- Interesting characters and combinations in story
- Different premise than most anime premises that include reincarnation
- Some redemption stories
- A bit slow at beginning with a bit too much exposition
Jigokuraku, or Hell’s Paradise is a refreshing change of pace for the spring 2023 season that includes sequels like Dr. Stone, Kimetsu no Yaiba, and other familiar staples like gaming worlds and reincarnation.
This change of pace includes a new premise about searching for the mythical fountain of youth. Japanese storytelling—including anime and games—can borrow and integrate elements from sometimes disparate cultures like the Final Fantasy series that includes elements from Norse and Islamic cultures.
The mixing of these cultures in storytelling can be to varying success. Some writers are able to weave together these disparate elements into one cohesive unit, but doing so while maintaining the cultural baggage that these elements carry is difficult. Final Fantasy ignores the baggage and chooses one or two elements to highlight—Ifrit is a fire elemental whose personality is usually hot-tempered and aggressive. But that’s as far as the series goes.
Jigokuraku uses a combination of different philosophies and religions to the same extent—mixing Buddhism, Taoism, and Japanese influences into weird and sometimes frightening amalgamations. Heads with centipedes coming out of orifices. Hands with centipedes. Maybe it’s some kind of inherent human disgust with creatures that have more more than four limbs, but these Frankenstein characters can be off-putting.
But it’s these strange characters or enemies that add to the mystery and alienness of the island that the protagonists find themselves on.
The premise of the story is that a group of serious criminals on death row are sent to a mysterious island in order to retrieve an elixir of eternal life for the shogun. Their reward for returning with the elixir is a full pardon. Only one prisoner will be granted this pardon in an otherwise free-for-all search for the elixir.
However, these criminals aren’t allowed just to go free on the island. Instead, they’re accompanied by a group of samurai who are trained in executions. Any deviation or misbehavior on the part of these criminals is met by death.
That doesn’t work out all too well for the samurai for anyone who takes a second to think about it. These dangerous criminals cannot be trusted, and some of them are more skilled than the samurai. It’s this dynamic of will-he-won’t-he kill his guard that adds a bit of suspense and intrigue to the story.
Added to the intrigue of the story is the element of survival in a society now that is enjoying survival stories like Squid Game or the various survival games that have become increasingly popular.
Science fiction fans may be reminded of the 2018 movie Annihilation, or the book it was based on by Jeff VanderMeer. In it also, the protagonist goes into a place with strange Frankenstein creatures in order to learn of her husband’s fate.
The main character is the shinobi Gabimaru. His character story and motivations are relatable, even sympathetic. He wants to return to his wife, someone who has brought a bit of humanity into an otherwise despicable character raised as a tool for assassination. Not much is known about Gabimaru’s past, though much is hinted about its bloodiness.
The other criminals possess different, though no less deadly, abilities. Yuzuriha is a kunoichi, or female shinobi. She’s Gabimaru’s female equivalent, though she’s more secretive about her abilities—her power of persuasiion, for instance, only becomes clear toward the end of the season when her samurai guardian takes action.
Speaking of the guardians, the samurai of the Yamada Asaemon, or executioners, are fairly bland in comparison to their charges. While they have a ranking system, their purpose is only to ensure their charges stay in line. But the relationship between Gabimaru and his Yamada Asaemon, Sagiri, develops into something more.
The unraveling of the mystery of the island, the strange and terrifying creatures, the question of who will live and who will die, and the action scenes make this anime suspenseful and thrilling once viewers get past the first few slow episodes that establish the premise of the series.
Jigokuraku is an intriguing and mysterious anime that anime fans should consider watching if they’re looking for something different from endless variations of a few overused themes. The mixing of different philosophies may be a little strange, but the powerful villains, variety of different characters with different skills, and the mystery of the island all make for an interesting and exciting show.
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