[My thoughts on Hell Girl/ Jigoku Shoujo…]
The fourth season of worn and weathered revenge stories had ended and little has changed. It’s been a long time since I watched the first episode of Jigoku Shojo. I remember being quite excited about the prospect of a horror anime after watching some of the trailers they were putting on TV, because it was the one thing I hadn’t seen. It turned out to be quite different from the horror I was expecting.
It’s difficult for anime to pull off horror, don’t you think? Ghosts and demons don’t quite have the same effect that they might in a live-action film. Jigoku Shojo, wisely, shows us a rather different type of horror – humanity. All conceivable evils of people are explored. In almost every episode, we see people destroying people, weaving webs of lies and tugging on strings to manipulate each other. They create fractures, then shove in a dagger to watch things shatter. It’s the first episode, over and over again. Hell is still empty and all the devils are still here.
Luckily, we have Enma Ai, to put the devils back in. Okay, that’s not true. Enma Ai, the eponymous Hell Girl isn’t really so noble or heroic. She’s merely caught in a web and fighting in her own way. There’s quite a lot of sadness in her and a fair bit of anger too. She hides it really well, but we do get insights into her emotions as the story progresses. Her characterization is smartly done. I think she’s admirable, even if her job isn’t; she must have unbelievable resilience to spend four hundred years doing forced labour while living in an isolated cabin with an eerie grandma.
I didn’t feel it at first but I did eventually start thinking that she’s dangerous – not because she’s evil or anything but because she exists. She gives people the power to pass judgement over others and it’s so very convenient too – pulling a string is even simpler than writing a name into a book, don’t you think? Her power can be wielded by anyone and it’s far too accessible! And people do use it, probably even abuse it to the extent that she becomes an urban legend. To be fair, many of the people sent to hell do seem to deserve it. Most of the time, the Hell Girl’s clients are at their wits end, tormented for an extended period of time and desperate for revenge. But we do get those cases where her clients want to set her on people who are actually innocent, or at least not bad enough that they deserve hell forever, which then brings us to how far people are willing to go for revenge.
I think what I found unbelievable was that hell itself didn’t seem to scare people. Enma Ai, our forthright mercenary, lays out the terms of her contract quite clearly before accepting her clients’ request: they get a reservation in hell, and check in for eternity once their life is done. It’s bizarre that this doesn’t put people off. We can’t argue that they don’t believe in hell – their entire revenge is based on hell, so what could possibly motivate them to actually go for it?
I thought about it for a while, and the only thing I could really come up with is that Hell is merely an idea and not a very strong one in the story. People don’t know what they’re in for, and truthfully, neither do the audience. It’s called Hell Girl, but how much of hell do we actually see? Even the Hell Girl does not stay in hell; she has a peaceful countryside cabin to retreat to. The most we really see is the river that Ai rows her victims across and yes, there’re some creepy things lurking in those waters, but hell itself is absent.
The point is, hell is an ambiguous element in the story. Maybe it’s easy to trivialise something if one has only a vague understanding of it. Without truly comprehending what awaits them in hell, maybe it’s easier for these people to agree to it. They may also perceive it as something far away – they need only cross that bridge (river, actually) when they’re dead. And I suppose the final straw is the excruciating stress that many of these characters are experiencing when they enter the contract with Ai, and that essentially strips them of their reasoning and we find out exactly how far they are willing to go for revenge.
Another thing that I found odd was that the police were blissfully unaware of what was going on for the most part. I mean, yes, it’s supernatural and all but people really did disappear. It had been going on for such a long time too so I’m surprised that there wasn’t any department or secret agency actually looking into all these missing persons or the Hell Link specifically. How did it manage to stay under the radar as much as it did, given that it had already gained a reputation? This isn’t really the focus of the show, I know – it’s about the witch, not the witch-hunt. But I do think it would have made sense for some authorities to acknowledge that there’s something going on.
Of all the seasons, only the first really looked at someone trying to get to the bottom of Hell Girl (which also made the first season the best of the lot.) It was interesting to see the father-daughter team track down an entity like Enma Ai and eventually reveal her horrendous past. The subsequent seasons didn’t follow up on that, making them feel incomplete in comparison. By the fourth season, we’re looking at reruns of earlier episodes, so maybe it’s time to end this show… for eternity!
And that actually sums up how I feel about Hell Girl. I don’t have Enma Ai’s resilience so I don’t think I can watch another season of her doing the same thing. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy what we have so far. I think what I got over the four seasons is an impressive mosaic of a character, carefully arranged with a medley of stories. It’s put together quite well, and I get the overall picture even if some of the details do slip away over time. If you haven’t watched it, do give it a try, especially the first season. If you have watched it, feel free to share your thoughts.