Shut Hell is a hidden gem in manga. I found it by accident, read all that was available in a night, and mourned for years as nobody picked it up.
The manga is a very unique blend of history, action, and a strange supernatural subplot. The first chapter focuses on a modern japanese student, Sudou. He meets a strange girl, who seems to know him. He had made a very strange instrument which even he did not have any knowledge of planning, and she is able to string it, and begins to sing. Her music transports him jarringly to the body of a woman hanging
from a gallows, in the steppes of mongolia, almost a thousand years ago.
The first half of the manga is a recap of sorts. The man, in the body of the woman named Shut Hell, is told by Yurul, the (presumed) ancestor of the girl he met, about Shut Hell's history. It is a lurid, violent tale, of how her culture and tribe were annihilated by the mongols, and her subsequent transformation into a machine designed to wreak her vengeance upon the Horde.
The historical devotion is something to note here. The manga feels like it is well-researched, and I personally learned much about the historical tribes of the steppes, including the Tangut, the Song, and the Mongols themselves. I had not known that the Horde had committed a form of genocide by systematically destroying cultures. This manga centers, in part, around this little-mentioned event.
For all the praise that can be given to the treatment of history and the thrilling first arc, much of that glint is lost once the recap ends. Shut Hell's character is the most compelling driver of the story line; with her absence and the transition to Sudou's struggle to understand his place in events, the hook is dislodged. Shut Hell was engaging due to her resolve; Sudou lacks resolve or confidence of his own.
While it is understandable for this development to happen, given the first chapter's setup, the transition in tone and focus is not handled expertly. It is still worth reading after this, but it definitely needs to find a way back to its home.
The art is magnificent in this manga. It draws on stylistic influences from brush drawings, creating the same airy feeling with straight lines. This adaptation from brush strokes to straight lines serves to give intensity and energy to the art, even when there is no actual action happening. See Chapter 5, Page 9 for a two-page panel that steals my breath away--the intensity and beauty in the posing and display of the two characters is phenomenal.
When there is actual action happening (which there is a lot of, to be sure), the manga's style truly thrives. Look at Chapter 15, Page 18 for an example--there is a great deal of tension in the air, and the static page seems to move itself; you can see her draw her knife and grab Yurul''s chin. It's phenomenal. That being said, in true action sequences, sometimes the action can blur together, and it's difficult to tell exactly what is going on. Here, I can forgive it, as the art style is more artistic than descriptive, and the message is transported through the drawing.
The use of panelling can be exquisite as well. An example lies in Chapter 13, page 19. Some action mangakas will attempt to draw an action scene straight through, without breaking the focus between two sources. This mangaka will frequently intersperse monologues within the action. Sometimes this fails; here it succeeds, and serves to add drama and intensity to the scene.
Shut Hell is one of the best female action characters I have ever encountered. She does not fall into the traps or stereotypes that often plague the genre. She is not a "strong female characte"r; she is not deviantly, perversely violent; she is not spunky or quirky or manic. Her mental collapse is presented exquisitely well. It reads like something that would really happen to a person, and her violent, desperate need to destroy the Horde is wonderfully expressed. She is monstrous, and beautiful, and tragic, and exciting. Even when her seemingly endless rage is tempered by Yurul, it seems so real.
Yurul is wonderful as well, although his youth sometimes feels a bit odd, in that to defy his tribe as he did seems a bit grandiose for a boy of no more than twelve. I get that many shounen/action series has young protagonists, but here it still feels off. He does not act like a boy of his age; he is much too rational and determined for that. Despite that, the construction of his character is still well done. His fierce resolve to preserve culture is a very good defining characteristic in this age of shounen manga.
Side characters, too, are interesting and well-presented. While there is not nearly as much backstory for these characters as there is for Shut Hell, they still feel real. They don't need them so much; the sensation persists that these people have deep personalities, with complex motivations.
This manga is an excellent hidden gem. The art soars, and the character of Shut Hell is astonishingly well-written. The story itself drops itself after the first arc, but the first half more than makes up for that (hopefully temporary) lag.