Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre – Episode 1

By: Vrai Kaiser January 30, 20230 Comments
A manacing little girl yelling at a pile of sludge on an altar

Content Warning: fatphobia, body horror, violence to children, vomiting

What’s it about? An anthology adapting the short stories of famed horror artist Ito Junji. We begin with the strange tale of the Hikizuri siblings, and the ghost photographer who visits their unsettling home.

I imagine people who remember 2018’s Junji Ito Collection might come into this review with a grain of salt. Thanks to my desperate thirst for decent horror anime, I was way nicer to that series than it probably deserved. While I maintain a few of its short stories were pretty good, that series underlined the difficulty in adapting Ito’s work. With his love of heavy pen lines and hyper-detailed splash pages, Ito’s best stories are snapshots that dare the reader to fill in the blanks that led up to the big, shocking sight. The old “what you can’t see is scarier than what you can.”

That level of detail is basically impossible to render in animation, and the atmosphere always seems dulled when translated from monochrome to (heavily brown) color. And of course, there’s the fact that even the best anthologies are mixed bags by their nature. Maniac seems to have chosen a particularly odd collection, many with snapshots of recurring characters across Ito’s works; at best, I suspect this series will inspire interested newbies to seek out Ito’s manga—which is at least three times as accessible in English as it was when the previous anime aired.

yellow extoplasm emerging from a young boy's mouth

“The Strange Hikizuri Siblings” does have one thing going for it, as introductions go: the supernatural goings-on have very little to do with what makes the story unsettling. Instead, this is some capital-G Gothic business about familial inheritance and Hell being other people, and the slightly over-the-top voice acting works to sell the grinding, under-the-skin discomfort. The ghostly effects aren’t an active sour note, but they’re definitely not what the episode does best, which bodes ill depending on the stories chosen for the rest of the collection (in addition to the fact that while this is a full 22 minutes, many of the stories are half-length shorts).

There’s also the broader downside that Ito’s work often mines discomfort, especially with his recurring characters, by tapping into the tradition of the grotesque—meaning that fatness, when it appears, is inevitably a mark of the sinister or Other. I’m also not thrilled that this collection seems to have chosen—despite featuring her prominently in the opening—to include only one Tomie story. While the character overall can definitely be read as an indictment of how men demonize women for their own failings, in small doses it’s very easy for her character to come across as a simplistic evil woman tempting men to ruin.

two of the siblings arguing at the dinner table. "You think I'm an ugly, mannish woman who's more troll than human!"

As a dyed-in-the-wool horror enthusiast and fan of Ito’s work, there’s enough that clicks here to keep me coming back for the rest of the shorts. For the more casually curious, though, I’m not certain this will be the thing that sells you—if it doesn’t do the opposite. If you weren’t already inclined to check this one out, it’s probably worth sitting back and waiting to see how the much anticipated Uzumaki anime finally comes out.

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