This review contains spoilers
Having watched the early episodes for the Anime Independent's First Thoughts series, I confess to having fallen rather hard for Hell's Paradise, a show that I initially thought was treading old ground, albeit in a very pretty manner. Indeed, my thoughts echoed many from Archie Fenn's excellent first episode review on UKA. Subsequent episodes began to expand the plot beyond a simple criminal redemption arc and deftly created a fantastic alternative history of feudal Japan, complete with it's own lore and laws to provide substance. The idea of the Asaemon is rooted in real history, these Samurai executioners were tasked with beheading criminals, and by introducing us to the daughter of the most famous, Yamada Asaemon Sagiri, there's an element of reality to the insane fantasy we're about to walk into.
Gabimaru the Hollow is an infamous Shinobi assassin. Finally captured as he tires of his life, his executioners can't find a way to kill him (by reflex alone he's just too hard to kill) so he's drafted into a team of skilled prisoners condemned to death, with a mission to travel to an accursed island and retrieve the elixir of life. Motivated by the love of his scarred but caring wife, he agrees to tag along.
What's impresses initially is the wonderful rogues gallery that has been assembled. Initially far too many in number, they're ordered to kill each other using their bare hands until only a handful of manageable scum are left to be accompanied by an asaemon handler. It's a brutal sequence, but beautifully rendered and merely a taste of the horrors to come. It feels very Battle Royale in nature, though condensed and more stylised. In the end, the motley crew of the noble asaemon and their criminal charges are ready to leave for the island believed to be the source of eternal life.
Yuzuriha provides many of the show's lighter moments, though proves to be every bit as deadly as the other prisoners.
Across the next 11 episodes (with 13 total for this season) we are introduced (and have to bid farewell) to some great characters. Even the doomed are given some detailed backstory, though honestly I would have loved to have seen more of some of these characters who were too well conceived for such short lives. It's to the series' credit that literally anyone could be bumped off at any time, there's no mercy or obvious plot armour in play, so it keeps you on edge throughout. Generally I don't like high body counts in my entertainment, but thanks to the writing and imagination on show in Hell's Paradise, I felt compelled to watch until the end.
Our ill-fated crew are soon separated, so the series does jump around a little, though never so much as to make things feel disjointed. You'll follow a few characters a short while before we switch focus, then they'll cross paths, sometimes braking into different groups or just being killed off, it's a great way to keep the roster changing and interesting as our protagonists search for the elixir that will win their freedom.
There are a few stand out characters of course - our main pairing of Sagiri and Gabimaru is the heart of the show, though eventually they're split up and land in different groups. This is a clever way to keep us anchored regardless of which of the two main groups we're following, allowing a "main" character to inhabit each one after we're grown fond of them. Yuzuriha the kunoichi is pure fanservice, a flirtatious killer dressed to lure her prey into lowering their guard, she's an obvious favourite and supplies some levity to an otherwise sombre series. Nurugai is a youngster whose only crime is surviving genocide, whose relationship with handler Tenzu has some touching and enjoyable moments.
The island is a character in itself of course, covered in beautiful flora and fauna, everything about it is creepy. From mixed and twisted religious symbols, monstrous inhabitants and rules by seemingly omnipotent beings, it feels every bit the forbidden land its reputation suggests. Stunning animation brings it all to terrifying life, and Studio Mappa deserve much credit for the work they've done here.
Gabimaru and Sagiri form the heart of the show
At 13 episodes the series reveals some secrets, but clearly has much left to do. The survivors are bruised and bloodied, still stranded and in search of answers, but working together and essentially deciding that status no longer matters - criminal or asaemon, they need each other to survive. This dynamic might seem a happy conclusion had the post-credits stinger not shown a new batch of asaemon are to be dispatched to the island to investigate progress and ensure that the rules are being followed, making them an even bigger threat than even the island itself. Time will tell.
So in conclusion, the series has proven to be hugely enjoyable. Despite the Shonen tropes that litter comparable series such as Bleach (a noble order, supernatural enemies and ever-increasing power levels in each battle) Hell's Paradise has shown itself to be unique enough to stand alone and be worth a watch. It's well written, the pacing is on-point and the characters themselves are compelling despite the limited runtime. This is a show deserving of the wider praise heaped upon it, and very much worth a binge if you haven't been following weekly.