Quirky and Eerie: A Review of "Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre"
I'd been looking forward to this one as a huge fan of Junji Ito's manga (my favorites being Tomie and Uzumaki). I have several of his collections, and I've always kept an eye out for whenever Ito's work gets animated.
The newest installment of animated works came to Netflix on January 19 (just a few days ago!) and I couldn't wait to see if anything I'd read popped up in the series.
There were lots of familiar tales, mixed with a couple unfamiliar, and the anticipation of seeing them come to life was killing me.
I streamed the whole series in two days and I have all sorts of thoughts about it.
From the mind of horror manga maestro Junji Ito comes a spine-tingling selection of some of his most bizarre, disturbing and terrifying tales.
The Story: We're in fact dealing with a total of 20 stories spread out over 12 episodes.
Episode 1 - The Strange Hikizuri Siblings: The Séance. This is about a bizarre family where the parents have died and only the children have survived the family. Everyone is a bit eccentric (like the Addams Family, but different) and the children hold a séance in order to reconnect with the parents of the family.
This was an "ok" episode. I was never a fan of the Hikizuri siblings when I read them in the manga, and I knew I wasn't really going to be into them if they were animated, either. There's a bit of family squabbling over who runs the household--the 19-year-old son currently has that job--and the séance ends up being totally faked...until the youngest boy spits out ectoplasm and the family patriarch comes back angry. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with this episode; it just wasn't my cup of tea.
Episode 2 - The Story of the Mysterious Tunnel / Ice Cream Truck. The first story is about a tunnel that inexplicably draws people to it, with a secret gamma ray study institute deep inside of it, and ghosts that may or may not be part of the rays that permeate every surface. Meanwhile, the Ice Cream Truck story is about a mysterious driver of the Ice Cream Bus that stops by to sell ice cream and whisk children away on an adventure through town. But there's more to that than meets the eye, of course.
I was really digging the "Mysterious Tunnel" except the story ended right when it was getting good. This is something that happens in the show a lot. I think it's because the idea is that maybe your brain can come up with horrific stuff on its own and can guess what's about to happen, but...I wanted to see it. Our hero is literally about to sink into the floor and walls and...it just ends. I enjoyed the story overall though because tunnels always creeped me out, and in my experiences in Japan, there were tons of them. Ice Cream Truck has the catchiest "Ice Cream Bus" song...it's been in my head for two days as I write this. Anyway, it's a goofy story where the children turn into piles of ice cream corpses (complete with a little cannibalism). I really enjoyed the imagery at the end of the episode (oops! there goes the head!) and it made me laugh!
Episode 3 - The Hanging Balloons. A teen idol's suicide leads to mysterious sights of a giant balloon head floating through the sky. Soon the city is plagued by them, where the balloons attack the living and try to hang them from the sky.
This is my favorite episode out of all of them. It's genuinely creepy. I have this thing where I get really unnerved by facial features that are too big (unnaturally so; like exaggerations) so the balloons of giant heads bothered me. Plus, hanging has always scared me on top of that, so this episode combined two things that creep me out tremendously. I remember this story from the manga and it bothered me then, too.
Episode 4- The Room with Four Walls / Where the Sandman Lives. Koichi can't study because his crazy brother Soichi is a terror and makes a lot of noise and runs around the house. The solution is to sound-proof his room, but that doesn't go according to plan. In "Where the Sandman Lives," a young man asks his friend to keep him awake in order to stop his "dream self" from coming out into the world.
Just like with the Hikizuri family, I disliked the stories with Soichi when I found them in the manga. I just think Soichi is thoroughly annoying (and I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to). He's a macabre little boy who wants to torment others. I didn't get into this episode because of that. It was another "ok" story.
In "Where the Sandman Lives," the main character Yuji suffers trying to stay awake because his dream self keeps trying to break into the real world. The way his Other self comes out (climbing out through his mouth and flipping his body inside out) is pretty grotesque. Otherwise I would also rank this as an "ok" episode--nothing bad about it at all, just not a top one for me.
Episode 5 - Intruder / Long Hair in the Attic. There's a parallel world where a mysterious double is walking through the house with loud footsteps, and burying people outside in the yard. With "Long Hair in the Attic," a woman dies and her head (with long hair) takes revenge on her ex-boyfriend.
In "Intruder," I thought the idea of uncovering--and then reburying--your own double was pretty creepy, but the theory behind parallel worlds wasn't explored very deeply and the characters readily accepted it. I guess it had to go that way because of pacing and getting to the end of the story, but honestly--I don't remember how this episode ended. "Long Hair in the Attic" was a little more successful for me. A poor woman is broken up with by a pretty callous boyfriend, and she had grown her hair out long in order to please him. Over the course of the episode her hair sort of has a life of its own, catching rats, and then, when the character loses her head and dies, the hair animates her head and crawls all over the attic and into town to kill the boyfriend. It's a nice little story of revenge.
Episode 6 - Mold / Library Vision. "Mold" is about a nice house that was sublet to an eccentric family who died in the house due to an ungodly amount of mold that has taken over, and the lead character succumbs to it. "Library Vision" is about books that materialize in the form of strange characters and an obsession with a vast personal library.
This was another episode where the stories had creepy imagery but didn't really stick with me. I think of the two, "Library Vision" was a more complete and interesting story, while "Mold" was just creepy overall.
Episode 7 - Tomb Town. A terrible accident occurs in a mysterious town where stone tombstones grow right where people die. A brother and sister try to hide the body of the girl they accidentally murdered, only for things to go terribly wrong.
This was another favorite episode of mine. I think the bodies turning to stone was pretty unnerving, and there was a lot of imagery that I found disturbing. The basic conceit is that you're not going to get away with doing terrible things, and our lead character certainly pays for what he's done.
