If you’re just joining us, Briefs by Blake is a special series that spotlights a handful of manga that only ran for a short while (chapter lengths in the teens to twenties).
Back in the day, Shonen Jump had a physical print magazine. It ran for many years to presumably moderate success, the kind of thing you would see lining the magazine rack at that grocery store. I would lustfully stare at these magazines for some time before finally working up the courage to ask my parents to get me a subscription. I think I ended up subscribing in the second year of publication, and stayed with it until shortly before they stopped making print versions. To this day, I miss getting a thick magazine-sized manga compendium in the mail every month, with four or so chapters of ten or so manga contained therein.
Not only did they have regular, ongoing manga series, but they included other things of interest to fans – video game news, interviews with people from the industry, etc. – and would often include the first chapter or so of new series, aimed at piquing interest. Hell Warden Higuma fell somewhere in this range for me.
Hell Warden Higuma is a 2012 manga series by Natsuki Hokami. It ran for only 19 chapters plus an epilogue. Hokami seems to have published no other series, excepting what appears to be a one-shot story which was repurposed into Hell Warden Higuma.
The story centers around Higuma, who works as – wait for it – a Hell Warden. This is awfully similar to your Spirit Detective or Soul Reaper style job; a human with special powers and a mission to stop malevolent spirits from doing malevolent things, often by being given missions from a spirit-world entity. In this series, the souls Higuma faces are demonic beings that have escaped from hell, intent on wreaking havoc on humanity in retaliation for the pain visited upon them in hell.
I was charmed immediately by this. I have a distinct soft-spot for fiction about demons, and something about the art and the premise of this really spoke to me. I don’t actually remember if the first chapter was printed for me to read, but I do remember ogling the artwork on the advertisement for the new series, hoping it would come to Shonen Jump so I could read it.
Alas, it was never to be, and only these many years later have I finally found my way to the series. And it’s . . . fine, I guess? Like Stealth Symphony and Red Sprite before it, I suspect very strongly that this was a series intended to run for a long time that instead found itself getting canceled. Also like those others, the cancelation seems to have come without much notice. Unlike those previous two series, Hell Warden Higuma doesn’t so much wrap up abruptly as it instead doesn’t wrap up at all. Indeed, there are clear seeds of various antagonists being planted, including what will clearly be the next main antagonist and an obvious, bigger-deal antagonist behind them. These threads are completely left dangling by the end of the series.
The last few chapters leading up to the end are, luckily, dealing with some climactic fights, including a long-held ancestral grudge against a demon and some family backstory for Higuma. It serves as a reasonable, if underwhelming, retroactive finale, but was clearly meant to be the story kicking into higher gear. Even the epilogue chapter given the series does less to wrap up the story than to tease more story to come, despite more story very much not being to come.
In my opinion, however, there is another way that Hell Warden Higuma differs from Stealth Symphony and Red Sprite, which is that I wasn’t so sad to see it go. While it did have its charms, the reality of the series was far from what I’d hoped to see for all these years. And while it may be that I had built up unfair expectations, the end result is the same: It just didn’t grab me.
There’s a lot to like here. Hell Wardens in this universe seem to gain new abilities from the demons they defeat, Mega Man style, by literally severing parts of those demons’ bodies and turning them into summonable weapons. Higuma does this with hands, meaning his fighting style is to summon a series of demonic hands with different powers. It feels different and odd in an intriguing way, but never reached the heights of cool I look for in my shonen trash. Other Hell Wardens use other, stranger body parts (nothing sexual, stop that), but the series ends without really having time to explore it.
There’s also the issue of the main or POV character. Higuma is presented largely as an enigma for our real main character, a girl whose name escapes me, that he helps in the first chapter. She becomes an assistant of sorts to him, and we learn about Higuma and his world through her. Except that he’s kind of cagey with her, so a lot of stuff we learn, she doesn’t. And then she just kind of doesn’t show up as much, because in actuality the story is about him. But she’s not just gone? Like, the series can’t seem to decide if it should focus on Higuma more or less exclusively – which, yes, it should – or if it should kind of bounce back and forth between him, the interesting focal point of the tale, and her, the fish out of water hanger-on who is never given anything to do by the story nor the characters in it.
It just . . . doesn’t work. It doesn’t not work, exactly; it’s a perfectly pleasant read with definitely interesting ideas and art. But the series seems more like a set of interesting ideas that haven’t quite figured out how they work together than a cohesive whole. I will say that later chapters felt like this might be changing, but it was clearly too little, too late.
Ultimately, I think this series represents a small amount of fun to be had, mostly with the concepts versus the implementation of them. The art is good, and the character design, while ultimately a bit busy for my tastes, will intrigue some people. The storytelling has moments that hit well, but also moments that don’t work, or are overcrowded, or feel like they’re focusing on the wrong thing. It’s not a manga to be avoided, no. It’s actually a perfectly decent read, maybe even good. But it’s not that good, unfortunately, and so the best I can recommend is that you pick it up in a moment of supreme boredom or curiosity. And a word of warning to those particularly intrigued by the premise: Maybe don’t wait a decade before indulging your interest. It can only haunt you with what could have been.
Blake is one half of Blake & Spencer Get Jumped – a member of The Geekly Grind podcast network! Make sure to tune in and get their thoughts on classic anime series, new manga titles and more!