Horror

‘birth/rebirth’ Sundance Review – Two Outstanding Lead Performances Elevate “Frankenstein” Update

Children gradually turn into ice cream, then consume one another. Head-shaped, giant balloons fill the sky and snare humans with nooses. People lost at sea are found “alive” inside a beached marine creature. The morbid imagination of Junji Ito has no limits, though the latest anime based on his ghastly oeuvre has its limitations as both a reflection of the author’s talent and as a series. Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre adapts various tales from the popular manga artist, and the results are awkward. The new Netflix show animates these stories, yes, but it hardly brings them to life.

The team behind the previous anime adaptation, Junji Ito Collection, has returned. That sounds like a red flag, and in most ways, Studio DEEN’s flat and uninspired production values are back to haunt you in these new episodes. However, it wouldn’t be fair to say the quality is more of the exact same in Maniac. Shinobu Tagashira’s character designs aren’t quite as haphazard as before, and for the most part, the animators make an effort to stay on-model and be more mindful about consistency. The scenery and general colorwork show signs of mild improvement as well.

Despite a few slight advances in the art, when compared to its unattractive predecessor, Junji Ito Maniac still comes across as stiff and inelegant. When characters stand in place, hardly moving any part of their bodies other than their mouths, they look passable. Yet it’s once they move and interact with each other and their environments that the previous DEEN shortcomings resurface. Something as simple as a sliding door closing behind someone looks so clumsy. Those types of animation blunders, as minor as they are, carry over to the actual uncanny moments. Take the Tomie episode, for instance: the titular character’s lumbering walk, following her decapitation, looks more weird than unsettling.

Junji Ito

Image: Studio DEEN/Netflix

With this being an anthology, you can skip around and watch out of order. Even those occasional episodes with recurring characters, such as the infamous Soichi Tsuji, don’t require any significant background. Every segment operates on its own. Now, while Ito is, without question, an innovative and audacious storyteller overall, not every work of his is as good as the next. That’s to be expected with someone whose career spans over three decades. The stories here are as random as can be, and there are indeed segments that could have been switched out entirely.

Should these adaptations only highlight Ito’s greatest hits? No, of course not. But anthologies have historically done a great service to even the most average of source material; time and time again, screenwriters have enhanced the starting product, and in some cases, made classics out of them. Meanwhile, series director Tagashira and writer Kaoru Sawada approach Ito too literally. And if it’s a choice between the manga and the anime, the answer is obvious. Maniac could have taken this as an opportunity to extend those stories that end anticlimactically or on an abrupt note. The difference would have made this series more unique and worthwhile.

Sad to say, this anime is as rushed and routine as the last one. It’s been five years since Junji Ito Collection premiered and, evidently, little has changed. It’s hard to be invested in something so half-hearted and slapdash. This watered-down adaptation suggests Ito’s work should remain on the page, and it loses its integrity and intensity when put on screen. However, there’s always hope; Adult Swim’s long-delayed Uzumaki series shows promise. Meanwhile, the enduring curse on animated Junji Ito adaptations so far remains in place, and Maniac won’t be the one to break it.

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

junji ito

Image: Studio DEEN/Netflix

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