Most of the time, horror is ugly. Whether they’re chunky zombies in Dead Island 2 or grotesque titans in Attack on Titan, the objects of our attention are intrinsically repulsive to us. Hell’s Paradise tries a very different approach. The manga, which ran from 2018-2021, juxtaposes beauty with ugliness, and delicate flowers with horrific piles of gore. Now the anime adaptation is here, and its pilot episode takes the manga’s art a step further, using colors and emotional lighting to help tell the story. Rather than keeping viewers at an arm’s length, the anime invites us in. And I can’t help but drift in like a moth to a light.
This action-horror anime is set in the Edo period of feudal Japan, and follows the young ninja Gabimaru. He faces capital punishment for his murders, and the only way to attain a pardon is to obtain the elixir of life on the island of Shinsenkyo. While it seems like a beautiful paradise at first, all the exploration teams sent to the island have been murdered by whatever lurks there. Thus, several teams of convicted criminals are sent to find the elixir. Their lives are disposable, and everyone is an enemy.
Anime reviews sometimes like to judge a show based on how faithful it is to the original manga. I don’t believe in that here. The joy of an adaptation isn’t just in seeing it repeat story beats you’re already familiar with, nor should you even have to read dozens of manga volumes to appreciate what the anime it inspired is doing. In fact, sometimes deviating from the source material can introduce new dimensions to a narrative that weren’t present in the original, and if anything, I think having reviewed the entirety of the Hell’s Paradise manga makes me even more critical of the anime. Where does this show leave me if I know all of the plot twists already? Can it deliver a unique experience in the animation medium? I need to watch more episodes to come to a more enthusiastic conclusion, but so far, the anime understands the assignment. It’s not actually the story that carries Hell’s Paradise. It’s the sublime visuals.
The anime starts off incredibly dreary-looking. The local official is trying and failing to execute Gabimaru. Not for a lack of will, but a lack of a viable method. Executioners break their swords on his neck. Bulls can’t tear his body apart. He can’t even be burned at the stake. In between these gruesome execution attempts, he’s recounting his life story to a shogunate official in a bored and detached tone. He’s a ninja who was forced to marry the daughter of the clan chief, a woman he finds bothersome. Over and over, he claims that he has no attachment to living. The colors of every frame are flat and dull. Somehow, Studio MAPPA has managed to make execution look like an ordinary and dreary occurrence of everyday feudal life.
The episode only truly comes to life when Yamada Asaemon Sagiri reveals Gabimaru’s secret: He wants to live for the sake of his beloved wife. Gabimaru denies it, but the animation tells a drastically different story. Compared to the lifeless flashbacks he recounted to Sagiri, his true domestic memories are soft. There are no hard lines between shadow and light. For a few moments, the assassin is beautiful. And when he uses his fire-based powers, we see some of the most beautiful flames in recent anime. The animation definitely surpasses the manga in how it deftly controls the emotional texture of each scene. The artist Yuji Kaku uses a lot of bold line work in his drawings—it’s little wonder that he was an assistant to the creator of Chainsaw Man. But because he’s constantly heavy-handed with his illustrations, it’s hard in the manga to differentiate between the parts of the story with actual stakes and those just evoking the regular tension of being a criminal in feudal Japan. The anime, by contrast, doesn’t just show us what the story of Shinsenkyo is, but how personal it could feel. As long as it maintains the momentum of its pilot episode, Hell’s Paradise will be a thrilling series.
Hell’s Paradise is a lot like a carnivorous plant. It tries to lure you in with the beauty of friendship and justice, and then cruelly snatches away both as the audience draws close. What I’m excited about the most isn’t actually the horror. It’s the beautiful flowers that this show might offer me—before tearing them all to pieces.
The anime will be available for streaming on Crunchyroll on April 1.