The latest title to be published under the Viz Signature line, Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku, made its debut in March 2020.
According to the official description from Viz Media:
Gabimaru the Hollow is one of the most vicious assassins ever to come out of the ninja village of Iwagakure. He’s ruthlessly efficient, but a betrayal results in him being handed a death sentence. He has only one hope—in order to earn his freedom, he must travel to a long-hidden island and recover an elixir that will make the shogun immortal. Failure is not an option. On this island, heaven and hell are just a hair’s breadth away.
The Initial Reaction
I did not know much about Hell’s Paradise going in. I knew it was an action series, and an intense one at that from just looking at the cover and glancing at the description. So, I set my expectations accordingly, but to my surprise, I got more than what I expected.
Despite how brutal, vicious, and intense Hell’s Paradise gets, it has a surprising sense of maturity and character that raises it above others in this genre. Its main characters are fully realized with their own unique dynamic that plays off of each other perfectly. There’s nothing here that’s necessarily new, but it is written in a way that gives the story more weight than what you may initially think. It’s not always that though, but the writing and execution early on as a whole makes this one of the better action series debuts I’ve read in a long while.
The setup reminds me of Image Comics’ Manifest Destiny, but the focus is put solely on the soldiers and criminals. A bunch of criminals no one will really miss and their handlers are tasked to explore this beautiful, but dangerous land that’ll easily kill them if they’re not careful. If they find what they are looking for, they’ll be greatly rewarded when they return home — with a full pardon, in this case. However, since not everyone will make it back, more will be called in to replace them, so there will be a lot of chaos as everyone scrambles to earn that full pardon.
The first volume is primarily about setting this up and introducing the characters. Only at the very end does the true horror come into play and the real challenges arise. It’s a slow, but an action-filled start that ends on a great note to hook you in for the next volume.
While the premise is solid, the true stars are the main characters: Gabimaru the Hollow and Sagiri of the Asaemon clan. Gabimaru is a ninja marked for death after trying to leave his home behind, which indoctrinated him into being this ruthless killer almost since birth. While trying to put on a good, fearless face before death at first, he is unable to go through with it. Despite his nickname, he is not completely hollow on the inside. He has someone he cares about deeply and wants to be with, to move on and leave his violent past behind. While that part is familiar for this type of character, what stands out more is attitude towards his profession. He is not afraid to kill, do what it takes to survive and be completely emotionless and violent in doing so. However, he would also rather avoid killing if it’s unnecessary, seeing it as an unnatural thing to do and take pleasure in. Everyone expects him to be this horrible demon, but unless someone stands in his way, he won’t.
He is an interesting counterpart to Sagiri. She is essentially the first female warrior of the Asaemon, striving to become an executioner like her father. She needs to be emotionless in this role and overcome this stigma against women swordsmen, but she struggles with it heavily. She struggles with every single death she deals, a part of her hesitating and regretting every life she takes. She wants to be this cold killer and prove to this belittling clan that she has what it takes, but just cannot get over that mental block.
Both Gabimaru and Sagiri work as excellent characters to follow. Both of them are two sides of the same coin in a way, striving to achieve the opposite of what the other wants. They are perfect counterparts to one another and allow for potentially fascinating character growth and depth as they play off one another. Where they’ll go as the story goes on is unclear, but it will be one to watch for sure.
The rest of the cast is not as well developed, but they do all make a good impression. Most of the criminals are nicely distinct in attitude and motivation, making them at least interesting to watch. A personal favorite is one character who was sentenced to death because he embarrassed his clan leader. After he gets his pardon, he wants to get revenge, not by killing the leader, but by cutting his mansion in half. The other Asaemon members are not as developed, and some are gone before the end of the book. It’ll be interesting to see what becomes of them as the story goes on.
As for the rest of the writing, it’s all pretty good. The pacing is slow at first as it slowly unveils itself, but it picks up steam fairly quickly while never sacrificing characterization or personality. The tone is dark and very heavy at points, but it never reaches a point where it becomes too bleak and dreary like some series. The humor is pretty good, usually landing whenever it comes up, able to lighten the mood for a brief moment while also not taking away from the seriousness that’s happening. Again, the story has only just begun, but the writing and characterization really do a good job at setting the stage and hooking the readers in.
The artwork is especially good and really ties everything together. Its style is slick and polished, capable of bringing out the right mood and power to each scene. Whether it’s the simple quiet of Sagiri talking to Gabimaru in his cell or the visceral, grotesque violence of the prisoners fighting, every page is beautifully crafted. The characters are all well designed, and the action is very fluid, allowing for some well-paced, intense sequences throughout. The creator’s ability to display emotion and body language is especially noteworthy, able to capture the main leads’ indecision, pain, and weight perfectly. You can really pick up on a lot with each person, some moments more subtle than others. The only off thing was the weird fanservice with Sagiri. I understand the artistic point the creator is making with her bare and slowly being consumed by death around her, but some shots and panel arrangements come off more purposely titillating than they should.
Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku Vol. 1 is a gory, vicious, wonderful surprise in the world of dark action series. Supported by strong writing and beautiful artwork, its fantastic character work and thematic elements elevate the material above most of the genre. If you want to try a new fantasy with a dark edge, this is definitely a series to check out.