A Great Shonen Jump Horror Manga Binge
Bye Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku full of splendid scenes. I remember this especially terrible one. A the wooden boat sailed serenely along a foggy river full of beautiful flowers. Government officials found a smiling corpse, from the dismembered parts of which flowers grew. It was a terrible combination of beauty and horror that reminded me of the legendary Yu Yu Hakushobut this manga’s more cynical take on society makes it stand out.
Hell’s Paradise Set in Edo, Japan, it follows the story of the legendary ninja Gabimaru and his handler. The executioner Saigiri of the estranged Yamada clan (who are reviled for their association with corpses). Together with other pairs of convicts and samurai. They go to the mysterious island of Kotaku (yes, seriously) in search of the elixir of life. There they find horrible, bloodthirsty plant monsters with dubious plans for humanity. Executioners must cooperate with the criminals they are assigned to convict or risk becoming plant-eating corpses. Even if they survive on Murder Island, the criminals will have to kill their comrades in order to pardon the shogun. While the plot doesn’t feel out of place in a shonen manga and the characters yell out crappy attack names in combat, this isn’t a manga where friendship or brute force can overcome all obstacles.
Despite the shonen themes and artwork, the manga touches on the darker side of feudal Japan. The criminals sent to the island are treated like disposable fodder. And forced to kill each other for the shogun’s amusement. If the executioners show at least a minute of sympathy to the unfortunate souls. Then they can be branded traitors and killed. Hell’s Paradise is a study of the nature of the “outsiders” of society and the social inequality that leads them to break the law. After all, one quote from Shion’s executioner best sums it up: “When it comes to crime, it’s the era we live in that decides such things.” His words are made awkward by the fact that the shogun is a cruel tyrant who does not value the lives of his subjects.
Hell’s Paradise is not the first manga to challenge the theme: “Compassion is more important than following the rules.” But the stakes are incredibly high Hell’s Paradise outstanding among his other active contemporaries. Kindness is portrayed as a virtue, but it does not save everyone. IN Hell’s Paradisethe emotional peaks of friendship come in the seconds before someone dies a horrific death.
Worse, many of these deaths were at the hands of former allies. Many “good-aligned” characters choose to harm themselves or the people they love in order to maintain the power structure under the Tokugawa shogunate. And even when you know what’s about to happen, the inevitable heartbreak is worth reading to the end of each arc. While author Yuuji Kaku is very hard on character deaths, he is very careful to balance violence with humane compassion. I have seen Gabimaru kill people who sincerely worshiped him since childhood. Even as they died, they praised their killer and smiled happily until the very end. I thought that this juxtaposition of joy and death made their end more gruesome than if the protagonist had killed them in cold blood.
I usually don’t like the brutal killing of characters. In most cases, the performance is sloppy and contains more shock than emotional content. But Hell’s Paradise very precise in how he hurts his characters. Most people in Hell’s Paradise defined by the rigid feudal society into which they were born, split along gender, class, and bodily distinctions. Only by going to this monstrous island can they explore new ways of expressing their humanity and making connections that would never exist in Japan (due to differences in social status). Hell’s Paradise realizes that even the toughest people can transform when they come into contact with a monster. The question remains: is change desirable, especially if it is monstrous or contrary to the laws of the shogun?
However, not all characters are treated equally in the story. Most female characters develop significantly less than their male counterparts. And although the executioner Sagiri is depicted as the deuteragonist of the story, her role in the plot seems completely undeserved. When Gabimaru called her “even stronger than me”, I didn’t believe him. She spent most of the plot watching other people grow stronger. And she never experienced such high personal stakes as the Asa brothers or any of the male members of her clan. Yuzuriha is a comedic character who is relatively unchanged on the monster island. And while the Nurugai have a traumatic background for the “coming of age” story, they are the fuel for Shion’s redemptive arc. Hell’s Paradise tries to deal with the effects of Edo-era sexism, but ends up not taking his women seriously.
I also have mixed feelings about how the narrative handles its canonically weird characters. I love that there are fun moments that happen spontaneously and without much fanfare. Jikki’s bisexuality is portrayed as one of his many personal qualities (along with being lazy and calculating) rather than as a joke. And one interesting worldbuilding point is that Kotaku’s plant immortals can switch genders at will. Which is an interesting nod to the reproductive behavior of real plants. This is a creatively bold move that relies entirely on the logic of people-plants-hybrids. I just wish it wasn’t something that was meant solely for villains.
Every member of this group of immortals has both sex characteristics. With the exception of a girl who mates with humans. There is no plot reason why she couldn’t transform into a male character like the rest of her family when she can transform into a butterfly. It sucks because it would be nice to see a gender non-conforming character. Who doesn’t want to destroy the human race.
But when I watched the samurai kill their kind for the sake of preserving the honor of their clan. It was hard for me to look at them as a righteous faction. Feudal Japan in this story must have been a terrible place to live. If the immortals had not been led astray by their genocidal leader, perhaps the island might indeed have become a paradise. If Kotaku was a hellish paradise, then the Tokugawa shogunate must have been a heavenly hell.
you can read Hell’s Paradise at the official Viz website with a subscription. There is anime too should arrive this autumn.