Halloween Week: Hells

It's the spooky scariest time of the year, a time to celebrate ghouls, ghosts, and skeletons all sending shivers down your spines. In honor of the season of candy and cheap costumes, I decided to watch a movie that fit well with the spirit of Halloween, that movie being studio Madhouse's Hells. I've always had a soft spot for Madhouse, they put out a lot of shows and films each year, but still make sure to consider style and animation of high importance. Some of my favorite visually interesting anime came from Madhouse, from the beautifully grim Casshern Sins, to the explosively colorful and over the top Redline. So despite knowing near nothing about Hells other than a few offhanded mentions of it by people, I decided to give it a watch.

Ryu Kotou was your average teenage girl late for her first day of high school, until she tries to save an odd looking cat from getting hit by a truck. The next thing she knows, she's outside of a high school, but not an ordinary one. The students all look like demons, the buildings are all gothic castles, and the headmaster is is a satanic version of Elvis named "Hellvis" (no seriously). And then Ryu learns the truth: She's dead, and has been sent to hell, and if she ever wants to have a chance to see her mother again by moving on to heaven, she has to "graduate" from hell. So as Ryu attends the school of the afterlife, she forms some unusual relationships with many of her fellow eccentric undead classmates, and as she learns more it becomes increasingly unclear whether what's going on in hell is as black and white as it seems.

As I mentioned before, I didn't exactly go into Hells with low expectations for its visuals. It's a Madhouse production, I knew it was gonna look good. I say this to make clear just how enormously impressed I was with the visuals in Hells. There's a lot of heavily stylized anime out there, but I don't know if I've ever seen an anime so overflowing with style as Hells. Nearly every shot, ever character, every background, is bursting from the seams with so much style I couldn't help but watch with awe at just how cool everything looks. While it certainly evokes the look of other anime like Soul Eater and even maybe a bit of RedlineHells overall looks totally and completely one of a kind. Whether it's a giant satanic Elvis, demon pandas, or the two giant Gatekeepers of Hell using a giant screw to combine in order to fight a super powered female Frankenstein (some crazy stuff goes down in this film) it's hard to look away from the detailed, unique visuals. It's well animated too; the film is constantly sporting examples of great animation that's just as stylish and bizarre as the art style, with some great use of perspective and awesome action scenes.

So Hells is a huge success from a visual standpoint, to the point it may be my favorite anime I've seen this year visually (then again, Ping Pong and Space Dandy...), but the rest of the film is a bit of a different story. My biggest issue with Hells comes from its pacing. The first half of the film moves at breakneck speed, moving from scene to scene, conflict to conflict, without very few moments to slow down and take it all in. I guess you could say it certainly kept my attention, but there's enough interesting stuff going on with the characters and world it could have easily had that effect without moving so briskly from one point to the next. I would have liked to have gotten to know all of the side characters better, learned more about how the school worked, and maybe gotten a better understanding of the protagonist's feelings and motivations. But instead it all moves a bit too quick, not really growing as naturally as it could have.

And the reason for all this set up being somewhat condensed into the first half, is because the climax takes up basically the entire second half. Which is sort of crazy. Now, let me make this clear: It's an awesome climax. I'd go so far as to say a hell of a climax if not for what a horrible, unforgivable pun that would be. But there is such thing as "too much of a good thing", and that's exactly what Hells' climax was. It just dragged on a bit too much, even if it was constantly throwing new curveballs to try to keep things fresh it didn't change the fact that it'd been an hour straight of nonstop chaos, which gets a bit overwhelming over time, even dragging on towards the end. And the crazy thing is, these two big problems I have with Hells could have fixed each other. Shorten the climax by, say, a good half hour or so, and then use that newfound open space to give more time to establish the world and characters, killing two birds with one stone. But unfortunately, that isn't what happened, and Hells suffers, having a climax that feels too long and set up that doesn't feel substantial enough.

The move features a really creative and diverse cast of characters. The headmaster Helvis is a total blast to watch, the Frankenstein like young girl named "Stealer" is both badass and often cute, God plays a significant role in the story and brings a good amount of fun. And then there are characters like Mario and the Panda, who at first seem like minor background characters but end up playing a larger part in the story. Thanks to the films fast paced first half, the characters aren't explored and established quite as well as I would have liked, but they're still a unique and entertaining bunch. I also mentioned that the visuals in Hells were crazy and ridiculously over the top. The plot of Hells is pretty much the same, and that's not really a bad thing. None of it makes all that much sense, as it's a bunch of nonsense about biblical tales, the nature of the Hell the protagonist finds herself in, and believing in yourself. A lot of believing in yourself. It doesn't quite reach the levels of mad, passionate brilliance of, say, Gurren Lagann, but when anime like this that spout the most corny, hackneyed themes imaginable manage to make you actually care quite a bit because it does so with so much energy, and with such a genuine, heartfelt approach, I can't help but admire it.

In addition, the plot isn't really all that important anyway. Despite pacing issues, despite a cheesy themes, I would still highly recommend Hells simply as a visual experience. There is so much meticulous detail put into the monster designs, the backgrounds, the animation, and it's all wrapped up in a sharp, cool visual style that's about as unique as it gets in anime. The fantastic art direction make it a must watch by itself, and hell (I'm seriously not doing this on purpose), if you were a fan of the nonsensical plots of anime like Redline or Gurren Lagann, chances are you'll have a lot of fun with the story and characters as well. Its exposition goes by too fast, and the climax (while impressive) drags a bit, but Hells is still a feast for the eyes, one that does hugely creative and interesting things with animation. It's totally worth a watch if you want to treat your eyes to one of the coolest looking anime you'll ever see.


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