In theory, Yoshiki Yamakawa's Hells should be one of my favorite projects. It's not yet another story about kids in giant robots, it has world-devouring ambitions, and it's drawn and animated with so much style to burn they could have heated an entire apartment complex with it. In practice, it's messy, arbitrary, undisciplined: it wants to do so much, it gives itself a heart attack trying. But it also tries to do something entirely its own, and it has the complete courage of its utterly nutty convictions. It's worth seeing, if only to compare how everyone argues about it afterwards.
The underworld and its underclassmen
Hells, adapted from Shinichi Hiromoto's manga (not translated into English as of this review) opens with a premise that seems amusing if not exactly groundbreaking. Teen girl Rinne Amagane scrambles to get to school on time, and when she stops just long enough to save a cat from being hit by passing traffic she herself is creamed by an oncoming truck. Next thing she knows, she's still on her way to class ... in the underworld.
Hell in this movie's universe looks like a lift from Tim Burton's design work, crossed with a close cousin of the gnarly-storybook look of the show Tweeny Witches. The other students all hearken back to classic horror-monster designs of one kind or another — a great occasion for sly sideways jabs, as one of the classmates is a witch named Kiki. Class and student life are as hellish as they look, and nobody here — not the classmates, not the teachers, not the dorm mother — have any patience for Rinne and her can-do, chin-up, let's-be-friends attitude. Most diabolical of all is the headmaster, "Hellvis", who comes off like a Vegas-lounge King impersonator, sporting a two-foot pompadour and punctuating every sentence with a drawn-out drawl of "BAY-BEE!"
Eventually the first iteration of something like a storyline emerges. One of the few fellow students Rinne bonds with is the dead-eyed Steela and her reanimated dog Franken. That right there is cause for hope: if Rinne can befriend someone like Steela, why not, say, Kiki, or the other thuggish girls in her class? Or even Headmaster Hellvis himself, who organizes brutal competitions between the students to test their otherworldly mettle?
Then something else comes to light that stops everyone cold. The reason Rinne still looks like her old human self, and not like the gallery of grotesques that populates the rest of the school, is that she's not really dead. Somehow or other, she was sent to hell before her time — same as Ryu, the dashingly handsome student council president and his still-human staff. Why, is another question, and the reasoning behind that question turns out to have explosive implications for not just Jigoku Academy but all of creation.
This is the part where I can go no further without spoilers, because this is also the part where the movie gets both very ambitious and very muddled. Headmaster Hellvis is not Satan, as one might have expected in this setup. He is Cain, "the first murderer in human history", he who slew Abel when Abel's mother favored him over his brother. Ryu is Abel, who despite his suave and kind demeanor to Rinne, has been plotting revenge throughout all time since, and doesn't care who or what he destroys to get it. And Rinne is the resurrection of ... you guessed it, Eve. She was brought to hell by God — or rather, what's left of him in the form of the stray cat Rinne rescued — in a desperate attempt to even the score.
Like I said, ambition to spare. The problem is the movie's construction and storytelling lack the discipline and cohesion to deliver it effectively. Each time the movie tries to raise its stakes with another revelation about the goings-on, it feels like it's doing so at the expense of it taking place in a world where there's anything like coherent cause and effect. One key development involves Ryu "weaponizing" Sheela's sense of desolation, the better for Ryu to achieve his terrible ends, but the way it ultimately plays out feels arbitrary instead of inevitable. All this is paired with a lot of plain old narrative clunkiness — e.g., key revelations about Cain, Abel, and Eve are dumped into the reader's lap at the halfway mark by way of a show-stopping prolonged flashback.
This problem — what for a lack of a better term I'll call its "Calvinball plotting" — is a common pitfall with stories of the fantastic: no discernible internal logic. The rules of hell and the afterlife are too loosey-goosey, too improvised according to no discernible plan, for their own good. That damages both the mechanics and the flavor of the story. Instead of feeling like we're being taken somewhere specific and tangible, we feel like the movie is just making it up as it goes. It echoes an old storytelling rule of mine: when anything is possible in a story, nothing matters, because we can't relate any more. Everything becomes pure, meaningless happenstance.
Consequently, the story we do get doesn't seem as interesting as the story we could have gotten. After the third or fourth eschatological whammy, I got annoyed, because the movie seemed to be more interested in just topping itself than deploying its material effectively. By the time we got to the several-climaxes-too-many ending, I wished the movie had quit while it had still been ahead twenty minutes earlier.
Some sense of the word "fantastic"
All this frustrates me, because the ingredients are all there for a truly extraordinary piece of work. "Fantasy", in movies and TV but especially in anime, almost always winds up meaning something out of the J.R.R. Tolkien tradition, when before Tolkien came along (and for quite some time after, too) it meant far more than that. E.R. Eddings, Mervyn Peake — and on the other side of the water, Nahoko Uehashi, Noriko Ogiawara, and Miyuki Miyabe — have explored fantastic conceits that owed little to the stereotype adventuring-party concept. Hells wants to be as maverick as all that, and then some.
And for a time, and here and there across its running length, it does work. Its kinetic, rough-edged animation, reminiscent of the wild style of projects like REDLINE, is worth the look all by itself. Even in the mess of the story we have now, there are truly interesting possibilities explored — e.g., the way hell in this story is more like the Buddhist version of same, where transcendence and escape are always available even to the most wretched. I wanted more of that, but delivered by way of a story more accommodating to its merely mortal audience.
I've watched Hells multiple times now — once in its original subtitled import edition, and twice now in its new version (once subbed, once in its fine new dubbed version too). Some of that is curiosity about how the new edition compares, and some of it is me wanting to be fair to something that is bursting with vision and creative effort. Hells wants to be a lot more than a fancy exercise in wild design style, and I respect that. Some people will adore it simply for being so far off the chain. I wanted to be one of those people, but in the end I was reminded of how sometimes the chain is there for a reason.