Ghostly urban legends are all the rage in Japan right now, and they tie nicely into that country’s general appetite for supernatural weirdness. The things that fascinate them are almost quaint compared to the kinds of urban legends that fly around on this side of the Pacific, actually: they ruminate over haunted hotel rooms and ghostly tenants in apartment buildings, and we have nasty stories about people waking up in an ice-filled bathtub with one kidney missing.
Hell Girl fuses modern-day urban-legends and high technology with low-tech spooking and old-school Japanese mythology. If you have a grudge against someone, or so the whisperings go, you can enter a certain website that shows up only at midnight and punch in the name of the one you want to send to hell. Accept the covenant that the Hell Girl, Enma Ai*, offers you, and “your grievance will be avenged,” as she declaims again and again. However, as Ai points out, “Grudges come home to roost.” The cost for sending someone to the underworld will be your own soul, claimed after your death and sent to hell as well. (I’m no believer in the afterlife, but seeing something like this work out for real just might get me to change my theory.)
The five episodes of Hell Girl’s first DVD take this basic premise and explore it in a few rudimentary ways, but seem stuck on just showing off the mechanics of the idea instead of really pushing the envelope. The opening episode is essentially a demonstration of the concept, where a high school girl turns to Hellcorrespondence.com as her court of last resort when a gang of bad-girl bullies make her life progressively more miserable. Episode 2 rings a couple of tentative changes on the formula: a girl stalked by an obsessive sociopath also enlists Hell Girl’s help to get him off her back, but she discovers to her horror that her real enemy was someone else.
So far, so good, but then things begin to fairly, blatantly repeat themselves. The third episode is a near-total retread, involving a gifted high school ballplayer who pummels another student to death and frames someone else for it. Episode four gives us a veterinarian more interested in golfing with CEOs than caring for a girl’s wounded puppy, and it unfolds in about the way you’d expect, too — but the climax features one of the more satisfying bits of comeuppance on the whole disc, courtesy of a truly effective bit of POV terror on the part of the vet.
The last installment dangles a truly interesting possibility under our noses, though: someone who has discovered the secret of Hellcorrespondence.com and is using it to undercut the competition in the corporate world. The CEO of the female-only company Dead Line, Inc. may be computer-illiterate, but she has a subordinate (whom she rescued from a shoplifting rap) who does all the hacking wizardry for her — and who has half a mind to sic Hell Girl on her own grasping boss. Then the show springs a number of sly twists on the formula, and the end of the episode hints at some as-yet-untapped possibilities in the formula.
That’s just the problem, really: the show so far is all potential and not much payoff. The limitations of Hell Girl become all the more prominent when you put the show side by side with another show: Paranoia Agent. That show sported a vaguely similar concept (people in dire straits turn to supernatural intervention that turns out not to be what they expect) but a totally different execution. For one, everything and everyone in Agent was connected to everything else, so each episode threw on additional weight and made the whole thing that much more powerful.
Each installment in Hell Girl, by contrast, is essentially a standalone, with only the overall premise to tie it together. What’s novel the first couple of times around quickly gets predictable, and before long we’ve second-guessed most of what will transpire. We know someone is going to make use of Hell Girl before the episode is out, so there’s no real suspense there — and the show doesn’t always bother to generate suspense or intrigue in other ways. But when that does happen, as it does to some degree in the last episode on the disc, it gives us a compelling reason to hang around and come back for the next go-round.
I always enjoy shows that delve into Japan’s trove of mythology and mysticism, whether explored as adventure-fantasy (Otogi-Zoshi) or as atmospheric horrors (Requiem from the Darkness). Hell Girl has a solid premise that ties right back into that mythology, but I’m hesitant to declare it a real success until it does more than just repeat its formula.
* “Enma Ai” is a bit of a play on Enma-Ô, the name of the Japanese deity who judged the dead in the afterlife.