I had never heard of Yuji Kaku’s Hell’s Paradise: Jigokuraku until the review copy showed up at my desk. After doing a little digging, I learned that the series began serialization a little over two years ago. With demon-slaying samurais and ninjas having made a comeback as of late, it looks like VIZ decided the time was right to bring Jigokuraku stateside.
Gabimaru The Hallow is the baddest (in the good sense) teenage ninja there ever was. At least, that’s what the opening chapters lead the reader to believe. Set in feudal Japan, the early panels feature shogunate forces attempting a sequence of gruesome execution methods on the young assassin for unspecified murders; however, their attempts are in vain. Gabimaru cannot be killed by conventional means à la Blade Of The Immortal. Unfortunately for him, he wants to die, or so he tells himself. It’s not a very original idea, and it’s execution isn’t any more unique. To make matters worse, Gabimaru is fairly unlikeable right from the get-go.
Unable to be killed, the shogun summons “decapitator” (that is the official title presented to the audience) Sagiri Yamada. The Yamada clan’s blades can cut and kill anything, including invincible ninjas, which sets her up as an immediate threat to the angsty hero. As one would expect, the two waste no time getting into a shonen battle. During his time fighting Sagiri and sitting around in captivity, Gabimaru has flashbacks of his two-dimensional wife that keep him from killing everyone around him. Featuring ridiculous logic, existential melodrama, and vague storytelling, these sequences are easily the lowest point of Hell’s Paradise and serve to make Gabimaru not only unrelatable but downright irritating.
Sagiri is hardly any more compelling as a character. She frowns, monologues, and frowns some more. Not to be undone by Gabimaru’s flashbacks, she is sporadically depicted through the lens of ambiguous hallucinations. She is at several points seen covered in blood and headless corpses grasping for her exposed breasts. If that confuses you, reading the first volume will not provide any answers.
If this was more or less the extent of Hell’s Paradise, it would need a miracle to have a successful future outside of its native Japan. But it gets just that around the halfway point. The shogun hasn’t actually sent Sagiri to kill Gabimaru. As it turns out, there is a mysterious jungle island somewhere in the uncharted Pacific that contains the elixir of life (not unlike the fountain of youth). Shogunate forces previously sent to the island came back as mutilated, grinning corpses with fungus and flowers growing out of their extremities. Instead of doing what any sane, rational person would do and stay as far away from the island as possible, the power-hungry shogun has rounded up a who’s who of the most psychotic, dangerous, freakshow criminals in Japan to bring the elixir back to him. The catch? Members of the Yamada clan are sent to watch the convicts, and if any of the prisoners try to abandon their mission, they will feel the wrath of the Yamada clan’s swords.
To say Yuji Kaku’s world-building is fun would be an understatement. The criminals introduced throughout the latter half of the volume are wonderfully eccentric and filled with character. From elastic monks, hulk-like giants, and bandits that can literally kick people’s heads off, feudal Japan’s Suicide Squad is nothing short of absurd. I couldn’t believe how much joy I found in learning about a new ability or weapon, making it hard for me to keep from smiling as I eagerly absorbed all of the detail in the cast and bizarre landscape they find themselves in.
Speaking of the island, without giving away any spoilers, things go wrong almost immediately, and it’s fantastic. Hell’s Paradise quickly goes from Suicide Squad to Battle Royal before the armada of maniacs hits ground. As the shogunate forces and their respective criminals all decide to pull a Freddy and “split up,” they also learn that there are, of course, demons on the island. These beasts are bizarre. And we aren’t talking Inuyasha bizarre. No, the demons found in Jigokuraku are more akin to the abhorrent abominations of Junji Ito’s body horror. With appendages jetting out of orifices they shouldn’t be, the monsters won’t force you into an existential crisis, but they are entertaining as, well, hell.
While virtually all of the character’s backstories are shrouded in mystery, their visual appearance begins to give them distinguishing characteristics in their own right. One of the criminals in particular seems primed to be the villain to beat, getting virtually an entire chapter all to himself. I can only hope that this setup pays off in future volumes because the complete change in directions Yuji Kaku pulled off is nothing short of astounding.
The first volume of Hell’s Paradise suffers from a lack of identity, is melodramatic at all the wrong times and in all the wrong ways, and the central protagonists are a hard sell. Yet even with all of its glaring imperfections, the second half of the story is so fun, the designs so bizarre, and the world so colorful that it’s hard to care. Sign me up for round two.
Hell's Paradise: Jigokuraku manga volume 1 features story and art by Yuji Kaku.
Even an invincible ninja may not be able to survive Hell’s Paradise!
Gabimaru the Hollow is one of the most vicious ninja assassins ever to come out of the village of Iwagakure. He’s ruthlessly efficient, but a betrayal results in him being handed a death sentence. There is only one hope: travel to a long-hidden island and recover an elixir that will make the shogun immortal and he will regain his freedom. Failure is not an option—on this island, Heaven and Hell are a hair’s breadth away.
Gabimaru the Hollow is on death row for crimes committed as an assassin when he's made an offer: die in prison, or travel to a mysterious island to locate the elixir of immortality for the shogun. He soon finds himself trapped on an island full of otherworldly creatures, rival criminals and ruthless executioners eager to take the head of any criminal who steps out of line.