Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 14th 2008
Taking full advantage of his daughter Tsugumi's mysterious connection to Hell Girl, dedicated reporter Hajime dogs Ai Enma all over Japan, trying desperately to interfere with her harvesting of souls for vengeance. He follows her to an isolated island where a young woman is planning to send her domineering aunt to the depths of hell. He traces her to a circus where a badly abused performer has called upon Hell Girl to end her torment. He brings Tsugumi to a haunted rural hospital where Ai Enma has contacted a vengeful spirit, and returns to Tokyo to convince a girl who has been enslaved by a very nasty old woman not to sell her soul for revenge. Well he knows that he is fighting a losing battle against the rage and fear born of a cruel, unforgiving world, but try he must, and try he does, even when the only person who can possibly win is the Hell Girl herself.
As restrained, elegant, and superbly atmospheric as ever, Hell Girl continues to vary its basic formula in small, telling ways but remains as stubbornly repetitive as ever. Even the addition of two more recurring characters—Hajime and Tsugumi—has added no continuity and only precipitated slight changes in the structure of each episode.
Every set of episodes has its weak link—in this case, the haunted hospital episode, which lacks the cruelty and bitter pessimism that makes the other episodes such compelling viewing—but overall the series has lost none of its power to chill and enthrall. In part this is because of versatile veteran Takahiro Omori's skilled direction. His manipulation of background artistry and lighting is masterful, his use of the otherworldly score perceptive, and his timing impeccable when capitalizing on Ai Enma's eerie porcelain perfection. The series also has an uncanny ability to delve deeper and deeper with each subsequent episode into the endlessly inventive ways that the human heart can be twisted and consumed by hate, fear, greed and even love. But perhaps most importantly, and certainly most paradoxically, it is Hell Girl's very repetitiveness that keeps it fresh and unsettling.
By creating the expectation that it will adhere each episode to its established formula, Hell Girl allows itself the opportunity to betray those expectations in new and sadistic ways. It doesn't always betray them—to do so would be self-destructive. The old lady episode, for instance, follows the formula with savage fidelity—a decent person is backed into a corner by a person so vile and conscienceless that there is no recourse but to resort to the services of Hell Girl. The circus episode, on the other hand, uses viewer perceptions about who is damning who to deliver a bitter last-minute twist that has unsettling implications about the psychology of an abused child. Though not in this volume, some of the slight variations in structure have for some time been pulling the series away from purely mean-spirited vicarious vigilante catharsis towards implicit examinations of the morality of vengeance, a trend that Tsugumi finally gives a voice to when she asks Hajime if he should be trying to stop the only person who can bring certain human monsters to justice.
In the world of Funimation dubs, Hell Girl may be one of the most faithful English adaptations yet. The script follows the subtitles with surprising fidelity—though not so exacting that it gets stagy or unnatural—and the leads are cast with a sharp eye towards emulating their Japanese performances. R. Bruce Elliot even manages to give the sepulchral Takayuki Sugo a run for his money as Wanyuudou. Brina Palencia can't quite match the lilting menace of Mamiko Noto as Enma Ai, but that is due at least in part to the difficulty of capturing the mythical cadence of her catchphrases in English. With a larger pool of actors to draw performances from, the many guest performances naturally fare better in Japanese than in English, but are uniformly professional nonetheless.
The disc comes with two quality cards featuring some of the series' beautiful artwork, but the only extra on-disc is a twelve minute round-table discussion with some of the series' main creators in which they discuss Hell Girl's genesis. Unfortunately the whole thing is filmed in sickly green with a claustrophobically constricted lens.
Like the best work of horror legends like Wes Craven and George Romero (except infinitely more subtle and polished), Hell Girl knows that true horror comes not from supernatural forces and gut-munching zombies, but from humans. No "boo, gotcha" boogeyman can hope to approach the hair-raising chill elicited by a naked glimpse of the twisted human psyche. And so long as Hell Girl maintains that insight into the darkest recesses of the human heart, it will always have a place in the hearts of thinking horror fans. And the sadistic little narrative touches certainly don't hurt either.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Ice-cold horror that uses its repetitive structure to intelligent and incisive effect.
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