For the uninitiated, this is how a typical episode of Hell Girl plays out. An individual is wronged by another, often severely. Perhaps they are the focus of extreme bullying, or there has been an attack on a loved one. Whatever the case, the victim seeks out a website called Hell Link, through which they submit their offender’s name and summon the enigmatic Hell Girl. Hell Girl then offers them a choice: they may if they so choose immediately banish their tormentor to Hell, but as she warns, curses come home to roost. The y are free to live their lives however they wish afterwards, but when they die, they too will go to Hell. Due to this condition, the victim is almost always reluctant to follow through with the covenant, but invariably by the end of the episode they are pushed over the edge by some new development, and call upon Hell Girl to free them from their living nightmare.
*This article contains spoilers on Hell Girl’s first and second seasons, not that I recommend watching either of them.*
Paired with these episodic narratives is a recurring plotline of a single reporter, Hajime Shibata. Hajime encounters Hell Girl early in the first season, and spends the rest of it playing catch up, trying to follow her and encouraging her potential clients not to take the deal, arguing that revenge may seem like an easy out but in the end will only leave everyone more unhappy. This belief is personified when Hajime meets an old man named Fukumoto, who had made his own contract with Hell Girl decades ago. Fukumoto embodies the show’s central conceit, that curses come home to roost in more than just the literal sense. The prospect of going to Hell himself seemed so far away when making the deal, but Fukumoto lived his whole life controlled by it, crushed by the knowledge that no matter what he did and no matter how he spent his days, all that’s waiting for him at the end of the line is eternal torment. The moment of joy granted by Hell Girl’s revenge was tepid and fleeting, dooming him to a lifetime plagued by guilt and fear. Learning of Fukumoto’s story redoubles Hajime’s faith that there is no true justice through Hell Girl, but not everyone agrees with this opinion.
Chiefly, his daughter Tsugumi is doubtful. Like many kids would, Tsugumi believes that there are thoroughly evil people in this world and that they should unequivocally be punished. She cannot understand why her father would try to fight Hell Girl because, as she sees it, Hell Girl is only delivering retribution to the evil people that deserve it. Of course, this belief is turned on its head with the introduction of a nurse named Kanako, a truly bright and kind girl who is nonetheless the target of someone’s spite. For reasons that are intentionally never made clear, Kanako is sent to Hell by a victim she never realized she wronged, for an action she probably didn’t even realize she made. This rocks Tsugumi’s faith in Hell Girl, because after all, Kanako was the furthest thing from an actually malicious person there could be. It’s a lesson that, clearly, people sometimes just make mistakes, and should they be hated for that? Some degree of discord is inevitable in human society.
Ultimately it is revealed that Hell Girl is an existence rooted in revenge. Without getting too far into specifics, a longtime friend spurned her trust and failed to protect her at the time of her death. In her rage she rose up from the grave, razing her entire village to the ground. As a repentance of sorts she was pressed into service by the powers-that-be as Hell Girl, allowing others to seek their own revenge.
The climax of the season comes when Hajime finally confronts Hell Girl. He attempts to persuade her that revenge is meaningless, and that her service is only increasing the misery in the world, but given her past, Hell Girl won’t have it. Instead, she attempts to persuade Tsugumi to banish her own father to Hell, by revealing that he was at least partially responsible for her mother’s death, and apparently felt no blame in the matter. This final episode of the first season is the only time when forgiveness wins out over hatred. Hajime breaks down, cursing himself, urging Tsugumi to send him to Hell because he does in his eyes deserve it — but she doesn’t. She forgives him, and over time, they build a life together once again.
On paper, this is not a bad story, and it even ends on a positive note. Despite a long journey rife with pain and agony, Hell Girl is finally rejected, forced to question the value in revenge and the need to fight hatred with further hatred. At that point you could ask, what story is there left to tell? How could there be another 60+ episodes of Hell Girl? That was my main concern heading into Season 2, and unfortunately, it was very warranted.
The heart of the issue with Hell Girl is not that it’s too cynical or too “edgy”, but simply that it is far too long for the depth of thought that it contains. It holds no greater aspirations than “revenge is bad, don’t do it”, and presenting different permutations of that idea. However, this is such a simple statement that you can feel even the original 26 episode season straining to support itself.
With very rare exceptions, the brief summary I gave at the beginning of this video is the basic structure of every single episode of Hell Girl’s first and second seasons, and this is by far the series’ greatest flaw. Each episode tells essentially the same story, with differences that are superficial at best. Yes, the particular circumstances vary; one story follows an up-and-coming star who kills a fellow classmate, another tells the tale of a young girl whose father was driven to ruin by a man claiming to be his friend, a third chronicles a web of revenge between multiple people, and the second season’s climax is an entire town that slowly goes to Hell (literally) over slight grievances between each other — but the ultimate issue at hand is that, while the details may differ, the things that are actually said remain the same.
If you want to be an episodic series, you either need to have no point (like an iyashikei, where the appeal lies in the atmosphere and mood) or many points, like Mushishi or Kino’s Journey. So much of Hell Girl left me wondering what I was expected to get out of it, aside from the terribly bleak observation that people are awful. Every episode like clockwork, someone wants revenge, they take revenge, oh, they’re worse off. Revenge is bad, remember? It’s stuck in a endless rut of reiterating that concept.
Now of course, it’s not a death sentence for a show to have muddled thematic throughlines, but usually that’s because it’s in some other way fun to watch. Hell Girl is not fun to watch, packed with every sort of pain and suffering imaginable. If you enjoy wallowing in the trumped up “darkness” of humanity, there might be something here for you, but speaking for myself, I can’t say my hours with Hell Girl was time well-spent. At a point it was just torture porn, and I’m not into that. I’m not yet pessimistic enough to believe that people are fundamentally bad, and I find little joy in the anguish of even the most “evil” individuals, so when the second season failed to build on the thematic crux of the first, it really lost me. It had nothing to add to the final lesson, and instead served revenge tales en masse, for seemingly no other reason than to enjoy them for the sake of it.
Fans may complain that I’ve failed to properly address the characters themselves — being Hell Girl and her supernatural entourage (which I couldn’t disagree with) — but they never felt truly important to me. They are not what I’ll remember about Hell Girl in two, five, ten years’ time. At the end of the day, what I’ll remember is that Hell Girl’s first season had the nerve to stand up to its indulgences, and declare that forgiveness is more important than vengeance, but the second became an interminable mire of retribution and torment whose only real value in my eyes was its ingenuity in coming up with new revenge scenarios. Needless to say, I didn’t bother watching the third or fourth, especially since even fans seem to have their issues with those. At least it gave me a couple songs to add to my playlist; I liked the openings a lot.