While Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku is full of beautiful scenes, this particularly gruesome one caught my eye: a wooden boat floating serenely down a misty river filled with beautiful flowers. Government officials found a smiling corpse with flowers growing out of dismembered parts. It was a gruesome juxtaposition of beauty and horror that reminded me of the legendary Yu Yu Hakushobut this manga’s rather cynical attitude towards society sets it apart from others.
hell paradise takes place in Edo Japan and follows the story of the legendary ninja Gabimaru and his attendant, the executioner Saigiri, of the estranged Yamada clan (who are despised for their association with corpses). Along with other pairs of convicts and samurai, they travel to the mysterious island of Kotaku (yes, seriously) in search of the Elixir of Life. There they find terrifying, murderous plant monsters with unsavory plans for humanity. The executioners must join forces with the criminals they are charged with convicting or risk being turned into plant-feeding corpses. Even if they survive Murder Island, the criminals would have to kill their comrades to be pardoned by the Shogun. While the plot doesn’t feel out of place in a shounen manga and the characters yell cheesy attack names in battle, this isn’t a manga where friendship or brute force can overcome all obstacles.
Despite its shounen themes and presentation, the manga deals with the darker aspects of feudal Japan. The criminals sent to the island are treated as disposable fodder and made to kill each other for the Shogun’s amusement. If the executioners show even a moment’s compassion to the wretched souls, they can be branded traitors and killed. hell paradise is a character study about society’s “outsiders” and the social inequalities that drive them to break the law. In the end, a quote from the Executioner Shion sums it up best: “When it comes to crime, it is the time we live in that decides such things.” His words are clumsily made by the fact that the Shogun is a cruel tyrant who does not value the lives of his subjects.
hell paradise isn’t the first manga to deal with the subject: “Having compassion is more important than following the rules.” But the stakes are incredibly high hell paradise a standout among his other action-driven contemporaries. Kindness is presented as a virtue, but it doesn’t save everyone. in the hell paradisethe emotional peaks of friendship occur in the seconds before someone dies a horrible death.
Worse, many of those deaths were at the hands of former allies. Many “well-aligned” characters chose to harm themselves or the people they love to maintain the power structure under the Tokugawa shogunate. And even if you know what’s about to happen, the inevitable heartbreak is worth reading to the end of each arc. While author Yuji Kaku is very adamant about character deaths, he is very conscious of pairing violence with human compassion. I have watched Gabimaru slaughter people who since childhood have sincerely worshiped him as a hero. Even as they died, they praised their killer and smiled happily to the end. I thought that this juxtaposition of joy and death made her ending more cruel than if the main character had slaughtered her in cold blood.
I don’t normally like brutal character assassination. Most of the time the execution is sloppy and contains more shock value than emotional substance. but hell paradise is very precise in how he traumatizes his characters. Most people in hell paradise are defined by the rigid feudal society into which they were born, divided by gender, class, and physical differences. Only by traveling to this monstrous island can they explore new ways to express their humanity and form bonds that would never exist in Japan (due to differences in social status). hell paradise understands that even the most rigid of people can transform when they come into contact with the monstrous. The question remains: is change desirable, especially when it is monstrous, or when it goes against the Shogun’s laws?
However, not all characters are treated equally by the story. Most female characters experience significantly less character development than their male counterparts. And although the executioner Sagiri is portrayed as the story’s deuteragonist, her role in the plot feels utterly undeserved. When Gabimaru called her “even stronger than I am,” I didn’t believe him. She spent most of the storyline watching others grow stronger, and she never experienced high personal commitment like the Aza brothers or any of their male clan members. Yuzuriha is the comedic relief that remains relatively unchanged from the monstrous island. And while Nurugai has the traumatic backdrop for a coming-of-age story, they are the fuel for Shion’s redemption arc. hell paradise tries to come to terms with the aftermath of Edo-era sexism, but ultimately doesn’t take his women seriously.
I also feel mixed about how the narrative treats its canonically queer characters. I like that there are gay moments that happen spontaneously and without much fanfare. Jikka’s bisexuality is portrayed as one of his many personal traits (alongside laziness and calculation) rather than as a gag. And an interesting part of world building is that the plant-based immortals of Kotaku are able to switch sex characteristics at will, which is an interesting nod to the reproductive behavior of real plants. It’s a creatively bold move that borrows fully from the logic of plant hybrids. I just wish it wasn’t something reserved only for the bad guys.
Every single member of this group of immortals possesses both gender characteristics, with the exception of the girl who allies with the humans. There’s no plot reason why she couldn’t have transformed into a male character like the rest of her family if she can transform into a butterfly. It kind of sucks because it would have been nice to see a gender non-conforming character who didn’t want to wipe out the human race.
But watching samurai slaughter their kin to protect their clan’s honor made it hard for me to see them as the righteous faction. Feudal Japan in history must have been a terrible place to live. If the immortals hadn’t been led astray by their genocidal leader, perhaps the island really could have been a paradise. If Kotaku was a paradise hell, then the Tokugawa shogunate must have been a paradise hell.
You can read hell paradise on the officer viz website with subscription. An anime is too should arrive this autumn.
https://kotaku.com/hell-s-paradise-manga-shonen-jump-seinen-yuji-kaku-horr-1848618482 A great shonen jump horror manga binge