Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 27th 2008
Rumor has it that there is a website where people can call on the power of Ai Enma—also known as Hell Girl—and send their adversaries to Hell. However, those who choose the path of revenge must pay a price: on the day that they die, they will also go to Hell. The recent actions of Hell Girl have left a trail of missing persons, and now journalist Hajime Shibata is on her trail, aided by the mysterious visions of his daughter Tsugumi. However, his search is complicated by the fact that Hell Girl's victims could be just about anyone: a sleazy magazine editor, a teacher growing weary of his job, a beloved town mayor with a troubling secret. But Hajime's biggest clue might come not from Hell Girl's current hit list, but from a past incident almost half a century ago ...
You know the drill by now—some poor hapless soul pulls up the Hell Correspondence website at midnight, decides to get revenge on the person who's been making their life miserable, then Ai Enma pops up and dishes out some supernatural vengeance. It's a formula that constantly threatens to get old and tiresome, but the third disc of Hell Girl manages to throw some new wrinkles into the plot structure. Supernatural elements are downplayed and character drama takes center stage, Hajime's ongoing investigation becomes more carefully threaded into the series, and in one of the most powerful episodes so far, we find that the roots of Hell Girl's existence run deep into the past. The series may drag at times, but these middle episodes still have some clever twists in store.
Even the first and last episodes in this set, which follow the usual dilemma-request-revenge formula, show signs of tinkering around with the plot. In both these episodes, the unholy covenant is made within the first few scenes, and the rest of the story is spent on choosing whether or not to untie the red thread that would invoke Hell Girl's powers. It makes for a good game of moral tug-of-war (especially in Episode 14, which pits one girl's suffering against "the greater good"), but those who came to see Ai Enma unleashing her supernatural horrors will find this unsatisfying. The focus on human drama in Episodes 11 and 14 demands a certain emotional investment in the characters, and it can be hard to take an interest in them when they only appear for one episode.
More interesting, however, is the twist in Episode 12, where the victim actually wants to be sent to Hell, for reasons which are more complex than can be described in one sentence. Departures from formula like this one are what make the series compelling, and the turnaround in the finale is a genuine shock that makes the previous 22 minutes worth it.
However, the real gem on this disc is Episode 13's "Purgatory Girl", which puts forth the idea of Hell Girl being an ongoing legend that resurfaces from era to era. Hajime gets his moment in the spotlight here, doing some serious sleuthing (rather than just being the "voice of conscience" in the more ordinary episodes), and expanding the Hell Girl mythos from urban-legend gimmick to true folklore. This single episode not only adds new depth, but does it beautifully: the discovery of a musty old bookstore; a long-forgotten horror short story; an author who met Hell Girl in his own time ... and as Hajime unravels these layers of mystery, he comes face to face with one of the most shocking reveals in the series so far.
Of course, this shocking reveal (and other key moments) would not be possible without the continued high level of visual artistry. There are plenty of eye-candy pieces in this set of episodes, from neon city lights to sunset-bathed old mansions to oil paintings shrouded in obsession. These moments of extreme beauty, set against the dark themes of the series, create an emotional effect that would not be possible with story alone. And of course, the backgrounds in Ai Enma's underworld are as surreal as ever, although it's been seen plenty of times previously. There's more to animation than just background work, however, and that's when the visuals falter: a lot of the character animation is only average in quality, even choppy at times, and it's easy to see where shortcuts are being taken to minimize the amount of movement. Character design is another weak point: sure, Hell Girl and the main cast are instantly memorable, but the disposable one-off characters who call on her powers are exactly that—disposable, forgettable protagonists who disappear from the mind's eye as soon as the episode is over.
The general mood of the series would not be complete without music, and these episodes are no exception when it comes to the sound of mystery and foreboding. The scoring is often minimal, with solo instruments or small groups playing mere skeletons of a melody—and that's all they need to do to evoke a chill up the spine. Full orchestral blast is reserved for the melodramatic revenge sequences, and even those are getting less screen time, so this soundtrack leans more towards an understated approach. The opening and ending songs, meanwhile, feature well-crafted arrangements that are still enjoyable to listen to after this many episodes.
With the focus turning towards character drama, the script calls for a serious tone—and the English dub delivers well in that respect. The cast achieves a careful balance between casual speech and letting it all out, resulting in a performance where one can feel the tension and emotion—but in a subtle, beneath-the-surface way. However, the pronunciation of Japanese names seems to be a stumbling block on a regular basis (is it Fukumoto? Fukumoto?), and let's face it, Mamiko Noto so completely owns the role of Hell Girl that anyone trying to do that voice in any another language falls short. The dub script does deviate from the direct translation quite regularly—often rewording a sentence to mean the same thing but fit more easily in English—but these changes rarely have any major effect on the actual story.
The main bonus feature on this DVD is a round-table discussion with the principal Japanese voice actors, talking about the Hell Girl series in general—naturally, they just have to bring up the classic "What would you do if Hell Correspondence was real?" question. Collectors will also enjoy the reversible cover and two art cards that come with the disc case (apparently the theme of Volume 3 is "legs").
It seems that Hell Girl is constantly teetering between horror-genre mediocrity and storytelling brilliance: one wrong move, and it'll dip into a boring episode about some unhappy person no one cares about, but one stroke of genius, and it can turn out masterpieces like "Purgatory Girl." That episode alone makes the whole disc worth it, just to see how elements of horror, folklore and drama tie together to create a moving and memorable tale. And even if the story quality varies from episode to episode, there's always the eye-catching art and chilling music. Yes, there are times when style overrides substance—but when the substance is good, it's really, really good.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ "Purgatory Girl" episode adds new depth to the series with some stunning revelations, while the atmosphere and artistry are as effective as ever.
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