Intro and mechanics
I’ve recently been watching Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku and it's a series that I been pretty obsessed with. Everything from the action animation, character designs to the fiery soundtrack that submjerges you into the world of moving drawings and artistic expression.With themes of eternal life and condemned criminals scouring a mysterious island, what more can you ask for? Where past expeditions have only led to death and turning people in flowers all bundled into a Hunger Games vibe competition to find the elixir of immortality, the anticipation to figure out what happens next was overwhelming.
The first episode of this anime hit it out of the park. With past series that I have seen, I think the first episode is crucial in setting up characters and stories to look forward to. Sometimes it can feel like destiny when the music, the characters and the art all align with what you like. Hell’s Paradise was nothing short of that and continues to get me excited for every scene.
As someone who enjoys writing stories, I’ve learned through our fiction workshop classes just how important those few pages or initial chapter is. It’s important because while as a writer it may feel tempting to go into depth on one aspect of the story say the worldbuilding for example, I feel it’s important to not lose the reader in the beginning. Hells Paradise establishes the world and stakes of the story off the bat and through interesting characters and a world, I wanted to learn more about.
During one of my past fiction writing classes, I enjoyed how our professor plotted out the main events on the whiteboard to bring clarity to us and to help steer through the driving elements of the story and stakes. I think I became a better writer by reading other students’ works and providing them with a similar style of feedback/critique. By reading a variety of styles and genres, it was fun to sort of dissect what was working and driving the motivation to turn the page and what put me out of the story. This workshop and open approach to looking for change allowed me to think more critically about the stuff I’ve read and watched. That’s why I think I was ecstatic while watching Hell’s Paradise because I felt it did so many things right in just 24 minutes.
We jump right into the action which is something stylistically I like. We are thrusted straight into the main character; Gabimaru’s inner tension and state of mind. While it is directly presented to us that he is wanting to die since being captured, only for the many execution methods to fail, it leads us to expect if there’s anything else under the surface. We are shown countless times that his shinobi prowess and superhuman abilities are keeping him from what would normally be curtains for the everyday criminal. An elite swordsman and Asaeman clan member Sagiri are interviewing him in between the days of the authority's humouredly inability to execute him. Their back-and-forth dialogue is crucial for character development because while Gabirmaru continues to complain about why he can’t die and presents himself with the emptiness that his legend holds, it’s actually quite the opposite. With Sagiri’s insight, while the stunned samurai watch him as he just seemingly evaded another execution, she mentions to him how his actions very obviously contradict his words and eagerness to die.
In turn, Gabimaru is an actually unreliable narrator. As Sagiri mentions, he’s lying to himself and all his distaste for his wife and attachment to life were indeed the opposite. It is interesting to see the main character lie to the viewer, stylistically it made me have to learn how to watch this show very much like a book teaches you to read it. Later on, when Sagiri and Gabimaru are fighting, we see his head chopped off just before the two set off into sick sword combat. While he doesn’t actually die, I found this visual metaphor of Gabimaru’s stress and intimidation of Sagiri to be very sick. It shows how much pressure and tense the situation is by showing him beheaded by her before they actually fight and showing his assessment of his opponent in a unique way. I just really loved that addition to the moments before the fight, it really highlights the skill of Sagiri and a fear Gabimaru hasn’t felt so far.
Finding purpose and being human
Having Gabimaru being an unreliable narrator was a cool way to frame the first half of the story and build anticipation. It invited these themes of what it means to be human and vulnerability which are pretty intimate. Through the flashbacks to Gabimaru and his wife talking and living together, we learn about the positive impact she has on his life and how she’s undoing all his suppressed emotions as shinobi. Seeing those scenes were so rich and made me root for them, especially since Gabimaru is thinking about all of this while fighting Sagiri. We are watching him change in real-time.
During one of their flashbacks, we learn about his wife’s burn mark on her face and are introduced to her strong character and how she’s reminding Gabimaru how important it is to be human and to feel things. What she says hits like a truck because this theme of strength, suppressing your emotions, and being human are themes that we can expect to see more in Sagiri’s and his expedition to Shinsekyo.
“But people’s hearts don’t die so easily.”
Amidst the physical against Sagiri and his own mental turmoil, while all hope seems lost for Gabimaru the hollow, Sagiri shatters the chains that held his place from reaching his wife by presenting him with a physical pardon that can allow him freedom. The proposition is to accompany her to the Shinsenkyo to compete against other criminals in search of the Elixir of immortality and the reward of a full pardon. Sagiri pushes him more with information regarding her, saying she is still in Iwagakure but has closed herself off to others and is waiting.
How can he not say yes to this? Talk about a good and compelling story full of lively characters and stakes.
Gabimaru has a new path before him, a chance to see his wife again. The tension is relieved when we see him complain after defeating all the other samurai who were around them. In only one episode, we see a lot of character development, and the world and stakes are introduced to us in a cliffhanger manner, pressing us to only think about what might happen next and what sort of challenges lie ahead for these people ahead. We also learn that ninjutsu is possible when Gabimaru torches the surrounding samurai, it only makes me giddy to think about what action scenes and badass abilities lie ahead. There was so much to look forward to, these budding characters felt so alive and I couldn’t wait to watch what would happen next.