Jigoku Shōjo: The Questionable Interchangeability of Revenge and Punishment

Notes: This review only considers the first season of the three-season show.  Also, please forgive the lack of screenshots.  I watched this anime through the Netflix stream, and was surprised at how bearable the dubs were.  Enjoy the wallies, instead!

Art by iamfreeska

Jigoku Shōjo focuses mainly on episodic revenge through the majority of its first season, with touches here in there on Enma Ai’s own vendetta which comes to full bloom in the remaining few episodes.  I have never before come across an anime so drenched in vengeance, including its birth, culmination, and fall out.  What I like so much about Jigoku Shōjo is that it doesn’t provide one-sided revenge, but presents a trade system.  In exchange for taking the requested soul to hell, Enma Ai also sets a clock on the person who sought revenge; with death, be that soon or many years later, he or she will also go to hell.  She does not hide the fact that both revenger and revengee will go to hell, which makes each individual’s desperation and eventual acceptance all the more amazing and incomprehensible.

It is this sense of hopelessness that intrigues me.  In every single case, I am able to see an additional option the person could have taken that would have had a favorable end compared to the one Enma Ai gave.  I don’t think any revenge is worth sending your own soul to eternal suffering.  In the cases where revenge is taken to help another, even then I believe that if that helped person knew what was done and the price, he or she would not think the charge worth the temporary relief.  What is it that drives these people to Enma Ai? Is it their lack of self-motivation or sense of non-control? And maybe most importantly of all, does revenge equal punishment, and what’s the difference between the two?

Enma Ai and her retinue. Art by Zephiris261

The Drive for Revenge
Jigoku Shōjo
does a fabulous job of pulling the viewer into the characters’ psyches, letting us feel their terror and anger.  The heavy focus on character and setting also helps confuse the viewers just as much as the characters about the acceptability of taking Ai’s offer.  Is it only right that such a spiteful and ugly person should go to hell? Is the price not fair, given the much-deserved pain given to one who earns it? In all the tumult of emotion, I found myself overlooking the truth: the act of vengeance as enacted by Ai is not an eye-for-an-eye act, but a greater grievance done by the “wronged” party.  An eternity of suffering does not equal the act of bullying a weaker classmate.  To heap even more onto the unequal scale, everlasting hell also awaits the avenger.  Now what part of this sounds like a good deal? This anime sparkles at revealing the unstable mentalities of pressured and panicked people.  When everything is so bleak, who has time for common sense?

Age is a huge factor to consider in Jigoku Shōjo, as the ages of the characters vary greatly from the very, very young, to those who have already lived long lives.  When we’re young (and I still consider myself young, in my mid-20s), life seems limitless.  We have this misguided sense of immortality that takes years, and some abrupt realities, to overcome.  Separating Ai’s correspondents into two parties, the young and the old, let’s consider situations from their perspectives.

This window looks instead like a cage, holing Ai in to her role as ferryman for revenge. Art by Shixon

The younger parties seem for the most part to have that sense of immortality.  Ai’s offer sounds reasonable, given that death is so far away.  They will have plenty of time to enjoy their free lives now that the offending persons have been spirited away to hell.  Looking at it from that point of view, it seems somewhat understandable.  However, there is no guarantee that greater misdeeds will not be done to them in the future, and they will no longer have the luxury of asking Ai to do away with them.  Only by prevailing over these trials on their own will they then realize that the price of their own souls was much to high.

I find the older parties even more controversial than the younger, given that they have already lived a good amount of their lives, be they fulfilling or not.  They are seemingly much closer to death than children and teenagers, and the promise of hell then that much more threatening.  If, say, their lives have been mostly wonderful and full of blessings, then maybe the memory of each moment of happiness is enough to counter the pain they’ll receive in hell.  But if their lives were rife with agony, why consign themselves to agony forever? Is that one moment of satisfaction at revenge enough to last through all time?  Perhaps I’ll never know until such a time and age comes to me.

Revenge and Punishment: Are They Equal?
This is a pretty old question, going as far back in theory as Plato:

No one punishes wrongdoers putting his mind on what they did and for the sake of this–that they did wrong not unless he is taking mindless vengeance, like a savage brute.  One who undertakes to punish rationally does not do so for the sake of wrongdoing, which is now in the past–but for the sake of the future, that the wrongdoing shall not be repeated, either by him or by others who see him or by others who see him punished.  (Protagoras)

Zaibert in the flesh.

He makes a pretty clear distinction between the two.  Revenge is enacted by “…savage brute[s]” who use no sense or have no care for the future.  They are enthralled with past grievances.  This view is still in belief and use today; the justice system is in place for this very reason–to judge fairly the accused, to prevent the repetition of such acts in the future.  But are the two really so distinct from one another? Modern philosopher, Leo Zaibert, clearly states otherwise in his 2006 Law and Philosophy article, titled “Punishment and Revenge.”  In it, he attempts to reveal the actual interchangeability of the two words, using analytical arguments instead of purely rhetorical ones to prove his case.  Cut down to a mere formula, punishment looks like so: “A punishes B when A inflicts (what she believes to be) suffering upon B as a re-action to (what she believes was) B’s wrongdoing” (Zaibert 82-83).  Pretty similar to the formula for revenge, right? The key word here is “re-action.”  Though proponents of fair justice claim to punish out of thought for the future, they can’t deny the fact that the act comes as a direct reaction to what was done in the past.  Zaibert goes on to cite contemporary author, Robert Nozick, and his oft-quoted distinctions between “…retributive punishment and revenge”:

