Junji Ito Maniac: An Uneven But Unnerving Anthology

It makes sense that Netflix decided to add Junji Ito’s name to the title of Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre, the new anthology show based on the famed mangaka’s short stories. Both for marketing purposes, Ito is one of the most well-known and beloved horror manga writers and artists of all time, and so no one would get it confused with the other Netflix original show titled Maniac (to say nothing of the 1980 film and its 2012 remake).

What doesn’t make as much sense, and frankly feels a bit culturally icky, is the inclusion of the subtitle “Japanese Tales of the Macabre.” While “macabre” isn’t exactly a misnomer for the stories in the anthology, it feels reductive to the variety of tones in the twenty stories (across twelve episodes) the series offers.

Variety Is The Spice of Horror

While every episode of Maniac is adapted from one of Ito’s short stories by Kaoru Sawada and directed by Shinobu Tagashira, there’s a surprising amount of diversity in the short stories. Not only in their content, which ranges from outright comedy to stomach-churning body horror and atmospheric psychological horror, but also in style. Nothing here is wildly experimental, but some interesting choices set a few of the shorts apart.

The short “Tomie’s Photos” includes shots of rooms that remain static while characters leave and return, as well as a surprising use of dark purple negative images when we see through a film photo camera. “Mold” is entirely in black and white, allowing viewers’ minds to fill in all of the filthy colors of decay in a home overrun by mold.

Along with these bolder choices, there are significant shifts between two more common styles: stories mostly made of gray and brown images and those in almost painfully bright greens, blues, reds, and yellows. The show alternates between those two main styles in a way that creates uncertainty about what you’re going to get next, adding another layer of discomfort to the experience of watching the show.

The series also offers a range of flavors of music, all by Yuki Hayashi, that complement the shorts’ different atmospheres well. There are the requisite classic horror sounds like high-pitched synthesizer sounds and eerie piano, but also some playfully creepy flute and even something approaching free jazz throughout the twenty stories.

Adaptation Gains and Losses

Any adaptation of Ito’s work to film or TV in live action or animation is immediately in an uphill battle to even compare to his iconic artwork, much less improve upon it. Ito’s art is characterized by simply drawn faces that contrast with intense shading and deep blacks to make his horrific images pop off of the page. It’s distinct and instantly recognizable for any horror manga fan, and Maniac’s attempts to bring it into motion are unevenly successful.

Unsurprisingly some of the most striking images in the show are still images, whether they be the static backgrounds against which characters are animated or photographs within the narratives. It makes perfect sense; animating the level of detail with which Ito draws would be painstaking. But in these moments, the show seems more like an advertisement for reading and looking at Ito’s manga work.

Sadly there are also more significant downsides to the adaptation here. Several components in each short are rendered digitally in three dimensions instead of hand drawn. That works fine when that 3D element is a car but becomes a problem when it’s one of Ito’s horrifying creations.

Two shorts, in particular, suffer from this problem. The first, “Hanging Balloon,” is conceptually one of the strongest of the group, but the significant use of 3D for both creatures and human bodies is distracting and detracts from the success of the short overall. The second, “Tomb Town,” includes both a 3D and 2D rendering of a creature, allowing us to see just how much better the 2D creature looks in terms of cohesion with its world and as an object of terror.

But there are also benefits to the adaptation. The most immediately noticeable is the addition of color to most of these stories, especially something like “Ice Cream Bus,” which gives the titular bus a bright bubblegum pink finish, but the most exciting is the addition of motion to the stories with body horror and gore. Bodies moving or transforming in ways they shouldn’t, and explosions of blood and guts gain something in a medium based on movement that they lack on the page.

Hits and Misses (But Mostly Hits)

Like all anthologies, Maniac has highs and lows. Some stories are incredibly disturbing and play out their simple premises perfectly, while others feel like they go on a bit too long or are too slight to make much of an impact.

But even the shorts that are disappointing compared to the show’s high points bring something to the table. None of the shorts are dull, a benefit of short-form storytelling, and every one offers a frightening concept that may nag at viewers hours after finishing the show

7/10 SPECS

Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre is now streaming on Netflix.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.