Yuji Kaku’s Hell’s Paradise is an underrated hit, a manga waiting for its time to shine. The author himself is quite mysterious, as we know very little about him outside of the fact that he worked as an assistant for Fujimoto Tatsuki, creator of Chainsaw Man. While we wait for the release of the Hell’s Paradise anime, and the last, and thirteenth volume of the series, I invite you, dear reader, to let me to convince you why you absolutely must read Hell’s Paradise.
What is Hell’s Paradise?
The story of Gabimaru the Empty, shinobi assassin of the enigmatic yet infamous Iwagakure clan, takes place in 11th century Japan. We find Gabimaru, our protagonist, in prison. Betrayed by the members of his clan, Gabimaru stoically awaits the icy metallic touch of the executioner at his neck – but no execution technique works. Though he awaits death, Gabimaru the Empty is unable to feel anything due to his invincible body. Raised as a killing machine, the only spot of light in his life is his wife, held hostage by Gabimaru’s estranged clan.
During his execution, Sagiri, a member of the Yamada Asaemon family makes him a surprising proposal: a pardon written directly by the shogun. Gabimaru will be pardoned for his crimes if he manages to bring back an immortality elixir from an island… From which no one has ever returned alive. With the goal of seeing his wife again, Gabimaru accepts.
Several criminals, each accompanied by a member of the Yamada Asaemon executioner family, will undertake this perilous expedition alongside Gabimaru and Sagiri. And the last central ‘character’ of the work is the paradisiacal island on which their quest takes place, where the unfolding of the story takes place.
From then on, the characters find themselves not only pitted against each other in a battle royale, but also in a race against the clock as they struggle to survive on an island inhabited by horrifying, chimeric butterflies. These monstruous creatures, covered in deformed faces, are clearly inspired by a Chinese Taoist mythology – and transform what should be an idyllic setting into a hellish one. The island and its many mysteries bar the characters form any possibility of return, leaving them with no choice but to move forward.
What are these hellish creatures? What is this island hiding? Does the elixir exist? Will our heroes manage to come out alive? These are the questions we ask ourselves from the very first page of Hell’s Paradise.
Taoism as a backdrop.
Hell’s Paradise features the central concept of Taoism, which creates an important thematic background for the manga. Indeed, the manga draws from Taoism’s mysticism (perhaps instead of Taoism’s more cosmological or philosophical aspects), reflecting its values into the typical codes of shonen: learning to surpass personal limits, growing in power, perseverance in adversity, etc. Also discussed in Hell’s Paradise is the way of martial arts (ninjutsu, the art of the sword, the art of the spear, the art of the fist and the ninja ways), which further reinforces Taoist themes.
Indeed, as readers, we are left with much food for thought, particularly as the plot develops and writing proves to be as exciting as it is unexpected! Deformed creatures, mythological mystery and shonen themes… For his first manga, Kaku sets the bar very high and displays a perfect mastery of plot, character development and use of themes.
A complementary and endearing duo.
I couldn’t not mention the duet that is Gabimaru and Sagiri, who benefit from great development throughout the series. The intimate relationship that Gabimaru and Sagiri develop is fairly innovative for a shonen. Faced with innumerable adversity and trials, our two heroes will change and grow together. Gabimaru, a cold, stoic and heartless character, will find in his relationship with Sagiri a certain vulnerability. Little by little, he begins to melt his insensitive side, and rediscover a lacking humanity which he had locked away to withstand his ruthless training in his past. On the other hand, Sagiri, learning from Gabimaru, develops an openness, self-assurance and self-assertion that she also lacked at the start of the work.
This sincere, and exciting relationship between them is the core of Hell’s Paradise. It is endearing to see such flourishing characters, where each brings something positive to the other. But this form of development isn’t just reserved for our protagonists. Kaku makes us love “the bad guys” and hate “the good guys”! Throughout the story, we will learn a little more about the past, the motivations and the development of each executioner-criminal duo. Eventully, all the characters will come to ignore the ideas and codes imposed by society, and instead come together to the common conclusion that no matter one’s rank or one’s past, we are all human beings with the freedom to choose our own paths. The lesson learned through Hell’s Paradise is that nothing is ever just black or white, and that we must learn to find nuance in others.
Hell’s Paradise is the manga you’ve got to read. It’s a rare pearl and successful in the ideas it wants to carry out from start to finish. It’s uncensored, often violent and gory, but still reminiscent of the shonen codes we love so much.
On the borderline between seinen and shonen, Hell’s Paradise is a daring, colorful, and thought-provoking work that keeps us turning pages.
Discover Hell’s Paradise now!