Fans of Dead Leaves and Redline, rejoice. From out of nowhere Madhouse releases Hells [Heruzu Enjueruzu], a wicked, manic and no-boundaries anime that may feel like a Studio 4°C project, but has its roots firmly in the Madhouse foundation. The result is a completely unique and over-the-top, two-hour spanning climax with a surprisingly smart background story (at least, if you take the absurd anime conventions for granted).
Hells was a very troubled project. First introduced in 2005, the film surfaced in its current incarnation in 2008 (festival run) and 2009 (a small theatrical run). After that ... radio silence, a complete void. Until Madhouse realized they were simply losing money by not releasing it, which eventually led to the 2012 Blu-Ray release (English subtitles included!). Looking at the film it's easy to see how Madhouse failed to wrap their heads around a proper release strategy as this is clearly one of those films that's almost impossible to market. It's just way too specific and unique to target even to a niche audience.
The story starts off normal enough (for this type of anime at least). Linne is a young girl on her way to her first day of school. When trying to save a cat from a couple of young delinquents she gets hit by a car, and she ends up in hell. Unaware of her predicament at first, Linne soon realizes that she didn't end up in her regular school. The first thirty minutes of Hells are spent on introducing the setting and the characters and are, by comparison, still pretty standard.
Then the film turns, and we get some sort of weird, highly exaggerated anime-version of the Old Testament. Linne ends up caught in a feud between Cain and Abel and as the film progresses the story (and the battle between the two brothers) becomes more and more grotesque. The final 90 minutes feel like a drawn out version of the Akira finale, layer upon layer of baffling story progression, though with a certain stroke of underlying genius that sets itself apart from many other anime stories.
Hells has a very definitive, strong visual style. The animation is at times a little poor for a film of this magnitude, but the various art styles, the awesome camera angles and the crazy editing more than make up for that. The character design is absolutely superb, as are the constant switches between the different (but related) art styles. There is always something new to admire, always something that leaves an impression. It's a shame that the budget couldn't carry the enthusiasm of the crew in its entirety, but they definitely made the most of it with the means at hand.
The music is what you can expect from a film like this. High-octane and loud, anything but subtle, mostly guitar-based but good fun and definitely suitable to the overall atmosphere. It's clearly not as bold or as daring as the visual styling, but in a sense it keeps the focus concentrated on the outlandish art style. Outside the context of the film the score may be pretty bland, but within the film it definitely works. The voice acting on the other hand is pretty much perfect. It's a Japanese release so there is no English dub (hooray!), but the Japanese dub is every bit as insane and over-the-top as you would've hoped. The voices really complement the characters and bring an extra level of depth to some of them, while providing more thrills and laughs for others.
Hells is a film that keeps the wtf levels in the red at all times. There is virtually no limit to the weirdness that is thrown at the viewer. At the same time there is a certain depth and consistency to the background story that's quite unique for an anime of this type. It makes for a very special, slightly tiring but overall gratifying experience that knows no equal. I figure that if they had somehow waited 2000 years to write the bible, and they'd outsourced the job to Japan, this could've been the result.
The film asks a lot from its audience. You have to be able to keep with the outlandish art style, the high levels of comedy and absurdity mixed with a well-considered (how implausible as it might be) storyline and the constant assault on the senses. In return, you get one of the most uniquely satisfying anime ever released. A film that can only be compared with a very concise selection of otherwise incomparable animation projects. Hells is a true delight if you appreciate your films a little different, if not it's probably best to stay away from it as far as possible.