by Miyuki Eto; adapted by Gemma Collinge
published by Del Rey Manga; $10.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Hell Girl is an agent of revenge. If you have a grudge against someone, you can visit Hell Girl’s website at midnight and type in the name of the person you want to take revenge on. If Hell Girl accepts your request, she will visit you and give you a straw doll with a scarlet thread tied around its neck. All you have to do is untie the thread to send your perceived enemy to Hell. But there is a catch. If you send someone to Hell, then you are also condemned to Hell upon your death. Volume five contains four stories of people whose request is accepted by Hell Girl.
**Warning! This review contains spoilers!**
Simply from a storytelling perspective, Hell Girl is an unsatisfying read. The basic premise is that the people who contact Hell Girl are supposed to have no other recourse to find satisfaction. For the series to have any emotional punch, we need to get inside the desperation of the protagonist. Otherwise, their decisions seem rash and petty. However, these stories move too quickly to establish an effective bond between reader and sufferer. We barely have time to understand the story’s setup before Hell Girl is called in and someone is sent to Hell. More time is needed exploring the events and feelings that lead up to the decision to contact Hell Girl. Later, after the contract is sealed, we also need more time watching the protagonist come to fully understand the consequences of their actions: what they’ve done to another person, what they’ve done to themselves, and how this affects the people around them.
However, my main complaint is with Hell Girl’s system of morality. Hell Girl acts amorally. She doesn’t investigate to find out if the petitioner has a reasonable complaint. She doesn’t try to understand the situation or get the other person’s perspective. The only criterion to have your request accepted is that you have the appropriate level of hatred to condemn someone and yourself to Hell. The problem is that innocent people can, and do, get sent to Hell.
The last story of this volume serves to illustrate this ethical failing. Mizuho’s parents were killed in a hit-and-run accident. There were no witnesses and not enough physical evidence for the police to even have a suspect. Furthermore, Mizuho’s brother is sickly, and the stress of losing both parents has made his illness worst. After a period of time, Hideo Sato turns himself in as the hit-and-run driver. The police inform Mizuho about his arrest, but they also tell her that he will serve no more than five years because he has no prior criminal record. Mizuho finds it abhorrent that the man who caused her and her brother such suffering could get off so lightly. She contacts Hell Girl to exact her full measure of revenge.
It turns out that Sato fled the scene in a panic because he had a dying wife he was caring for. He wanted to be there for her final days. Once her funeral was over, he turned himself in, willing to accept the full punishment for his actions. Of course, Mizuho and the reader find this out after Sato is sent to Hell. Before surrendering, Sato sent Mizuho a letter of apology explaining why it took him so long to come forward.
Yes, it’s horrible that two people died as a result of Sato’s actions. Yes, he needs to be punished for accidental homicide and fleeing the scene of an accident. But does he deserve eternal torment for these actions? No. In fact, one of the frustrating aspects of this story is that we’re never told the exact circumstances of the accident. Even if Sato is completely at fault, it still doesn’t justify his being sent to Hell. His guilt, confession, and acceptance of punishment show him to be a morally good man who sincerely repents of the wrong he’s done. He’s not beyond redemption. He deserves an opportunity to make what amends he can. And he should be allowed that chance.
Hell Girl doesn’t care. Mizuho wants Sato to rot in Hell, and her hatred is intense enough for her to seal the contract without regard for the consequences. That’s good enough for Hell Girl.
Where is the concept of justice in this series? Does Hell Girl have no antithesis, someone to balance the moral scales of the universe? In the series, good comes across as impotent and evil as unstoppable. It seems that hatred and revenge are the most powerful forces in the Hell Girl universe. There are no opportunities for repentance, redemption, or reconciliation. Judgments are irrevocable, regardless of what new evidence comes to light. There is a hopeless fatalism at the heart of this series that nullifies any moral lessons it seeks to convey.
The art is another problem. Hell Girl is done in the shojo style, which itself isn’t problematic. However, Eto’s sensibilities lean to the romantic, and this undercuts the horror and the darker emotions of the stories. The females are drawn with eyes that take up half of their heads. This exaggeration makes it hard for their faces to convey a lot of emotion, since they all look wide-eyed in shock. Eto conveys horror, hatred, or fear by splashing a lot of black on a particular page or panel. There’s little attempt to blend these black areas in with the rest of the art, so it just muddies the page. Eto does show potential to be a good shojo artist; unfortunately, Hell Girl highlights her weaknesses instead of her strengths.
Hell Girl is a fundamentally flawed series, and the anime shared the same moral problems. However, the anime’s artwork is much better and conveys the negativity of the series effectively. Having just finished Mushishi, the failures of Hell Girl truly stand out. Where Mushishi brilliantly tells stories of human perseverance and our ability to create meaning in the midst of bizarre circumstances, Hell Girl can’t even get a simple morality tale about revenge right. It’s best to avoid Hell Girl in all her incarnations.