This Week: Hells (Hells Angels).
Hell may well be where the studio had forgotten this movie.
Hells is movie which, arguably, never received its fair shake of exposure.
While a Madhouse theatrical film released in 2008, it had its limited run and went into a deep slumber for several years. It resurfaced in 2012, when it finally received a Blu-ray for home video purposes that August. That same Blu-ray, incidentally, has English subtitles, and likely assisted with the movie then having a wider international film festival unveiling (such as showing up at Ontario’s Waterloo Festival of Animated Cinema that November). Even so, of this writing in 2014, Hells has yet to be acquired by any North American distributor.
Off the top of my head, I am reminded of Mamoru Nagano’s Gothicmade film he directed for Automatic Flowers Studio, which saw a theatrical release in 2012 and has never been seen or heard much of since. It is always a curious thing, for a film to be crafted, distributed theatrically, and then put in cold storage for a number of years without a retail release. Gothicmade is presumed to have had much of its key animation done by Nagano himself, who many would best know from The Five Star Stories for his commitments to perfection of his vision. Thus, he may well be off redrawing some of Gothicmade personally over time.
For what reasons Hells had such a delay between movie theaters and home video, I have been unable to track down.
Hells, based on a three volume original manga by Sin’Ichi Hiromoto (best known for several Star Wars manga works), fills a particular niche that is quite timely around the autumn season heading into the eventual Halloween holiday.
Monster girls. Cynical life and death comedy between bouts of exaggerated manic expression. Hyper sketch-like dark fantasy design sensibilities akin to The Nightmare Before Christmas, full of edgy lines and patchwork costuming. Not so much going for “scary” as it is “stylized”, and at that the film takes great painstakingly realized measures towards making Hiromoto’s artistic sensibilities move around on screen.
Characters bounce with joyous motion and lush key animation frames, the camera is never afraid to pull all manner of maneuvers regardless of difficulty, and so on. It is a movie that immediately causes an anime viewer of the present to recall various combinations of Madhouse’s own Redline, Gainax’s Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, and the work of that same team who left Gainax form up studio Trigger and created Kill la Kill (for which my initial viewing thoughts were collected here and here).
Something all of those other works have in common to varying extents is their ability to act as showmanship titles. Regardless of one’s own thoughts on any of those works (and I have my own issues with some of them), I think it is universally agreeable to say they are generally ramped up and exaggerated in pursuit of performing a shock and awe campaign on the viewer. There is the notion of there being a bar, and seeking to leap over it while the bar shatters below from having to strain itself to see how high they jumped. Hells is treading in similar waters.
To wit: Hells takes no time to get the ball rolling, and has our leading teenager munching on toast while full speed sprinting to school before being involved in a head on traffic accident. She bites the dust within two minutes of screen time. Which is just as well as it gets us right to, well, hell in short order. The film has a positively delightful first forty five minutes or so. We meet some of the classmates at Death River Academy, engage in some action sequences, a volleyball sporting event, a bit of slice of high school life shenanigans, and so on.
I could easily see Hells making an enjoyable 11 – 13 episode television series, as there are good character moments throughout this part of the film one really wishes to see capitalized on. To see the stoutly positive Linne seek to make friends in her new environment, the action and antics one can play up and get into given those who call hell home, and so on. The animation style would have suffered extremely for it, particularly for well over half a decade ago, so I do respect the notion of how a film budget and associated time allows for all of this to look as nice as it does in the form we did receive.
Had the movie taken the route of using the aforementioned volleyball event as a more central driving force for the duration of the plot, as teams are broken up by class, I think that would have functioned well. A monster high school crafted as lushly as this film looks with a Halloween holiday style to match? Structured around a bit of a standard issue sports tournament to lend a sense of progression towards a particular reward? And using that to anchor general affairs to keep the audience grounded between other ramped up to eleven aspects and scenes?
I would have dearly adored that film, I feel, and it is a real shame that this is not the movie we received.
An important thing to consider with a film like Redline, for instance, is it is operating at such an extreme level of visceral momentum and visual flair while also trying to stick to a very straightforward plot formula.
In that movie there are drivers (and some support crew members) to characterize, and a keynote race for them to be involved in on a planet that does not want them there. Most things that film does are based on not straying too far from this basic roadmap, which in turn allows it to throw increasingly ludicrous obstacles and dangers out. Love it, hate it, or possess an indifference to it, the general goal of the film is generally in sight for the viewer to follow along no matter what stunts it wants to pull.
Hells, by contrast, becomes effectively consumed by the sins of gluttony and greed. After those initial forty five minutes of action comedy hijinks at a high school in hell and a good natured girl who just wants to go home, the film begins to pile more and more plot elements on its plate to gobble down as it considers how far it wishes to stretch its dominion. The production floats out three (if not four) potential love interests for Linne over its duration, we heavily delve into the Cain and Able story, get wrapped up in issues regarding the nature of willpower, and by near the end achieving “This is why we can’t have world peace!” levels of conceptual grandstanding.
