Jigokuraku – which also might be known as Hell’s Paradise, due to its English subtitle – uses extreme qualities to enhance both the parts of it based in reality and the parts of it rooted in fantasy.
A tale about an elixir of life – i.e. a method towards immortality – is basically as old as time itself, but it’s what you pair with that idea that causes a story to stand out. By that virtue, Jigokuraku really does stand out.
Sidebar: Jigokuraku actually means something along the lines of “Hell’s Pleasure” in its native language, but juxtaposing heaven and paradise in the subtitle, like it is in the story, helps to make the manga more compelling as well as bringing readers’ expectations more in line with the reality of the series. Further to that, it might be interpreted as being short for Jigoku no Rakuen, which would translate to “Hell’s Paradise”.
What do I mean by that? Well, one of the first things we’re introduced to about the main setting of Jigokuraku – the island of Shinsenkyo – is the fact there was only one survivor and that survivor had been turned into a base from which plants, flowers and other similar organic material grew…
This is one of many juxtapositions scattered throughout the work to demonstrate exactly how weird the world of this manga is, as an exaggeration of Galapagos syndrome and survival of the fittest. Whether this image is bludgeoning the reader over the head with how creepy it’s meant to be, creating unintentional edginess, or crazy enough to work is arguable once you’ve read the work, but it definitely makes for a striking first impression.
Back to “survival of the fittest” though. That idea is exemplified through the fact in the setup stages, we’re introduced to a group of criminals and their executioners, members of the Asaemon clan. Not only do these criminals need to fight the threats of the island, they also need their Asaemon companions in order to get a pardon from the shogun (since this is Edo-period Japan) that’ll allow their crimes to be forgiven.
However, the heart of this story is Asaemon woman Sagiri and her criminal Gabimaru. Sagiri is not the only woman in the work, as there are two women criminals, but she manages to have the lion’s share of development around her gender – she’s the only executioner woman, with another Asaemon, Genji, believing she’s unfit for her work because she’s meant to produce the next generation. True to the balancing act of this work, Sagiri teaches Genji that despite any constraints her gender may impose on her, if she’s skilled enough and when she’s focussed enough, she manages to occupy a space that is neither male nor female in order to do her job. Furthermore, when her job is “survival”, she tells him that it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, all the humans need to cooperate in order to get off the island.
Sagiri is also used to focus on the ethics behind killing. Playing her off Gabimaru – a consistent yet reluctant killer ninja – helps to drive home morals about emotion vs. distancing oneself from morally dubious acts. However, even though it is Gabimaru who teaches her to be more resolute, oddly enough, Gabimaru develops in the opposite direction as he finds a reason to get off the island.
Of course, since this is a fighting manga, you can’t forget the powers. Yuji Kaku, the mangaka, is skilled at depicting two sets of things: grotesque figures, such as the blooming corpses, and action scenes. All involved parties in conflicts are treated equally when it comes to fight scenes, as even a blind Asaemon and a criminal girl get the ability to show off while learning from each other. It almost gets to the point of ludicrousness when you discover Gabimaru’s main technique, which amounts to putting himself on fire, requires him to push himself to his physical limit in order to ignite the oils of his body, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen in any other work about fantasy fighting. (This isn’t to say Kaku’s work is overall the best – Sagiri is almost indistinguishable from fellow (male) Asaemon Toma, and the perspective switches a lot to focus on different parties, meaning you can get the two confused if it weren’t for the fact Sagiri has an ample bosom. The female faces are also very similar, regardless of whether they are friend or foe.)
Finally, the villains bring this post full circle – not only can they switch between genders and be lethal in both forms, they’ve all been affected by the elixir, making them very tough to beat. They’re also depicted as almost constantly angry, which makes sense when the shogun keeps sending intruders to find the elixir, but it is a bit overdone. Then again, discussing the villains is best left until after you’ve caught up with the manga. You can do that if you have a Viz account here, but if I didn’t get it through your head the first time – this is a mature work, with all the caveats that go with it.
Jigokuraku is pretty standard in terms of action manga, but I can definitely see people being turned off by how it combines religious imageries or how it has copious amounts of blood. However, it’s a manga I’d currently recommend for a brisk read in time for next year’s Halloween – it updates once a week though, so if it doesn’t get axed by next Halloween, it’ll be a lot longer if you start on it later. So, if you’ve read this work, what do you think of Jigokuraku? If you haven’t seen it or heard of it before, what’s your favourite manga/anime to get into the Halloween spirit?