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Panorama of Hell (revisited)

Writer and Artist: Hideshi Hino, 1984

This review is based on the French edition published by IMHO in 2020. The English version has been translated and published in the USA by Blast Books.

Hell, someone said, is not a world that exists beyond ours, rather behind it. There is no transcendence, only the eye that by adopting a different focus manages to capture the ghoulish nature of the world we live in. We are left wondering, then, what Hell actually means. If it is a place where evil resides, then it should go without saying that such place would allow for evil to thrive. If so, then evil can be said to have found a place where nothing could ever stop it from being free and, once again if so, we are led to wondering what such freedom entails and whether it would enslave  or liberate us.

In other words, if Hell is behind this world from an immanent point of view, and if Hell is a place where evil reigns freely, would it be possible to state that Hell is not external to humanity, but part and parcel of it? Philosophical problems aside, there’s another problem that arises out of (over)thinking about Hell: why are we so fascinated by it, just like we find Dante’s Inferno to be more interesting than his Purgatorio and Paradiso?

The anonymous protagonist of Japanese creator Hideshi Hino’s graphic novel tells us he lives in Hell. At least, this is what we are supposed to believe. He even says he has two children, a wife, a mother and a brother. His father, just like his grandfather, is dead. Violent people they were, attracted to the spilling of blood. Insanity runs in the family, as all characters are, in one way or another, immersed in acts that demonstrate that something is, mentally speaking, amiss. Cutting his own body, for instance, makes the protagonist feel strangely elated, as his blood is poured into buckets to be later used to paint. There’s a necessity to shock, here, and to make us cover our eyes when too much is shown on the page. An odd situation, surely, being that the drawings are more grotesque and akin to caricatures than realistic depictions of spilled guts.

Like in a De Sade’s novel, we are presented with a series of vignettes that try to force us to say “no more”. There is no saving grace, here, no moral, no redeeming quality that could turn the story into a coherent teaching. As free as it can be, the book is therefore to be taken as the necessity of setting no barrier to what Hell, indeed, might be. There is no shock for shock’s sake, at least not in the form of a gratuitous series of gruesome drawings, rather an inquiry into the reality of horror as an artistic expression. As strange as it might sound, lacking any sense of kindness, the concept of good being left out of the equation, the resulting feeling is that of being led not towards the recess of evil, the opposite action of being born (we go in instead of going out), rather to sensing an obscene ascension, as if up was the way to go, right towards the peaks of madness. Indecent as it might at first appear (and, perhaps, as it actually is), and impossible to like and enjoy serenely, the book is able to open new vistas.

Yet, the manga seems to play with the relationship we establish between it and us. There is the lurking idea that maybe not all that is being told us is actually true. The unreality of Hell is at first taken as being possible in the context of the book and, therefore, all the protagonist tells us becomes not only fact but also necessarily real. We have no reason to doubt it, to think that the world on the page should not possess a fictive truthfulness which, given enough time to get adjusted to, functions as a testament to Hell’s concreteness. If all is true, then all will be possible, even though we are ready to concede that this can happen only and only if the fictive context is recognized as a world which works following its own rules.

The destabilizing factor, therefore, is not what we are told, the series of obscene and repellent stories we are being presented with. There is no problem in accepting Hell when contextualized, that is, when given a reason to exist as being the background the story is set against. What leads us to remembering the stories, to experiencing a feeling of uneasiness, are the last pages; the issue is not the accepted insanity of the protagonist, an insanity we fully recognized as being necessary in its context, but the subversion of the logic underlying what he has been telling us. The unreality of the context is suddenly shaken by the implication that maybe it is the reality of our own world that is being given us, asking us to ponder what delusion can actually lead to. There is a Hell, then, and it probably lives in the immanence of our own insanity.