Been burned by uneven horror anime? Your grievance shall be avenged.
What They Say
Beyond the veil of midnight lies a website, HellCorrespondence.com. Type in the name of one upon which you desire retribution... and it will be served.
If you truly desire to take revenge upon those who have wronged you, just untie the scarlet thread from the totem's neck. Pulling this thread will bind you into a covenant with Ai Enma, who will ferry the soul of your tormentor straight into the depths of Hell. However, once vengeance has been served, you will have to deliver on your end of the bargain. There always has to be a price to pay. When you die, your soul will also belong to Hell. You will never know the joys of Heaven. The decision rests with you.
Contains episodes 1-26.
Hell Girl is presented with three audio selections, English 5.1, English 2.0 and Japanese 2.0. For the purposes of this review, I watched the show in the dubbed 5.1 track. With quite a bit of emphasis on discussion in the series, it’s not the most active track on the market but there are nice moments of directionality when characters or object cross the frame and ambient sound effects such as birds or cicadas crying keep the rear speakers from getting too bored particularly in external scenes. A few moments of the otherworldly characters exerting their power and some of the more dynamic score offer some decent bass activity as well.
Hell Girl is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:78:1. Originally produced in 2006 with an obviously decent-sized budget, the transfer here is generally present as a wide spectrum of color is present in many scenes and they remain bold. Digital effects are integrated fluidly and I noticed no instances of artifacting. There are occasional moments of noise and banding throughout the series, however, as well as some hazy shots with little to no definition. The latter seems more like a stylistic choice involving light-drenched shots though. In general, it’s all very pleasing to the eye.
Hell Girl is presented in a standard slipcase with two slimline cases inside housing the four discs including. To call the artwork arresting simply doesn’t do it justice. Gold foil wraps around the slipcase for lettering and borders the vibrant, eye-catching artwork. The semi-traditional motif and foil on the bright red background give the impression of an antique book that will display very nicely on the shelf. The interior shots of Ai that wrap around the slipcases are just as colorful and well-designed. Nothing really to complain about here. Bravo, Funimation.
The simple menus feature the main menu options presented in a single line across the bottom of the screen with one of Ai’s usual haunts presented as a background while one of the more booming pieces of the score plays. It’s always easy to what’s highlighted and access times are fast. They work well; they’re just nowhere near as interesting as the box’s artwork.
All of the extras for the series can be found on the fourth disc. First there is a four minute video of character profiles featuring Ai and her helpers Wanyuudou, Hone Onna and Ichimokuren. More than half of it is general information on the series with some fleeting general information. It’s pleasant enough to watch but this Japanese promotional video adds little. Next up is a round-table talk featuring the Japanese cast having a pleasant conversation with a little insight into the production. This sis followed by a live-action music video of “Ephemeral” by Mamiko Noto (the Japanese voice of Ai), one of the more haunting melodies presented in the series (with English subtitles of course). The non-anamorphic letterboxed video is obviously centered around the show and it’s pleasant enough to watch. This is followed by a 6 –minute video about the making of the music video with footage from the set and interviews. Then, of course are the requisite textless songs and trailers. It’s not the strongest collection of extras, but most are informative or at least, entertaining to watch.
As both an anime fan and a horror fan, I’ve long been on the lookout for a title that would classify as both. Recently, When They Cry and Kakurenbo have footed the bill quite nicely. However, in the early days, I subjected myself to titles that would fall a bit short of falling neatly in the horror genre at the expense of being anime. Pet Shop of Horrors is a good example. As much as I love the show, the eccentric count’s love of chocolate and squeals killed a lot of the menace that surrounded the titular locale. When They Cry itself is subject to fits of light-hearted content although that show uses it effectively for contrast.
I only mention these other series to explain my delight in finding that Hell Girl is a remarkably serious horror anime from start to finish that oozes atmosphere and style.
For those who have been wronged, hellcorrespondence.com seems like a Godsend. All they have to do is enter the name of the person who wronged them, and Ai Enma (the Hell Girl) and company will whisk them away to Hell. In return, though, the person who contacted the website will have to give their soul to Hell at the end of their life. Ai warns the site’s visitors to consider their options carefully. Is vengeance worth such a high price?
