Whether it’s being done in Japan or here in the United States, the concept of trying to cash in on an anime’s popularity by remaking it with real-life actors and settings has been around for decades. Ask anyone who has had the mental fortitude to sit through even one of these remakes, however, and they’ll tell you that most of these cash-grab attempts have been mediocre at best. With this track record, it’s understandable that many anime fans aren’t particularly enthusiastic about live-action remakes, but that isn’t to say there aren’t some that are worth checking out.
In 2006, a live-action television drama adaptation of Jigoku Shōjo (Hell Girl, to us English speakers) was released to the public. Although this reworking of the anime went largely unnoticed by the original series’ fans and aired only a single season of 12 episodes, it is a rare example of how a live-action adaptation of an anime can be done well.
The original anime is a dark fantasy/supernatural thriller anthology series linked together by the dark doings of the titular Hell Girl, Ai Enma, and her three ghoulish subordinates. In it, various vengeful characters contact Ai via the Hell Correspondence website in the hopes of sending another person who has wronged them straight into the depths of . . . well, Hell. The ways in which Ai supernaturally and psychologically torments her targets before getting sent straight into the devil’s punchbowl are horrifyingly surreal—not to mention personalized, so no two punishments are exactly alike.
The crucial themes of hatred, revenge, injustice, and the nature of human emotions are prominent in the show from start to finish. Translating these themes into a real-world setting with live actors could not have been an easy feat, but I feel like Izumi TV Production pulled it off with aplomb. For a start, not only are all the members of the Hell Correspondence, who were depicted as Japanese in the original anime, played by Japanese actors, but they are fully and actively present in the plot line of the live-action series and just as sinister and sadistic as their anime counterparts. Also lifted directly from the anime are the tense and thrilling musical score and the beautiful costumes associated with the characters.
While some could say that recreating the anime’s outfits and other elements exactly would result in something “unrealistic” in a live-action setting, I would argue that this actually works to the benefit of this adaptation. Jigoku Shōjo is meant to be a horror anime, and these characters are meant to be unsettling—which they certainly are when you put them into the “real world” exactly as they are. To put it another way, if you suddenly came face to face with a group of spirits whose sole purpose is to drag your soul directly to Hell, you’d be freaking out right about then, and their appearance is part of that.
Although the practical effects used in the adaptation might be considered somewhat primitive by today’s standards, they still are more than enough to put ice the viewer’s (and the target’s) veins. This is largely due to the fact that the more graphic stuff is shot in low light, often using silhouettes or similar framing to leave more to the viewer’s imagination—thereby adding to the horrific experience while disguising the less polished visuals. It’s not as though the producers completely hide the low-budget effects; they just don’t show what isn’t necessary. For example, in the very first episode, we see partial silhouettes of two headless schoolgirls standing upright in a school hallway. There isn’t a whole lot of blood or gore, but what we are presented with is certainly enough to give us a good, albeit brief, scare.
With all of the similarities that the anime and live-action versions share, they are almost interchangeable. That is, a person could be introduced to the world of Jigoku Shōjo through either the original anime or its live-action counterpart and still be on the same page as viewers of the other.
This adaptation pulled no punches when it came to staying faithful to its source material, and I think it’s a crying shame that it only lasted a single season. When it comes to changes in the script, in this case, less is definitely more.