Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 12th 2008
Rumor has it that there is a website, Hell Correspondence, that can only be accessed at midnight. Those who reach it can enter the name of someone who has wronged them and get their revenge through Hell Girl—a denizen of the underworld who takes requests from the website and sends the appropriate victim to Hell. However, those who choose to go ahead with revenge must pay a price: on the day that they die, they will also go to Hell, with no chance of redemption. These are the stories of the people who meet Hell Girl and make the choice of divine retribution.
The J-horror tradition has blossomed in recent years—after all, nothing says making it big like having foreign films remade into Hollywood hits. But in between all that hype comes the Hell Girl series, which provides a textbook example of the genre: a supernatural legend involving a young girl, harrowing tales of revenge, and a dash of modern technology. Sounds like a perfect formula for success, right?
Not quite. While Hell Girl kicks off with a fantastic premise, it doesn't always deliver; each individual episode varies in quality depending on how strong the plotting and characters are. There's also a very specific formula—Hell Girl appears to the one seeking revenge, makes a deal, and eventually sends her victim to Hell—that makes every episode predictable to some extent. This series is good for a scare, but it also comes with a whole lot of repetition.
The first DVD provides a good sampler of how each revenge story works out—the bullying situation in Episode 1 is the simplest of them all, but that's so it can focus more on showing how Hell Girl goes about her business. After that, we see more variations in each story—sometimes the protagonist visits Hell Correspondence right away, sometimes it's a last-minute effort, and sometimes the underlying story comes with a twist (the stalking incident in Episode 2 hides its villain well, and Episode 5's corporate trickery shows some moral ambiguity at the end).
And really, it's the twist stories that seem to work best in this series so far—Volume 2's most memorable offerings, "Cracked Mask" (Episode 7) and "Friends" (Episode 10) are the ones where the protagonist has the tables turned on her at the last moment. It's also in the second volume where we see another countermeasure against repetitiveness: the introduction of reporter Hajime and his prescient daughter Tsugumi, who basically add continuity to the series by chasing Hell Girl from episode to episode. In the end, though, it's still the individual stories of each revenge-seeker that are the most important.
While the plot formula may be pretty solid—no matter what the situation, it's always satisfying to see an arrogant fool get what's coming to them—there are some episodes that just aren't executed very well. The dying puppy scenario in "Silent Cries" (Episode 4) feels like one of those false grabs for sympathy based on cute furry animals, and the paranoid mother in "Early Afternoon Window" (Episode 6) basically ruins it by overacting and wigging out all the time. In the end, this trade-off between some pretty good plot twists and some stuff that's downright silly (plus the aforementioned repetition) balances things out to the point of being average.
No matter what the story quality, though, there's always a strong sheen of artistic polish in every episode. The character and background designs are the epitome of "beautiful but deadly"—witness Hell Girl's piercing eyes, the haunting glow of the underworld, and the horror scenes that each victim experiences right before going to Hell. Dramatic staging and camera angles also help to emphasize the horror atmosphere throughout each story. But it's not all about the supernatural world, of course—the modern-day segments that comprise the majority of the series show strong attention to detail, from room interiors to city streets, and each episode comes with a fairly distinctive cast of characters (an impressive task considering that they have to be created anew for each installment). Amidst the clarity and color, however, there's still a certain level of animation sloppiness: a mis-aligned face here, a poorly drawn hand there ... just enough to make one notice that the visuals aren't spot-on.
A rich music score adds to the spooky feel of the series, especially when it goes for a minimalist sound—sometimes all it takes is the chiming of a handbell or a solo voice to generate chills up the spine. Of course, the arrival of Hell Girl is always heralded by a menacing full-blast string section, which sounds good in its own right—but there are still some scenes that are completely overpowered by loudness, creating more melodrama than necessary. A couple of well-written theme songs (and gorgeously animated opening and ending sequences) round out the music in the series.
With a changing cast of characters in each episode, the greatest challenge might be finding enough voice actors for the English dub—but fortunately, Funimation has the resources to pull it off. The cast list for each episode is a diverse mix of famous names and lesser-known talents, and as such, the dub quality is variable—sometimes you'll have an ensemble that gets it right, and other times there'll be someone just forcing their way through their lines. Still, it's a listenable dub that should be good enough for those who prefer English audio. Meanwhile, the dub script goes through various levels of translation and rewrite: some episodes stay fairly true to their original translation, while others are almost at the level of making stuff up (like the hilariously bad swear-fest in "Cracked Mask").
Even before getting to the bonus content on the discs, the DVD cases themselves come with plenty of goodies—Volumes 1 and 2 both feature a beautifully designed reversible cover and a pair of premium quality art cards. As for disc content, music fans will enjoy Volume 1's music video and making-of clip for the ending song; meanwhile, those keeping track of the story can check out the character profiles in Volume 1 and the montage episode in Volume 2 that summarizes the events so far.
Let's be perfectly honest: Hell Girl is not the greatest horror series ever made. Most times it doesn't even approach "great", settling instead for "good" with its tried-and-true formula of modern-day issues, supernatural themes, and vengeance. Slick, high-quality visual production also makes this a pleasure to watch, despite the occasional animation slip-ups. It may not be instant must-see material, but any fan of the horror genre should give it a shot—and then, perhaps, ask themselves the deep question that underlies the series: "Would I accept eternal torture in the afterlife, in exchange for temporary relief and revenge now?"
Hell Girl awaits your answer.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Creates a unique horror experience with its memorable premise, dramatic twists and beautiful art design.
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