Hell Girl (2019) by Koji Shiraishi

In 1965 a girl gets revenge on the school bully by calling on Hell Girl (Tina Tamashiro), an infernal avenger, and her fellow demons to take her to hell. These demons demand a terrible price however, as anyone who calls on them will also be taken to hell when they die. In 2019, the now elderly woman’s son, photo-journalist Jin Kudo (Kazuki Namioka), is asking to use this story for an article. The woman dies shortly after and the demons come to take her. When an idol, Sanae Mikuriya, (Mina Oba) is attacked by a crazed fan, leaving her with facial scarring, she also calls on Hell Girl (who is now contactable through a website; although only at midnight, and only by those holding a serious grudge). And later when Miho’s (Nana Mori) friend, Haruka (Sawa Nimura) falls victim to a dangerous black metal singer Maki (Tom Fujita), Hell Girl finds herself with another young woman willing to take this demonic bargain.

“Hell Girl” is based on the anime by Takahiro Omori, with the live action film being written and directed by Koji Shiraishi (Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman). The film’s central premise, of an infernal ‘deal with the devil’ in the form of the revenge service offered by ‘Hell Girl’ is pretty solid horror fare, but unfortunately the film fails to capitalize on it. We rarely see the hellish tortures the victims are subjected too, with only a minimal look at one character being eaten by worms. This means that for the most part the threats of eternal damnation are not particularly terrifying. The tone is often more dark fantasy, with supernatural anti-heroes in the shape of Hell Girl and her band of demons. The film perhaps relies on some fore-knowledge of the manga, with none of these hellish characters fleshed out much, and even Hell Girl herself rarely making an appearance. Later in the film they seem to appear even when not summoned, and they seem to take little joy in their work, simply taking any soul they are asked to. This lack of characterisation is also apparent in the human protagonists, who either have no meaningful motivation or are unlikeable enough that their characters’ fates are no great cause for sadness. The seemingly tit-for-tat, and thoughtless nature of them calling up Hell Girl for revenge, becomes almost risible, requiring no effort and with too few obvious consequence shown to the audience. The film gives us brief glimpses of a psychedelic hell, a teen-friendly Teruo Ishii fairground that is always careful not to be too extreme, limiting itself mostly to decapitation, and where the demons conform to comfortable horror tropes (scars, dark clothes).

“Hell Girl” is a by-product of a successful anime and manga franchise, which doesn’t move much beyond its premise. The demons go through the motions of taking people to hell in a way that give the audience little cause for concern about its protagonists. With more character work and creative depictions of hell it could have worked, but unfortunately it fails to entertain.

Girls in the Dark (2017)

Five members of the Seibu Catholic Girls School literature club join together for an evening of food and storytelling. The theme of this meeting is to be the death of one of their group, Shiraishi Itsumi. We discover that Itsumi was a popular pupil at their school and all of the girls looked up to her. As each girl steps up to tell her story the blame for Itsumi’s death is shifted as they point fingers at one another. Doubt over the cause and motivation for her murder arises and we also discover that Itsumi may not be all she seems.

Directed by Saiji Yakumo, the film is structured as a series of flashbacks branching off from the framing device of the dinner party. This creates a great pace as each story is relatively short and brings up numerous questions about the other members of the group that makes you want to keep watching. As the revelations and recriminations come forward the relationships of the characters change and we are forced to reassess our understanding of each of the characters. It is similar in this regard to the classic film Rashomon, as we see various events retold through different perspectives. There are elements of gothic horror in design and story. The girls club house is illuminated with a chandelier and decorated like an English Victorian house. As they discuss Agatha Christie, mystery and horror genres, these all seem to influence what kind of story the film appears to be. The story begins to drift towards the fantastical in parts. This is partly explained by the unreliable narrators and the idea that they are simply telling stories about what happens, but it somewhat undermines the finale as it appears more like the whole film is simply a tall tale rather than meant to be taken seriously. All the actresses do a fantastic job with their characters and their shifting loyalties. Marie Iitoyo, Yuna Taira, Tina Tamashiro, Riria Kojima, Nana Seino, and Fumika Shimizu all embody the various personalities perfectly and have good chemistry together on screen, shifting from friends to enemies.

Girls in the Dark is an examination of subjectivity. Their recollections increasingly contradict one another or are coloured by their personalities. It is an interesting take on the genre of the unreliable narrator and the audience is always one step behind the girls as they have knowledge that is hidden from us. It examines the idea of how meaning is created, forcing the viewer to constantly reexamine their own biases and critically evaluate what they are being told. When they lack all the facts it is hard to know who to trust, so they are left with the subjective reminiscences, or even outright falsehoods, to establish a sense of reality. I would recommend this film as a great mystery drama with fantastic performances and a unique way of telling its story.