“O pitiful shadow, lost in the darkness, demeaning and bring harm to others, a damned soul wallowing in sin, care to give death a try?”
Words I put in their mouth:
There’s a rumor going around: if you feel unjustly wronged by someone and want retribution but cannot or will not take action yourself, there’s a website, accessible only at midnight, that lets you contract Ai Enma (Hell Girl) to avenge your pain. Of course, the rumor doesn’t mention the pact’s fine print: in exchange for sending someone directly to hell, Ai will eventually come for the vindicated to ferry them across the Sanzu … but only after they’ve lived out their natural life. Needless to say, no-one, save the insane, takes this choice lightly.
Content: (please note that this review may contain hideous amounts of subjectivity)
In the spirit of full disclosure, Hell Girl was not the first anime I watched, but it was one of the series that made me respect and reinvest me in the storytelling powers of the medium. Thus, I had very fond memories of the series when I approached a rewatch for this article.
Ten years later, Hell Girl (Jigoku Shoujo) loses nothing. Absolutely nothing. If Hell Girl were to start airing today, it would not tax imaginations too heavily to imagine the series as a noitaminA-billed show. In fact, Hell Girl ran on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) in 2008 and continued via repeats for what seemed a decent stretch thereafter.
Watching Hell Girl in 2015, I was amazed to find that, despite my Swiss cheese memory, I REMEMBER EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE STORIES (or at least parts thereof) from my initial viewing of the FUNimation DVD singles. While the fascination of watching the psychological break of each episode’s protagonist was definitely my initial draw and remains my continued delight, I only in my rewatch caught the self-deprecating humor implemented via staging in select episodes. (Ai rising through the stage on a lift as part of the drama-themed judgment scene in Episode 7 is just daring the audience not to laugh.)
And while I initially chuckled at the frequently featured early-era Mac used by Ai for Hell Correspondents communications, I had to remind myself that those responsible aptly chose a model already antiquated in 2005. Keeping this in mind lessens the techno-shock no matter how many years later you approach the title. As expected in older titles, CGI integration is often clunky. (Really, though, it’s just a hair worse than in any of today’s titles.) Certain scenes lack finesse integrating the technology, a girl running in an extending hallway, for example, while others, such as the psychedelic flowers on Ai Enma’s death kimono or Hone Onna’s luminous under-bones, come across quite appropriately.
Art and character designs are as impressive as they were ten years ago. If nothing else, they are now distinguished by their wrinkles (literally and figuratively). The use of older characters, namely Wanyuudou, Onna, and Hajime, is something rare in anime in general, but the execution of their mannerisms evokes a true-to-their-age feel rare even among current anime featuring older protagonists. Aside from main characters, the sheer range in facial expressions of the protagonists in each revenge story, not to mention the subtle and eventually dramatic variants of Ai’s static visage (her not blinking isn’t lazy, it’s creepy), is astounding. Similarly shocking, the hellscape, the small cottage in which Ai lives with her grandmother and a spider, is absolutely stunning for its rich hues of red, orange, and yellow and the contrasting blackness. That said, the visuals throughout the episodes are not flawless by any means. But those drawbacks — characters going briefly off-model and stills with obvious camera tricks (pans, shakes, etc.) — are the same as those you see today.
Another aspect of the series that makes it stand out more than a decade after is its initial airing is cross-generational appeal. The revenge tales involve students as well as those in the workforce and even those in their twilight years. The main protagonists are a middle-aged man and his seven-year-old daughter. And the subjects range from bullying and stalking to sabotage, physical and mental abuse, and political corruption. There’s literally something for everyone, or even one person at multiple stages in life, to sympathize with.
Similarly attractive, and far more outstanding than most shows since, is the fact that Hell Girl is an episodic affair with not one but two slowly developing through-plots and the nerve to play with formula … often. Stories start tweaking the formula as early as Episode 5 (via the epilog). As the formula begins to break down, so does the black and white issue of right vs. wrong. This is where Hajime and his daughter Tsugumi and their relation to viewers of all ages come in. (Side note: Tsugumi’s evolution, showcasing her growth from an innately stubborn child struggling to mend belief and experience, is amazingly natural.) Hajime and Tsugumi only enter into the story at Episode 8, giving the series enough time to establish its rules and the range of humanity it portrays. A few episodes later, after fleshing out their characters via one coincidental and several subsequent encounters with Hell Girl, the show starts weaving the Shibatas vs. Hell Girl plot. At around episode 20, there are glimpses into the first season’s final turning point: the exploration of Ai Enma’s back story and the effects of its resurgence on Ai and the rest of the cast.
There’s very little I’d not wholeheartedly praise about this show. In fact, the only questionable content is the pandering to loli lovers. Examples include singular, brief scenes in with the seven-year-old girl suggestively strokes a very full cattail, polishes a flute, or uses the tip of her tongue to push a freshly plucked cherry from her puckered mouth. At least those are humorously awful. Depending on how much you want to analyze the imagery of such scenes, other instances of loli fanservice involve Ai in a white kimono clinging with great detail to her wet body as she stands up from the lake beside hell house. It’s (thankfully) not a prominent portion of the show, but such scenes rears their head just enough to be the one black mark on the series.
Summing it up:
Hell Girl’s atmosphere of oppression and anxiety remains appealing because the topics the series tackles are sadly those that will, in all likelihood, forever plague humanity. The backgrounds and scenery range from banal at their worst to gorgeous, and the range of types of people and ages invite a broad association via viewership at any point in life (though, granted, probably stronger towards those in their mid-teens or early adulthood). Not to say Hell Girl was ahead of its time, but very little has advanced to the point where this title feels dated in any way by comparison. I have a feeling Hell Girl is something special — one of those stories destined to be pulled off the shelf over and over again with nary a regret.