Madhouse seem to have this curious habit of making movies that don’t appear for quite some time. Admittedly, this is rarely for the same reasons – things like Redline fail to materialise simply because they take so long to actually make, whilst things like Clover and the other Clamp shorts were too short to have a reasonable home release vector (not that it didn’t stop them from eventually releasing a DVD of nothing but Clover).
In the case of Hells, and adaptation of the Shinichi Hiromoto manga Hell’s Angels, it looks to have been stuck in something of a legal quagmire since it’s theatrical debut in 2008, until it finally saw release on blu-ray in Japan about a month ago. A blu-ray with English subtitles, at that.
Hells follows the adventures of Linne, who looks not-entirely-unlike Rei Ayanami in the alternate-world sequence from Evangelions conclusion whilst running late to her first day at a new school, toast hanging from mouth and all. Then she gets hit by truck, which kind of lands her in Hell. Not that she particularly wants to admit for quite some length into the film.
Saying that, even in Hell she is facing her first day at a new school, although her demonic classmates don’t exactly take well to her, with the exception of the (literally) heartless Stealer (of whom everyone seems terrified of). This school also happens to be run by a headmaster called Helvis, who is, well…
…Demonic Elvis. There’s also the token Student Council, curiously comprising of the only students who look particularly human outside of Linne (by which I mean they look way more traditionally anime than the rest of the cast).
Then an awful lot of weird things happen. Which is kind of the problem with Hells.
As a visual work, a piece of animation, Hells is excellent if you aren’t the sort who will find the visual style off-putting. It’s the kind of film where most stills from the film wouldn’t look too out-of-place hung on the wall of a particularly mopey teenagers wall, and would likely look better than most of other posters they’d have on display. It’s got a fairly interesting visual style that I can’t quite put my finger on what it reminds me of – the artwork is all very rough, very starkly shaded with lots of black, and not really what most think of when you think of japanese animation. A certain amount of the set design and architecture reminds me of Soul Eater to a certain degree, I suppose, but it’s not half as clean as what is on display there. It’s got this not-quite-European, not-quite-American, not-quite-Jamie-Hewlett look to it. It kind of reminds me of the MTV of the nineties – not really Aeon Flux, maybe a smidgen of the likes of The Maxx or The Head, but mostly of some of the weird interstitial logo animations you used to see on the channel.
Not that the visual look is entirely coherent, but at least a certain amount of that is clearly intentional (and some of it bleeds into the narrative). Admittedly, though, some of it is clearly just experimentation for experimentations sake. Not that that’s always especially a bad thing.
It’s not the visuals which are really the problem with Hells, though, it’s simply that it’s just too much. It seems kind of odd saying that, complaining about endless creativity, but it makes you appreciate that a little moderation goes a long way, and that the slower points of Redline served an important purpose. Initially, the film is exhilarating in it’s breakneck pace and unrelenting weirdness. Then it gets to the point where it becomes exhausting to keep up with, and, eventually, kind of tedious. When you set such a high bar for peculiarity early on, and try to maintain it throughout the whole movie, it eventually stops being peculiar. Scenes which would blow you away when suddenly dropped into any other movie become strangely normal. It stops being special and exciting.
Which wouldn’t be an issue if the movie was a lighter weight 60-80 minute piece, but the movie is just a few minutes shy of two hours. It’s simply too much to deal with. In it’s original manga form, it was probably fine – intake was throttled due to being serialised in weekly or monthly, but even when read in collected form you can more easily control the pace of consumption. Having it continuously poured directly into your eyes over the course of two hours does the material no favours.
All of which likely sounds incredibly negative, but as a whole, I actually really enjoyed Hells. It looks great, it has a sequence which reminds me of one of Arjuna’s weirder episodes, and whilst the story is nonsense, it’s the best kind of nonsense – the entertaining, odd, yet still coherent sort. I really rather respect the balls of the production committee who thought it’d be a good idea to make a movie like this which was clearly never going to make its money back.
It’s a smidgen difficult to say who this movie is going to appeal to, though. I think it’s just a case of looking at the screenshots – does the movie look ugly or interesting to you? Based on the answer to that question, you can likely determine how much you’d actually get out of watching this movie.
Which kind of means that I’d have gotten away with writing but a few dozen words about this movie instead of several paragraphs. Ho-hum.
(The movies English subtitles, as presented on the BD, are mostly fine. It has that odd feature that many translated-in-Japanese scripts in that there’s a habit of omitting the subject from many statements – “Would do something” as opposed to “I would do something” and the like. That’d likely annoy people with far better grasps of English grammar than I, I suspect).