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Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre review: Just about weird enough

By Hoots the Owl - 21 Feb 2023

Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre review: Just about weird enough

Image Source: Netflix

Junji Ito is a household name in horror. His demented genius has woven twisted tales that do more than scare. From human-shaped fissures in a mountainside that compel people to find the one that fits them and squeeze through to the insidious terror of spirals, his stories pick at the deepest recesses of our psyche and fears.

They are disturbing in a way that few stories are, revealing an intimate understanding of what makes our skin crawl. They pull back the cover on fears that we didn't even know were there, etching inconceivable horrors on our retinas with his stunningly detailed art.

Unfortunately, Netflix's anime adaptation, Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre, loses some of that lustre. While several frames are reproduced faithfully from the manga, you will miss Ito's masterful shading, his uncanny attention to detail, and his ability to render seemingly ordinary objects — the ground included — as a writhing thing of abject horror.

His monochromatic illustrations have a depth and realism that don't quite translate to colour and animation. Some of the stories lack impact, particularly the formless ectoplasm in 'The Strange Hikizuri Siblings', the bizarre renovations in 'Four x Four Walls', and the psychopathic machinations in 'Bullied'. Some images are just meant to be seen on paper, frozen in a single frame that eternalises the horror of that one moment.

Image Source: Netflix

The opening soundtrack also sticks out like a sore thumb. Devoid of any atmospheric dread, it plays out like a jaunty hip-hop track that does nothing to lead into the horror that follows. 

Nevertheless, there is just enough weirdness in the series to allow it to serve as an introduction to Ito's work, for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Some standout episodes include 'Hanging Balloons', where giant floating heads fill the skies above Japan, each with a malevolent desire to hang the person whose face they have. Horrifically, if you try to shoot the balloon and it deflates, it will also cause your face to shrivel and wither away in a matter of seconds.

The story is both bizarre and terrifying, with a sense of fatalistic doom hanging over it. There doesn't appear to be any way out — except to give in to the balloons and join the legions of corpses dangling in the sky. It is a tale that could only come from the mind of Ito, and there is almost nothing like it in horror canon.

Other bright spots include 'Tomb Town', 'Long Hair in the Attic', and 'Layers of Fear'. Tomb Town tells the story of a quaint town with one not-so-charming quirk — all dead bodies turn into tombstones at the spot where they die, and you're not supposed to move them after death. After a hit-and-run accident, Tsuyoshi and his sister Kaoru hide the body in the trunk of their car, and pay the price for not letting the dead rest.

Image Source: Netflix 

The premise of the story makes zero sense, but Ito has a way of making you suspend disbelief and come along for the ride.

Layers of Fear is by far the best story in the series. Leaning into the fear of unknowable, ancient things, body horror, and mental breakdowns, Ito tells the tale of Reimi, who is composed only of layers of skin. When her mother realises that a younger version of herself might still be in there, her desire to turn back the clock to when Reimi was a child sees her peel back each layer of skin in gloriously grotesque fashion.

However, it still lacks the same degree of horror that the manga evokes. When Reimi's mother is done peeling away the layers, the anime only shows the spine-chilling result for an instant. On the other hand, the manga devotes a full page to Reimi's new form — the seemingly normal head of a child propped up on a spindly, wrinkled body, arms, legs, and torso all unnaturally thin and elongated.

Image Source: Netflix

The anime gives you a pass, averting your gaze for you, but the manga forces you to take in all of it. It's difficult to tear your eyes away from the panel, which is also replete with detail like ragged patches of skin around the bed, including several wide-eyed faces and Reimi's torso, complete with her breasts. Similarly, when Reimi's mother takes a cutter to her own face in an attempt to return to her younger self, the muscle and sinew below are exposed in raw detail that the anime lacks.

But while the too-colourful visuals may leave something to be desired, Ito's depraved imaginings just about carries the series. At their core, these tales are brilliant, weird, and downright creepy. They prod at fears and anxieties you never knew you had. Once the seed of an idea has been planted, it is nearly impossible to forget. But if this is the first you've seen of Ito, do yourself a favour and read the manga.

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