Genre: Dark Fantasy Shonen
Year Release in English: 2018-2021
Source: Viz Media Digital Subscription
Reminder: The star rating reflects overall opinion of the series.
In this historical dark fantasy, there are rumors of an island containing the elixir of life. Every scouting team sent, however, returns as floral corpses. The Shogunate dispatches a group of their own executioners coupled with a convict sentenced to death. The one who finds and returns the elixir will be given a pardon. Gabimaru the Hollow wants nothing more than to return to his wife. A bunch of monsters both literal and human will not be able to stop him.
A series with beautiful art, compelling characters, body horror galore, and impressive escalation that raises the stakes without introducing nonsense out of left field.
Content warnings: Body horror, gore, violence, dismemberment, vomiting
Gabimaru the Hollow refuses to die, despite decapitation attempt. His will to live is so powerful, he’s put into a group of other convicts on a one-way trip to the titular Hell’s Paradise. There, we’re greeted by a completely gray moral cast of characters. Every plot beat and new arc goes to show how much of a rift can exist between characters, the people they are, and what survival forces them to be. Notions of formality and honor in more certain times fall away, leading to fascinating character dynamics as shit escapes.
One of my favorite tropes is horror taking place in the daylight. There are hardly ever any night scenes in this work, and it lends itself well to the dreamlike atmosphere. Nothing is as it seems, and it thoroughly reminded me of the Shimmer from the film adaptation of Annihilation. I particularly enjoyed the final forms of Lord Tensen. They’re beautiful and terrifying to behold. Hot villains are another thing I deeply enjoy, and the fact that they all fuck around with human gender to serve their own needs made my mind vibrate.
The entire manga is satisfying every step of the way, and I cannot remember becoming so invested in a singular piece of work (maybe Berserk? That obsession will never end, to be honest).
The fight scenes are absolutely gorgeous. Kaku makes great use of negative space and action lines to depict both the character’s internal and external selves. With Tao serving as physical presence in the world deeply tied in with mental state, it comes together so beautifully on page. The fact that the success of fighting comes a lot from raw ability and personal determination made for interesting tensions and made it hard to predict which characters will make it to the end of the series.
A lot of it comes from the wealth of interiority with the characters at every step of the way. Each one feels well-rounded, including the ones we only meet for less than a chapter when the crew initially lands on the island. My personal favorites wound being Eizen, Yuzuriha, and Sagiri. The journey they go on not only internally, but with the rest of the cast kept me so invested in both their fates and the story at large. No one is ever truly gone, which is a concept also woven into the magic system.
I found the ending incredibly satisfying. There’s a prophecy, there’s tenacity, there are several instances of flat-out refusing to die before your time. That last battle takes every concept and piece of magic introduced throughout the chapters and pulled off the Was I in tears? You bet.
I haven’t felt my heart gripped with a series like this since probably Claymore. I fully stand by this comparison. There is an island full of secrets, monsters with human origins, and the art style with the deeply spiritual ways the horror manifests will be a delight readers who haven’t quite gotten over Clare and Teresa’s emotional journey.