All this while also attempting to maintain action sequences that need to continue to sell the idea of raising the stakes. But this becomes increasingly difficult for the movie to tonally achieve, as what it wants to be focusing on in a given moment seems to increasingly lurch all over the place. Hells is nearly two hours long in an attempt to compensate for all this content it wants to take on, but one gets the feeling this only added to the multi-car pileup issues at hand.
At one point around the halfway mark, there is a multiplatform tower with the implication each new height has a particular character representation of sin (who we have already met prior) Linne or her associates would need to confront in some manner to set things as they wish them to be. They go so far as to engage with one of them, then the movie just seems to forget about this series of potential interactions until near the end of the film as other concepts it wants to deal in pop up. It chooses to hurl of rest of them all out at once in an attempt to make up for lost time, but this again goes back to the artificial raising the stakes issue.
When characters have been off screen and unmentioned for roughly an hour in a movie, it is hard for anything they do and any confrontational form they take to have compelling dramatic weight.
Yasushi Nirasawa performed monster design here, having previously done conceptual design duties for the live action Hellboy film and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, while Kazuto Nakazawa holds character design credit (having previously done so for House of Five Leaves, Samurai Champloo, and the El Hazard franchise, among others). Especially given the hybrid nature of many of the individuals laced throughout the film, their respective styles come to blend well together and every living (or, well, you get the idea) thing looks like they belong in this universe, which makes the overall visual look of the piece very cohesive.
Hells looks excellent and performs as a visual piece of animation with exuberant creativity and joy, regardless of anything else going on in the narrative or other levels.
Screenplay duties are co-credited here, with the leading one assigned to Kazuyuki Fudeyasu. A Series Composition and otherwise scriptwriting veteran of many productions, I most recently am familiar with his work from Miss Monochrome (for which I collected my reactions here), Wooser’s Hand-to-Mouth Life, and his penning of almost a dozen episodes (as of now) of the new Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure lines of television series. I feel his general comedy writing as one would see it in those works, with sensibilities for deadpan delivery and the most mundane things being taken to radical reaction heights, is suited for Hells. It takes a particular kind of writer to handle characters like Headmaster Helvis, who would fit snugly within the Jojo’s fold, to bring them to life as coming off completely serious while they pose and tack on “Baby” to the end of most sentences.
The other co-credited screenplay responsibility falls to Yoshiki Yamakawa, who was also the overall director of the film. Involved in the industry for roughly a decade prior to Hells, he had an extensive line of key animation and animation director notches under his belt. But he had never held full directorial responsibility over a commercial production prior, nor had he been involved in a screenplay (how much of the final screenplay is his, I am not sure). Madhouse has a nice reputation for allowing creatives auteur theatrical projects to push themselves with, to grow the talent of their production stable and overall brand. I would have to imagine Hells was a similar project for Yamakawa.
For whatever reason, the project seems to be one that slipped through his fingers as time went on. Perhaps he had too much editorial control and became overambitious with what he could do with the material, perhaps he did not have enough editorial say and thus needed to include narrative elements which did not work so well with others (I have not read through the source manga at this time to see how closely it adheres). Alternatively, while Hells was the only Madhouse film released in 2008 (in October, at that), the following 2009 had several: Summer Wars, Mai Mai Miracle, Redline, and Yona Yona Penguin.
This could have impacted the production in any number of ways. Madhouse and producers looking at the schedule and not wanting a fifth crowing things further. Or just matters of circumstance and who was available or had commitments to what industry projects in any combination of internal personnel or freelance affairs.
That the film was effectively stuffed back into either a metaphorical refrigerator or an oven from 2008 to 2012 suggests the final product may well have not been all that final.
I can not compare the Blu-ray to a years old theatrical version whose run is long since over to say either way. But I do think it is fair to assume this was a troubled production on some level. I would like to be able to say with more authority where or why, but such information does not seem to have significantly surfaced even in 2014.
What I can say there is so, so much to like about what Yamakawa and his team where able to put together in Hells. It is bursting with creative designs, audio-visual flair to bring them to life, and that front forty five minutes to an hour or so is some solidly entertaining monster high school action comedy. Aside from a “Damn!” or two, language is not much of an issue, and despite how some of the characters could have very clearly been treated more explicitly sexually (this is Madhouse, they made Wicked City after all), the film never goes too heavily in that direction to indulge.
So long as one was alright with the basic character design traits of some of the students you see in the pictures throughout this post, like succubus cleavage, the movie does not actually do things like focus on panty shots or zoom in on bouncing breasts. In terms of how the tone of the film treats its characters and maintains a generally upbeat streak, one could probably responsibly watch Hells as part of a holiday rotation with kids old enough to handle the scarier and more graphically brutal The Nightmare Before Christmas. Hells is gentler, but has folks like a quasi-naked wolfgirl, so it is merely an issue of where one draws what lines with what content.
It is a film with very clear cut flaws, I feel. It picks up pacing issues and tries juggling too many plates as time goes on. But there is a core heart in here which shines very brightly under that, and especially prior to those later parts, that makes me see why it was thought a spectacular film could emerge of this. It is frustrating in many respects, in the sense where I want to have others see this movie while I also know full well it loses track of its narrative sense of focus.
But that’s alright. Flawed and lovable.
Hells does deserve to be in the world of the living.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.