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The Weekend Binge: "Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre"

Junji Ito – whose name is synonymous with Japanese manga horror – has personally chosen 20 of his stories to be animated by Studio Deen and director Shinobu Tagashira. All 12 bite-sized episodes are rife with Ito’s bizarre sense of horror and startling originality, with images drawn faithfully in his trademark style.

Though the series may divide the longtime fans of his comics who may feel they don't measure up to the original material, they still could stand as a fascinating introduction to his dark and twisted imagination.

TW: Violence, self-harm

The Plot

Twenty stories over 12 episodes (some episodes feature two short stories) offer a grab bag of Junji Ito’s incredible range as a storyteller and horror machine.

If you’ve never seen anything from Ito, take your pick from the stories below:

The Standalone Episodes (4 stories)

Episode 1: The Strange Hikizuri Siblings – The Séance

The Hikizuri siblings try to communicate with their dead parents through a séance, but something else comes through and possesses their brother. Or did it, really?

Episode 3: The Hanging Balloons

One of Ito’s most famous stories, this episode is also one of his most absurd. People in a village are hunted down and killed by balloons that look like them. Balloons decapitating people? Welcome to the mind of Junji Ito.

junji ito netflix
Maybe close the windows?

Episode 7: Tomb Town

Outsiders visiting a small town and unwittingly stumbling upon its dark secrets is a well-worn formula in horror. In Tomb Town, Ito not only plays this trope to the hilt but adds murder and guilt to the already grim mix.

Episode 9: Tomie's Photo

Tomie is one of Junji Ito’s most famous characters (see the number of Tomie tattoos proudly worn by fans). In Photo, we see that the alluring Tomie is not at all who she seems. Don’t call her a monster, though.

tomie junji ito tales of macabre netflix
Tomie isn't all who she seems

The Double Features

Episode 2: The Story of the Mysterious Tunnel / Ice Cream Truck

A young boy explores a tunnel with mysterious marks and realizes that both his sister and dad have disappeared into its cavernous darkness. Can science explain the tunnel’s strange powers?

In Ice Cream Truck, a charismatic ice cream seller makes the rounds in the local village. Strangely enough, the children can’t seem to get enough of the ice cream. One father is about to discover the horrific secret of this innocent treat.

netflix junji ito
Here comes the creepy ice cream truck

Episode 4: The Room with Four Walls / Where the Sandman Lives

Soichi, a boy with nails in his mouth, is a dark but funny character popular in Ito’s stories. He also appears twice in this series. In this first appearance, Soichi tries to mess with his elder brother who just desperately wants to study in peace.

In Where the Sandman Lives, a man is haunted by his dreams of another self. He claims that this dream self is trying to get out and live in the real world. He believes that if he doesn’t sleep, that nightmarish self won’t come to pass. But one can only hold out for too long.

Episode 5: Intruder/ Long Hair in the Attic

Junji Ito gives his spin on alternate realities in Intruder. A boy welcomes his new friends to his mansion. But unbeknownst to everyone, the mansion contains alternate universes, and the unwitting teens are set to witness murders that may recur to the end of time.

Long Hair in the Attic has some of the more disturbing imagery in this show. It’s a cautionary tale that warns you should never mess around with a woman who’s been nothing but faithful to you.

junji ito netflix
Long hair...don't care.

Episode 6: Mold / Library Vision

The haunted house trope is pushed to disgusting ends as Mold shows what happens when an infection goes awry.

Library Vision smacks of classic Gothic horror, complete with European imagery and two beautifully-imagined ghosts. A man with a vast library goes crazy when he learns two of his most prized books have disappeared, so he vows to memorize every single book in his possession. Madness, of course, follows.

Episode 8: Layers of Fear / The Thing that Drifted Ashore

To what grisly ends will a mother go to save her favorite child? Layers of Fear (literally) peels back the dreadful secret of one family’s cursed trait.

Probably the strangest and most ambiguous in the series, The Thing that Drifted Ashore tells of a whale-like creature that washes up on a beach and the disturbing contents of its stomach.

junji ito horror
Some things are best left unseen

Episode 10: Unendurable Labyrinth / Bullied

In Unendurable Labyrinth, two girls get lost in a forest and happen upon a clandestine group of monks and their hidden temple. Tempted by the thought of achieving inner peace, they join in. Everything seems to be perfectly pristine until they realize that what they joined isn’t a religious movement, but something more sinister.

