Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Known only through rumor and superstition, Ai Enma, AKA Hell Girl, is the final resort of the desperate and downtrodden, an inexorable force that will, if you enter a name in the Hell Correspondence website at midnight, exact terrible and eternal vengeance on your foes. For a price. In exchange for your own immortal soul, at the price of eternal torment, you can lessen your mortal torment by sending your tormentors to their just desserts before you. No one, regardless of station can hope to escape her. Not bakers, veterinarians, teachers, actors or plain old schoolyard bullies. Make someone else's life hell—by blackmail, harassment, or pet-icide—and whoosh! it's off to real, honest-to-Charley hell for you. Power to the people sister, and eternal damnation for all.
And speaking of torment... Even before the transfer from animation to paper, Hell Girl had its problems. But where the animated version had color, music and comparatively spacious episode runtimes to transform it into a spooky, if repetitive, trip into hearts of darkness, compressed timeframes and a remarkably inappropriate artistic approach transform the paper version into a toothless mess.
Hell Girl is a fundamentally mean-spirited venture. It's a series of tales in which decent people are crapped on by some vile scumbucket until systematically backed into a corner from which their only hope for escape is supernatural intervention. Its world is populated exclusively with the nastiest, most selfish, deceitful and plain old evil specimens that humanity has to offer; fortunate developments are merely heights from which to fall, and even the kindest of people are destined to sully their souls with hatred and vengeance. Dark, pessimistic and possessed of a foul conception of human nature, the franchise is built upon the train-wreck appeal of personal disaster coupled with the vicarious thrill of watching the slimeballs responsible receive a bellyful of their own medicine. Not that that is of necessity a bad thing. It's a set-up rife with potential moral ambiguities and issues to explore, even if the stories in this volume have yet to do so. Or even try.
But the fact that the book never sees fit to point out that sending humans to hell for killing dogs is the supernatural equivalent of fighting BO with nuclear weapons is beside the point. The point is that the series thrives on darkness and pure sadistic nastiness, and the manga version simply doesn't deliver. To begin with, thirty-some-odd pages leaves scant time to build villains up to sufficiently evil heights that their downfall is in any way satisfying. The climactic moment during which the villain's true nature becomes clear and the hero is forced to resort to the offices of Ai Enma passes too quickly, and the cathartic trip to hell is never nasty or drawn out enough. And as if to execute any possible hint of sadistic horror fun that might remain, Miyuki Eto illustrates the book as if it were, of all things, a shoujo romance. That her art is overcrowded, busy and sloppily composed even by normal standards is once again beside the point. The problem is far more fundamental. Her style simply doesn't mesh with the content. Murdering an atmospheric horror tale with flowery effects, crazy shoujo layouts, big shiny eyes and lapses into uber-cute SD humor is sadism of an entirely different sort, and not one that is intended to be enjoyed.
Del Rey gives Hell Girl its usual solid treatment. Sound effects are left in Japanese with translations nearby, there's a scant few (three) translation notes and a next-volume preview in which Ai Enma shocks the world by, wait for it...sending someone to hell. Their translations of Ai's various taglines are a tad inconsistent and occasionally clunky-sounding ("Your hurtful actions to others have tainted your immortal soul") but otherwise it's smooth sailing.
If the dismal track record of manga interpretations of animated properties hasn't already warned you away from this book—perhaps you're hopeful that an episodic anime will translate more readily to the printed medium—then let me do the honors: stick to the version that moves. And has music. And atmosphere, and intelligence, and drama, and most of all, sadism. 'Cause that's the name of the game, whether Miyuki Eto knows it or not.
Overall : C
Story : B-
Art : C-
+ Retains some of the anime's dark power despite the artist's inability to draw or pace horror.
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