sorry, but ‘cute’ and ‘horror’ are two words that do not mix, and it’s a shame nobody else realised that.

I went into this without many expectations, opinions very much divided in a marmite “you love it or hate it” scenario, and its only now having watched the entire thing that I understand why. Taking it as a two part story, its like trying to compare the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy to Episodes I-III; oddly different (the first half far worse than the second) and yet placed together within the same story. The horror element is absent from much of the start in anything more than the most cliché, unoriginal ways – albeit in a shiny new package – and yet once the reporter emerges, digging up some dirt on the elusive Enma Ai, everything seems to work on an entirely new level; not only being genuinely horrific as well as emotionally dramatic, stirring up empathy for the regular cast members - I can’t remember the last time I felt it pertinent to say the slog of the first dozen episodes is easily justified by the manner it continues. Horror is so often indebted to convention, with all but the most innovative and able capable of re-inventing themselves, even original films aren’t common, so to discover a series capable of such a feat is more than a little impressive. With another two seasons ahead of me I simply hope they can succeed in keeping the momentum created here, and whilst I’m not absolved of doubts as to whether they can keep up the level of quality shown in those final moments, I expect it wont be too long before I immerse myself once more in the tragedy of tormented souls.


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