Among all the stories in this series, Bullied is the story that could probably work out as a k-drama plot. A female friend relentlessly bullies a younger boy left in her care. Now an adult, she realizes she has grown to have feelings for him. Will it be a happy-ever-after for these two? Well, it’s a Junji Ito story, not a k-drama. Of course, the answer is no.

Episode 11: The Back Alley / Headless Statue

By now, you will have seen that hauntings and revenge are staples in Junji Ito’s storytelling. In The Back Alley, a renter is perennially disturbed by ghosts in the alley outside his room. When he investigates, he soon finds out the dire truth behind the ghastly noises at night.

In the Headless Statue, an old sculptor seems to have been murdered by his student. His avid fan has been invited to the scene of the crime and quickly wishes she never went.

Episode 12: Whispering Woman / Soichi’s Beloved Pet

Rounding up the twelve episodes is another Gothic-flavored story. In Whispering Woman, a devoted nanny to an anxious teen amasses so much power over her charge that she is able to drive her to commit a horrific crime.

The series closes with the return of our nail-mouthed boy Soichi and the darkly funny ways he tries to charm the new house cat.

junji ito netflix
It's just a harmless kitty, isn't it?

Our Review

While devoted fans of the comic may feel that the series doesn’t really do justice to the manga for a variety of reasons, it still can be quite a trip for the Netflix viewer who has never read any of Ito’s works, much less watch horror anime at all. Most of the disturbing imagery, even if it can’t capture the sheer horror that Ito fills his comic panes with, still possesses the power to carve itself into minds and nightmares.

It also helps that Ito’s stories are not mere scare-fests; there is surprisingly ample time devoted to stories of family, friendships, and lost love. The 20 chosen stories make up such an interesting grab bag of emotions that by the time you reach the last episode, you will have felt most things between sheer horror and incredible compassion.

junji ito whispering woman
Ito's women are sometimes motherly, sometimes mad.

Maniac is also interesting in the way it treats its female characters. Though it can be exhausting to be a female fan of a genre that frequently sexualizes its women and girls, the 12 episodes of Maniac portray his women as everything BUT empty, overtly sexualized, hot "chicks."

Across episodes, Ito’s women range from being monsters and mothers, from the demure to the demonic. They are frequently the focus of his stories and are usually strong avengers who can turn ferociously gruesome when they need to be. He gives fresh meaning to horror’s “final girl” trope, without patronizing them or making their journeys way too easy. In fact, only a few of them earn happy endings because…well, that’s how it is in the nihilistic yet oddly hopeful world of Maniac.

junji ito netflix
Let's put the FUN in dysFUNctional.

The series is also careful to preserve much of Ito’s sense of the absurd and his bleak sense of humor. While we will never run out of the usual monsters, ghosts, and ghouls – they are, of course, critical elements to a horrifically good time -- we are also treated to his idiosyncratic view of these while remaining cloaked in clever metaphor. For Ito, it is never just a crazy girl or a haunted house or a quiet little town. It’s never just a reckless and empty gorefest, either. There will always be an extra layer of meaning and an absurdist kick that is sure to thrill and delight even the most jaded of horror fans. With various levels of creepiness carefully arranged from the first to the last episode, Maniac earns big points with this horror fan for using the genre in a larger and more complex way.

junji ito netflix
Sometimes, the monster is you.

Even as it plays with the most familiar of plots and tropes, Maniac maintains its raw edge and delights in offering unpredictable approaches to well-traveled horror stories. Admittedly, some of the episodes do fall short or feel rushed, such as the abrupt The Thing that Washed Ashore. Yet for all its shortcomings and some sterile animation, the series may still be enough to entertain horror newbies and get them up to speed on Ito's work.

Stacked with searing observations about the worst (and the best) of humanity and the monsters we battle, Maniac has something for everyone that will both get under your skin and jolt you out of it. We recommend checking it alone. In the dark. With all the lights turned off.

Enjoy the madness.

Stream if you're new to Junji Ito and want to take a peek into this manga maestro's mind. Or if you enjoy horror manga in general. Or if you've never really been into horror but would like some training wheels to start.

Skip if you're a hardcore fan of the comics and feel that this doesn't do justice to the original work.

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