By Sean Cabot, Multimedia Critic
“Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku” seems right at home among today’s most popular Japanese comics. It possesses haunting creature design based off of East Asian mythology like “Jujutsu Kaisen,” and its brutal violence calls to mind Harvey Award-winner “Chainsaw Man.”
It is also set to receive an animated adaptation from Studio MAPPA, the same studio that took up the task of animating both of those other comics.
Since author Yuji Kaku was an assistant to “Chainsaw Man” author Tatsuki Fujimoto on “Fire Punch,” the similarities make sense. But don’t get confused – Kaku’s more quiet and deliberate atmosphere could never be confused for Fujimoto’s visceral eclecticism.
Whereas those comics have garnered much attention, fans of “Hell’s Paradise” have been a bit less vocal. Trust me when I say that this is not for lack of things to discuss.
The story follows Gabimaru the Hollow, an assassin who has survived every attempt at execution from the Edo-period Japanese government. His skills earn him the attention of the Yamada, a clan of executioners who are seeking candidates for a mission from the Shogun himself.
In exchange for a singular pardon, he or any of the various criminals hired by the Shogun must find an elixir of immortality on a bizarre island whose visitors have all returned as half-plant corpses. And to keep them in line, they are each partnered with one of the Yamada Asaemon – the most accomplished fighters of the clan.
But when Gabimaru makes windfall with his partner Sagiri – one of the only female executioners of the Asaemon, what they find is a nightmare befitting the comic’s oxymoronic title. Strange beasts that seem to parody man, animal, and religious iconography litter its misty forests.
And then they encounter the strange people of the island – some of whom look like animate trees, and some of whom shift between sexes and don’t seem to die when killed.
Unfortunately for Gabimaru and company, the latter group is extremely hostile to them.
If there’s one thing “Hell’s Paradise” nails, it’s a sense of constant unease from its artwork. No matter which emotional tone a scene presents, the hazy ambience of the island is never diminished, and it only adds to the tension when characters are fighting for their lives.
And speaking of fights, their spectacle is truly something to behold. The antagonists’ ability to regenerate makes each attempt to fell one of them feel desperate and frantic, and death feels like it could come for anyone unlucky enough to encounter them.
If there’s a place it suffers however, it’s in the middle section, which sees the normally quick pacing decelerate to explain the esoteric supernatural forces that the antagonists draw from and the heroes learn to take advantage of.
While this does pay off in the form of some truly epic battles, the exposition borders on overkill. Even the final stretch retains some of these shortcomings.
The cast is strong overall – Gabimaru, Sagiri, and the various other convicts and Yamada they ally themselves with are certainly entertaining to see play off each other. Their desperate circumstances do a lot to solidify their connection while the plot briskly moves along.
Among my favorites are the bandit brothers Chobei and Toma, blind swordsman Shion, and the lazy prodigy Jikka.
On the thematic end, strength and weakness serve as major keynotes. Many characters die showing their strongest side through underappreciated talents, while those that survive do so by becoming cognizant of their greatest weaknesses and adapting accordingly.
Another subtler theme is that of sin and justice. Gabimaru, motivated to reunite with his wife on the mainland, struggles with his desire for normalcy and the violence he must inflict to reach it – which is to say nothing of the other convicts’ crimes.
In actuality it’s quite a lot to digest for 13 volumes. But even with its uncannily slow middle section, “Hell’s Paradise,” is still a supremely readable comic.
B+, slow yet fast, subdued yet savage