Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 26th 2008
There's no shortage of cruelty and desperation in the world to fuel hatred deep enough to reach the bowels of hell, so Ai Enma, the Hell Girl, has no shortage of work. From evil in-laws to greedy neighbors, the parade of withered souls that Hell Girl prods down the path to eternal damnation never slackens. When a hubristic psychic who claims to have once escaped hell dares to confront her directly, even he learns the terror of true darkness. Ai's pursuers, reporter Hajime and his smart, tolerant daughter Tsugumi, try to thwart her at every turn, but consistently underestimate the power of despair in a world that offers few opportunities for justice. Tsugumi even begins to regard Hell Girl's dark service sympathetically, to the horror of her father. As she and Hajime work out their differences, Tsugumi continues to receive visions from Ai Enma, who is beginning to remember something once lost deep in the mists of time and memory. The memory leads Hajime and Tsugumi to a secluded temple, where they and Ai learn of their ancient, tragic connection, a connection that awakens in Ai a raging hatred to match any that afflicted her clients.
Hell Girl has always been more about slowly emerging patterns than propulsive serial storytelling—quietly introducing complications to an established pattern that unobtrusively expose new facets, both visceral and intellectual, of the premise—so it should come as no surprise that rather than build to a climactic story arc, Hell Girl opts instead to thread the personal issues that eventually comprise the climax into the kind of largely episodic tales it has always told.
The genius of Hell Girl is its ability to put viewers in a position where their head understands Hajime's moral objections but their heart still yearns for the brutal punishment that only Hell Girl can mete out. Even when winding up its first season the series doesn't forget that. The world is nasty and unforgiving, good people meet only misfortune, happiness never survives the influence of evil people, the villains are vile enough to deserve every ounce of pain hell can deliver (the deranged, doll-obsessed mother-in-law is perhaps the vilest yet), and whenever Hell Girl visits them, it's hard not to cheer her on. The slightly dirty satisfaction that comes from watching nasty people meet nasty ends hasn't waned over the course of the series; the train-wreck appeal of the episodes that adhere to the formula remains as powerful as ever.
As does the pervasive atmosphere of eerie dislocation that sets it apart from run-of-the-mill revenge pictures. Takahiro Omori continues to combine superb background artistry (particularly beautiful during the flashbacks to medieval Japan and at Hell Girl's home in the underworld), unnaturally perfect character designs, oppressive lighting, and an unsettling score composed of echoing atonal chimes, delicate, haunted vocals and doom-laden guitar to create a world of silently lurking menace and cruel beauty. He favors carefully animated close-ups and meticulously illustrated compositions over slick animation, and slow-building dread over flashy action. The series would be unthinkable without Omori's cold, measured direction, and for the most part he's smart enough to stick to his guns, rarely allowing the elegantly restrained tone of the series to slip.
Sticking to its narrative and stylistic guns doesn't mean that the series is entirely unwilling to experiment. The psychic-boy episode dabbles in black humor, and the episode in which a man uses Hell Girl as an instrument to fulfill his anonymous obsession with a pure-hearted nurse drives home the amoral nature of Hell Girl's service. Also throughout these eight episodes runs a newly acquired streak of character development which is allowed to slowly grow until it thoroughly dominates the climax. Hajime's relationship with Tsugumi takes on a convincing mix of genuine affection and sometimes harsh intolerance, the regret he feels regarding her mother driving him at times to unforgivable extremes in his quest to convince her of the soul-rending effects of vengeance. Tsugumi's evolving attitude towards revenge not only provides arguably the series' most poignant moments when she realizes that hatred isn't only directed at evil people, but also highlights nicely the childlike naiveté that underlies the worldly demeanor that her single-parent lifestyle has forced her to adopt. Ai Enma's character development is telling in a different way. Though always spooky, Hell Girl doesn't become a bon-a-fide monster until she rediscovers her human emotions, a fact that speaks volumes about the series' approach to horror.
True to Funimation's standard operating procedure, their English adaptation is fairly loosely translated but rarely alters the meaning of a given line and never, ever betrays the intent of a scene. Their willingness to stray from literal translation is rewarded by a script that reads smoothly and naturally, helped immensely by low-key performances to match. Brina Palencia has the unenviable task of following up Mamiko Noto's cold, delicately sensual turn as Hell Girl, and though she wisely opts for interpretation rather than imitation, her voice is sometimes weak and watery when it should be chillingly crystalline. She handles the intensity of the final three episodes well however, and is freed by the English script to do more than simply repeat the same catchphrases over and over. Though Palencia has the lead role, the real star of these episodes is Tsugumi, who Luci Christian invests with such emotional veracity that her every scene is simply heartbreaking. On the strength of her performance alone the emotional impact of the English climax easily surpasses that of the Japanese. It may still seem somewhat out of place in the usually understated series, but in English its heart-tugging power is truly undeniable.
Each disc contains a single good-natured discussion of the series by some combination of cast and crew. Both of them strive hard to be interesting and generally succeed, if only because of the behind-the-scenes information they impart.
As it wraps up its first season, Hell Girl's strengths are still preeminent. Restraint and atmosphere are still its watchwords—even its climax is allowed to surface slowly rather than rush itself to conclusion. If the boy psychic episode is too campy and the emotional resolution of the climax—which weaves Hajime, Tsugumi and Ai's respective feelings together with surprising effectiveness—a tad overwrought, they're flaws that are easily forgiven in a series that is both smarter and more humane than its bitter cynicism might indicate.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A
+ A conclusive end to the series that betrays neither its tone nor its stubbornly episodic nature while allowing itself continuity enough to develop the main cast.
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