(1) Retribution is done for a wrong, while revenge may be done for an injury or harm or slight andc [sic] need not be for a wrong.
(2) Retribution sets an internal limit to the amount of punishment, according to the seriousness of the wrong, whereas revenge internally need set no limit to what is inflicted.
(3) Revenge is personal…whereas the agent of retribution need have no special or personal tie to the victim of the wrong for which he exacts retribution.
(4) Revenge involves a particular emotional tone, pleasure at the suffering of another, while retribution either need involve no emotional tone or involve another one, namely pleasure at justice being done.
(5) There need be no generality in revenge…whereas the imposer of retribution, inflicting deserved punishment for a wrong, is committed to (the existence of some) general principles (prima facie) mandating punishment in other similar circumstances.  (87)

Zaibert does not disagree with the particular of Nozick’s comparisons; he instead resists the complete success of their suggested distinctions between “punishment” and “revenge.”  For one, Nozick only considers retributive punishment, and not what Zaibert calls “punishment simpliciter.”  “Simple” punishment is exactly that, an uncomplicated and quick punishment that does not react as a deserved punishment.  Zaibert also points out the ambiguity of defining what one considers a “wrong.”  What is wrong to one person is not necessarily wrong to another.

This dubious definition of “wrong” pops up in every episode of Jigoku Shōjo.  Take Enma Ai, for example  (spoiler ahead).  Her village had a tradition of sacrificing a 7-year-old girl every 7 years to the gods to ensure prosperity in their crops.  In their eyes, sacrificing Ai was the right thing to do.  What Sentarou and Ai’s parents did, faking her death and hiding her away for several years, seemed a direct correlation to the ensuing years of crop failure.  In that case, not killing Ai was “wrong.”  But from Ai’s and her sympathizers’ views, the village’s singled-minded and deluded devotion was “wrong.”  Saving her from a senseless murder was the right thing to do.  Later on, the secret of her survival is discovered and the village decides to deliver to the gods what was held back, along with some extra.  They attack and bury Ai and her parents, though Ai is still alive at the moment of the burial.  They also force her childhood friend who aided in her escape, Sentarou, to throw the first shovelful of dirt into the grave.  Was he wrong in submitting to the village’s insanity to save his own skin, or was he wrong in betraying the promise he made to Ai to forever protect her? Each argument can be justified.

Final Impressions: (8/10 Very good)
Jigoku Shōjo succeeded in shocking me with its first episode, revealing just how alive and severe bullying can be and still is.  Each episode from then on heaped on more ugly realities that I think people should realize even if they never experience them first hand.  What I liked most about the anime was its invitation to think, to consider for ourselves the scenarios presented and the possibilities.  Is revenge such a bad thing? Is it any different from punishment? Are the stakes worth it?

Bittersweet image of what was and should have been... Art by Scott Hines

9 thoughts on “Jigoku Shōjo: The Questionable Interchangeability of Revenge and Punishment

  1. I think I still believe with Plato that punishment is intended to prevent repeated offenses (for the future), while revenge is an act that looks to the past.

    Perhaps they are different sides of the same coin. The act, in of itself, is the same whether one wants to call it punishment or revenge. But then does the difference merely lie with the motivation behind such actions?

    Objectively, I would agree revenge and punishment are the same action. But I’m not a rock or a machine, so I consider the words to have a different emotional connotation to them.

    Is revenge such a bad thing? What if Sentarou decided to hurt the villages for their wrongdoing to him and Ai? Would that be revenge or punishment? Does the end result help define the difference? That is, if Sentarou’s action prevented further sacrifices, would that be considered punished? If these hypothetical actions of Sentarou led to nothing but more death, would that be considered revenge?


    • I agree with your and Plato’s veins of thought on the past and future intentions behind revenge and punishment. I also agree that they could be called that cliche phrase, “two sides of the same coin.” I don’t fully agree with Zaibert’s article; I do, however, find many of the points he raises fascinating and worth considering.

      As for your questions, I’m not sure I really have the answers for them, if there even exist single, correct answers. There were times in the anime where I thought the person truly, truly deserved hell. But in the majority of cases, I did not think hell for the requester justified. Is revenge such a bad thing? I’m tempted to answer, no, not always. In the case of Sentarou taking action against the villagers, it would really depend on his frame of mind: aimed at righting a past wrong, or aimed at righting what could happen in the future. Are the measures taken equal to what was previously enacted? Lots of fun questions.


  2. You can see other options because you’re the bystander. As the chinese saying goes, “those involved are lost in the maze while the spectator’s view is clear”. For Enma Ai, IMHO, she represents ultimate justice without compassion much like karma but never righteousness.


    • I can definitely understand the whole “in-the-midst-of-it-all” thought process, one that can often prevent you from seeing more rational options. Karma is also a good way of putting it.


    • Yes to watching Gankutsuou, and I have seen a film version of the book, but I unfortunately haven’t read it. I even went out and bought it a long time ago, but it’s still sitting on my shelf gathering dust ^^


  3. It invites us to think not just about retribution but the lack thereof as well. Disregard the premise of the show and you will see such a mechanism of retributive justice doesn’t exist in real life but the injustice and pain is as much real. Hence the birth of religion as the ultimate salvation of those who are suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

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