Hells is an interesting mess of a Japanese animated movie, and my use of the word mess and not failure isn’t arbitrary. “Failure” is too harsh, too dumbly glib when I begin to imagine the effort exerted by a team of animators working ungodly hours, their coffee-infused sweat leading them on to bring life to this unique explosion of animation style and technique. It just doesn’t seem right, having seen the movie and thought about it for days afterwards, to call it a failure.
It also doesn’t seem right to talk about the Hells movie without mentioning it’s a dutiful adaptation of a three-volume manga called Hells Angels. The manga its based upon shares the same flaws as the movie: it’s bursting with possibilities, ultimately going to strange but well-worn places that don’t fit quite right with one another. It’s a crooked jigsaw puzzle someone spray-painted an image onto to give the illusion of cohesiveness.
Hells falls into three distinct chunks. The first forty minutes of the movie introduce the main character, Linne Amagane, an impossibly optimistic young girl running to school late, a piece of toast in her mouth to illustrate the urgency with which she propels herself. After saving a cat from being struck by a car, Linne herself is hit by a truck and wakes up in a hellish afterlife. Except she’s in too much of a rush to notice, and, thinking herself to have arrived at her new school, she is instead introduced to a classroom of devilish creatures.
So Linne has died and went to a hellish school called Destinyland, with a demon principal who dresses like elvis urging her on to graduate. And then we get to the second eclectic chunk of this movie: the Biblical part. Buckle up your seat belt kiddies, things are about to get a little weird.
The principal of Destinyland is actually Cain from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The pretty boy love interest of the story is Abel. And Linne is the reincarnation of Eve, their mother. We find all this out from a poorly-executed exposition lasting five fucking minutes, where pixellated illustrations pan across drab backgrounds and the voice actors explain their meaning.
For reasons still not clear to me, Abel, the victim of Cain’s (somewhat oedipal) jealousy, reveals himself as an angry villain who wants to destroy Linne’s resolve and natural vigor of spirit. So he brings Linne’s mom to Destinyland and kills her. This demarcates the final chunk of the movie: an existential battle of wills between everyone in Destinyland and Abel. The power of positive thinking becomes manifest physically, giving the characters the ability to fly in the pseudo-dreamworld Destinyland is revealed to be. Everyone’s self doubt materializes into small taijitu balls they must hurl into a serpentine plant monster’s mouth…
I’m not going to keep writing about what happens because you’ll think I’m making it up. I can’t overstate how much of a mess this movie is. It manages to outdo every anime I can think of in terms of its pointless religious sophistry. But there’s a sincerity to it, underlined by the movie’s striking soundtrack, that made me intensely curious as to what was going through the mangaka’s brain when he wrote the original story. Was he plumbing the depths of his imagination? Was he desperately trying to meet deadlines? Was he writing absolutely whatever it took to keep him interested in his own work? Or am I overthinking things, and this is a carelessly thrown together piece of pablum? And for God’s sake, why did someone decide to make it into a movie? These questions consumed me as I watched Hells and combined with the optimistic haze of its ending, leaving me in a weird fog that hung for hours afterward.
I’m not in a rush to opine any final consensus on what this movie is or isn’t. But it made me think, in its own curious way. And the sketchy animation style looked beautiful in HD. I perhaps haven’t said enough about how much of a good-looking movie this is a lot of the time.
Hells doesn’t fit into any easy-to-describe style of anime, and there is an odd appropriation of Western culture running through it, from the Elvis-looking principal, to the lunchlady supporting character who looks like Minnie Mouse, who also reminded me Destinyland and Disneyland are almost homophones if you pronounce them syllabically. And of course, the Biblical spin that doesn’t really inform the final chunk of the movie, or the first.
Watching Hells left me in a disassociated, dreamlike state, as if it were a drug. And I can’t remember the last movie that did that, let alone anime. What can I say? I’m a complete fool of sincere, hard work, so while the logical thing might be to simply shelve this feature as a curious eccentricity, I spent the last forty five minutes writing to tell you about it. I don’t want you to feel weirdly compelled to import the English-subtitled Japanese Blu-ray like I did, so I don’t even know why I’m talking about Hells, except to say Madhouse Studio did it again! They birthed an animated film that doesn’t hem to the expectations of some pre-established audience, a film that by most accountants’ reasoning should not have been made. And I continue to love them for it.