Episode 8 - Layers of Terror / The Thing That Drifted Ashore. A car accident mars a beautiful girls' face, revealing layers beneath her skin that consist of younger versions of herself. In "The Thing That Drifted Ashore," a giant sea creature holds the bodies of people who went missing from ship that sunk.
"Layers of Terror" had a story that didn't quite make sense to me--an archeological dig leads to a curse on a family where the children were born with layered bodies--but there was a lot of creepiness to it, especially with the mother's obsession with recovering the two-year-old version of her daughter. The scenes where they are literally ripping her face off and tearing her body apart bothered me. "The Thing That Drifted Ashore" didn't have much in the way of plot, more of atmosphere and imagery. The bodies of the people who went missing ended up inside the mysterious se creature, and they were still alive, but monstrous versions of themselves. There wasn't really a resolution to this story that I could remember.
Episode 9 - Tomie - Photo. This episode is an excerpt of Ito's sizeable work Tomie involving Tomie's appearance at a high school where a girl makes money off of selling portraits of cute boys. Tomie talks the girl into taking her portrait, only for Tomie's true hideousness to be revealed.
Tomie is one of my favorite works by Ito, containing multiple stories featuring the titular character, so it's easy to take one of those stories and adapt it. This one uses the famous image of Tomie's second head coming out in photography, so it's an iconic scene. But something about this episode just seemed "ok" like many of the other ones. It wasn't bad, it was fine, it was not my favorite.
Episode 10 - Unendurable Labyrinth / The Bully. In the first story, two girls get lost in the mountains and come across a mysterious esoteric Buddhist sect. In the second story, a girl who bullied a young boy as a child grows up to perpetuate the same crimes against her son.
I really liked the aesthetics of "Unendurable Labyrinth" because it reminded me of stuff I'd seen on the Shikoku Henro...minus all the dead people, of course. It was another story where just when things were pulling me in more and more, it ended. "The Bully" actually disturbed me a little because what started out as little pranks just kept getting worse and worse, and the fact that the mother would do the same things to her own son is horrible. The images from both these stories stayed in my mind pretty well.
Episode 11 - Alley / Headless Statue. A young man moves into a room above an alleyway that's enclosed and private, and he hears young children playing there in the middle of the night. In the second story, an art teacher who makes headless sculptures winds up dead, with his head missing.
I liked "Alley," but this was another story that ended just when things were getting good--we're just about to see some vengeance happen, and we don't know how the story is resolved with the other character--and boom, it just ends. Nonetheless, I really liked the story and creepiness of the shadows on the wall and the hauntings. As for "Headless Statue," I also thought the statues coming to life were pretty creepy, but otherwise, the story was just fine.
Episode 12 - Whispering Woman / Soichi's Beloved Pet. A woman is hired to help a girl who is frozen with indecision by whispering to her the choices she needs to make. In the second story, Soichi is back and is "taking care" of a cat.
As far as final episodes go, I wish the series ended more on a bigger "bang" than this. Between the two stories, I liked "Whispering Woman" best because as I mentioned earlier, I find Soichi pretty annoying. But "Whispering Woman" was another story that was ok for me--not bad, just fine. That seems to be a recurring theme in this show.
Characters: Because there are so many stories here, there's no way I'm diving into the characters in this show. We don't really get a deep sense of the characters because of the show's episodic nature, and most of them are reacting to the events happening around them, so the audience is only getting a glimpse of who they are. That said, my favorite character is Tomie, but only because of my memories of her in the manga. That book is sizeable, and you get a better sense of who Tomie is than just the snippet of her we see in the show.
Animation: The show is mostly drawn with some instances of CGI here and there--I thought things flowed together pretty well. I also thought they recreated the style of Junji Ito's art suitably, especially with the drawings of the main characters.
Voice Acting: I didn't stick around for the credits to see who played who (and of course, there's Netflix's tendency to autoplay), but I recognized voices like Jonah Scott and Cristina Vee and Monica Rial...and I follow a lot of VAs on Twitter who have been announcing for the past few days the parts they've played in the show. I think this is a smorgasbord of talented English voice actors, but I cannot find any cast lists for this show right now! I'm pretty sure Monica Rial played Tomie, and she did a great job. The actors in "Tomb Town" did an excellent job, too, especially the male lead, whose name I cannot find for the life of me. I recognized Jonah Scott as one of the Hikizuri clan, and he sounded very gothic, lol. And even though I dislike Soichi, his VA was also great. I want to say it's Austin Tindle but I'm not 100% positive. I hope I'm right!
Low Points of the Season: I think the problem is most of the episodes were just "fine," with only a couple standouts for me. A lot of the episodes would have been better for me if they just didn't end so abruptly.
And I have to shout out to Soichi, who is my least favorite character.
High Points of the Season: My top two stories, The Hanging Balloons and Tomb Town. These were the most memorable for me and I really enjoyed them.
Final Thoughts: Did I find this series entertaining? Yes. I streamed it over a two-day period, and I was happy to see some of my favorite Junji Ito stories come to life. However, most of these episodes sort of come and go for me. Each episode has disturbing imagery of some kind to them, and the images are memorable, but the stories, not as much. I wish I had more standout tales this time around and less "ok/fine" episodes. I think part of the problem is that tales ended abruptly right at climactic points more than once, and I like the feeling of resolution with a lot of my tales. (The thing is, I can't remember if the manga ended things the same way or not.) Between the anime and manga, you definitely need to get your hands on the manga. But if you're a hardcore Junji Ito fan, it doesn't hurt to give this series a try.