Rant and Rave: Nothing goes bump in the night in ‘Junji Ito Maniac—Japanese Tales of the Macabre’

It is impossible to discuss Kyoufu manga, or Japanese horror comics, without mentioning the name Junji Ito. Known for his grotesque art style and supernatural themes, Ito is celebrated as one of the most skilled horror artists from Japan. 

Ito made a name for himself through his printed comics and book anthologies where his horrifying tales were originally brought to life. The iconography of his stories reached such dizzying heights that they inspired multiple adaptations as early as the late 90s, ranging from film, television, and video games. Prior to this year, the most recent adaptation was done by Japanese animation studio Studio Deen in 2018, which took on the task of adapting 24 chapters into a licensed series; this would be known as the Junji Ito Collection.

On January 19, the animation studio once again released an anthology based on Ito’s stories, titled Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre. The 12-episode series covers 20 of Ito’s stories across 20-minute episodes, hoping to deeply unsettle and linger befuddling and disturbing plotlines in the minds of the audience. Despite all the boundless horror that could be drawn from its source material, its animated counterpart could only convey a fraction of its fearsome essence even in its most frightening scenes. 

Man’s worst enemy

As this show is an anthology series, viewers do not necessarily have to watch the episodes in chronological order. Even so, it must be noted that the narratives get more and more disconcerting as the series progresses, with Ito’s love for taking run-of-the-mill themes of insanity and the darkness of humanity being captured by the sequence of the show’s story selection. As this is the case, some episodes may have possibly triggering and highly uncomfortable themes and viewer discretion is advised.

Junji Ito Maniac kicks off by presenting different family dynamics just like in Ito’s chilling manga. First comes The Strange Hikizuri Siblings with differing ages and appearances. While they may appear to be an atypical family at first glance, it quickly becomes apparent that the death of the parents of the Hikizuri siblings has sown contempt among them. Then comes the despair of grief and eventual hysteria in Mysterious Tunnel and Ice Cream Bus where a young boy named Goro and a recently-divorced single father Sonohara lose their loved ones to bewildering circumstances. 

The stories explore the most deadly sins: pride and greed, which Ito solidifies by showcasing the horrific consequences of letting these vices consume his characters. In The Sandman’s Lair, there exists a clone of Yuuji who lives in his subconscious: his alter ego who desires to take his place in the real world. Former child actor and star Reimi is pestered by her mother’s obsession with her younger self in Layers of Terror. Similarly, in Headless Statue, Rumi encounters a sculptor and his protégé who share a fixation on faceless sculptures, apparently preserving beauty by purposely creating them headless.

An Ito collection wouldn’t be complete without the presence of Souichi, a maniacal, borderline sociopathic teenager who enjoys chaos and wickedness. His character is just one of the many who exemplify human cruelty and twisted behavior in this adaptation—one of which is a disturbed woman by the name of Kuriko in the episode titled The Bully. With the vast assortment of tales included in Junji Ito Maniac, there is bound to be something that will send a chill up everyone’s spine. 

Better in black and white

Ito’s storytelling is famed for being disturbing and unnerving, his illustrations being drawn in a manner that masterfully evokes a sense of dread. It was never going to be easy adapting Ito’s stories—composed of images designed and suited for manga panels—into an animation. Although kudos can be handed to Junji Ito Maniac for bringing more of Ito’s stories to life, the show is a prime example of just how hard it is to capture the quality of these stories through a different medium.

Junji Ito Maniac’s art style is largely faithful to Ito’s; compare the show to the original volumes published in the early 2000s, and you will find plenty of similarities. The production does add something to the stories; the characters are more expressive to a certain extent thanks to how the animation allows their facial expressions to show terror and alarm and how their personalities feel more palpable due to the enthralling voice acting. 

Despite this, the magic of Ito’s original work is missing from the show. The dramatic and gloomy shading the author is known for, which makes a difference in creating the ominous atmosphere of his stories, disappeared. Compared to turning entire pages filled with eerie bodily horror, watching it happen—especially when the detail in the animation doesn’t match up to its original panel—does not lend the same level of anticipation. While Junji Ito Maniac is a dutiful adaptation in terms of plot, the illustrious narration of the art found in the source material is lost throughout the production. Watching the series feels like a recount more than a creative iteration of Ito’s works, and it barely adds any substance to the stories as they exist in print form. 

A similar issue was encountered by Junji Ito Maniac’s predecessor anthology in 2018 where the animation paled in comparison to the heavy detail of Ito’s linework. Studio Deen received heavy criticism then for its stilted and awkward adaptation of the rich base content of Ito’s comics, and though the art has undergone minor adjustments and improvements, the current adaptation continues to lack the cohesion one would expect from a horror story by the esteemed author. 

There are inconsistencies in art style throughout Junji Ito Maniac, some elements having different animation and rendering techniques than the rest, and the interaction of characters with their surroundings is uncomplicated at best. The supernatural aspects found in Junji Ito Maniac fall short when it comes to the “wow” factor, unable to fully cement their eerie, ghoulish, and supposedly unsettling nature.

Still only human

In the process of adapting a manga, some details are understandably difficult to translate well into the format of films and series due to the challenges in animation and film production techniques. But there is a limit to omitting key characteristics of an author’s work, and there was a stark lack of Ito’s quintessential body horror elements—though this might be due to its needless presence in some of the selected plotlines more than the animation’s inadequacy. That being said, Junji Ito Maniac is unable to live up to the reputation of the famed Japanese master of horror.

There was more than enough room for the studio to explore the immense detail and ingenuity Ito is known for, but this round of interpretation presents the barebones of some of the author’s best works. If its purpose was to familiarize and boost Ito’s name to anime watchers and Netflix’s audience, it somewhat succeeds in that regard. It may serve as a good introduction into Ito’s world of distorted and gruesome illustrations, but for those who are familiar with his work, or at least with his reputation, it is quite a disappointing watch. If people want to get the true feel of Ito’s prowess as a horror manga artist, they would be better off reading the original collections. 

The stories found in Junji Ito Maniac are bone-chilling and perplexing, true to the open-ended nature they were written in. But as it stands, there is yet to be an animated adaptation that does Ito’s work the full hair-raising justice it deserves. 

Rating: 1.5/4.0
Clarisse Bernal

By Clarisse Bernal

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