Hell Girl’s greatest quality lies in its ability to continually surprise its audience. For the first six or seven episodes, the show follows a rigid formula. Protagonist is wronged and contacts the website. Ai gives them time to consider their choices. The protagonist’s situation is further complicated and they call forth Ai and crew who deliver deliciously ironic torture on the target. It’s simple but satisfying in the same way that old EC comics like Tales from the Crypt or Vault of Horror are.
In the episodes that follow this formula, the fifteen or so minutes devoted to the background feel like overkill. The owners of the names entered into the website are incredibly narcissistic creatures preying on the less fortunate for their own personal gain. Some won’t blink an eye at an animal writhing in pain while others are all too content to see their unjustified enemies sell themselves to the depraved. Although Ai works for hell, it quickly becomes apparent that the real monsters in this series are flesh and blood. In fact, many of the creepiest scenes in this season don’t feature Ai or her helpers.
Just when you think you have the show figured out, it changes though. A decent horror series becomes superb supernatural drama (with some genuinely dark moments). The targets’ motives and natures become ambiguous and a few episodes leave you wondering if they truly deserved their horrific fate. Certain aspects of the procedure are highlighted in earnest to make the audience consider the weight of the contract. Most episodes feature a bittersweet epilogue where the protagonist’s life seems to be on the right track but they will touch on the fact that their soul is hell-bound. (The most extreme and heartbreaking of these vignettes is of a daughter telling her parents in heaven not to wait for her. The rest of these are light in comparison.) However, one episode features someone who called for the Hell Girl in their twilight years nervously waiting to fulfill their end of the “bargain.”
These exploratory episodes also introduce the theme of whether vengeance is worthwhile which is highlighted nicely by the introduction of two new characters, Hajime Shibata and his daughter, Tsugumi. Hajime is a reporter researching the website and Tsugumi has a mysterious psychic link to Ai so both are tangentially related to the action and constantly find themselves embroiled in the plot of the day. Their conversation provides a point/counterpoint argument to the moral dilemma at hand as Hajime finds revenge abhorrent and Tsugumi somewhat naively accepts Ai’s role in the world and considers that only bad people would go to Hell anyways. Although they provide a new outlet for exposition, the characters and their relationship eventually become an integral and welcome part of the show.
Ai herself appears on the fence about revenge most of the time. As a result, she is much more layered than her coworkers who are interesting enough but wear their heart on their sleeves. For a person to go through with the contract, they must first call her forth and then pull a red string (the string of choice where fate is concerned) from a straw doll given to them, but only after Ai delivers a rather convincing argument to rethink their decision. This level of contemplation and forethought is rare in this type of plot dating back to the old golem tale. These exchanges and her general downtrodden countenance eventually turn what would be an iconic monster into a kind of tragic heroine as presented by other characters. (This is helped by fantastic psychological ticks like poking holes in her house’s paper walls which hint at a troubled mind when her usually unchanging expression won’t.) However, even if she becomes an understandable character, the show’s producers manage to make her frightening in what she’s capable of.
All this substance isn’t presented at the sacrifice of style. The show makes a habit of merging the modern with the traditional. The website calls Ai from her traditional mountain Japanese home where she is often waiting in the hot spring. Little flourishes such as the moving flowers on Ai’s kimono or Tsugumi’s psychic vision are near breathtaking and the entire show is accompanied by a masterful score which also merges traditional chorus and instruments with occasional, appropriate synthesized tones. It’s obvious that the same amount of labor went into the way this series looks and sounds as went into its satisfying plot and characterization.
Hell Girl is a fascinating horror show interlaced with satisfying character drama and morality questions. The titular character is rare in that she becomes identifiable but still manages to be frightening in the end. The serial nature of the show works to its benefit. If the audience isn’t completely enjoying an episode, they can be assured that the next will feature a completely fresh tale of revenge and betrayal. The only story that carries over across multiple episodes is about Ai herself and the audience is guaranteed to be interested in the tale’s unraveling by then. The well-crafted story features some beautiful animation presented in a generally pleasing video track with a dynamic audio mix and decent extras. The show remains startlingly serious from start to finish and those who get into the series will be consumed by it. One episode is hardly ever enough. Fortunately, more is on the way.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles
46” Toshiba REGZA 16:9 LCD HDTV, Sony Playstation 3 (upconverted to 1080p through HDMI), Yamaha YSP-900 Digital Sound Projector w/ 100-watt subwoofer