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DIRECTED BY: Uncredited
FEATURING: Bill Milsap (English dub)
PLOT: Twenty short, dreamlike horror stories from manga artist Junjo Ito, spread out over twelve episodes.
COMMENTS: A woman’s sneering face appears in a monsoon of psychedelic mandalas, singing along to the raucous theme song as various scars and deformities flicker across her visage. A nail-chewing boy in a yellow raincoat climbs out of an abandoned refrigerator and into the vertical-hold challenged stories playing on a TV set across the alley.
Those are the opening and closing sequences of “Junjo Ito Maniac,” and they set a maniacal tone that the content they bookend rarely matches. Not that the actual stories lack for deranged imagination; any anthology containing the tale of an angelic blond salesman in a bow tie who peddles mounds of deadly, addictive ice cream to children isn’t short on creepy inventiveness. But there are two basic problems with the series. One is the animation itself, which, despite the rambunctious promise of the opening and closing numbers, often isn’t really animated. It’s usually a succession of stills where only the characters’ mouths move. Ito’s images are often eerily beautiful, but the series comes off as too cheaply produced to do them justice. The other issue is that the majority of the stories, some of which run for just over five minutes, are often inconclusive, feeling like simple statements of surreal premises rather than fleshed-out horrors. Their brevity does, perhaps, makes them more dreamlike; their economy means they tend to serve best as bedtime snacks to fuel snippets of nightmares.
The biggest exception is the one must-see episode in this collection, “Layers of Terror.” At a mere fifteen minutes, this twisted psychological parable about a mother who longs to return her child to a state of infantile dependency delivers its meaty anti-moral through a grotesquely literal (and bizarrely impossible) metaphor. Other highlights include “The Hanging Balloon,” about an unlikely apocalyptic plague of floating heads with nooses attached, and “Tomb Town,” a story that starts promisingly with a trip to a neighborhood completely overrun by tombstones. The series assays an effective variety of horror moods, from the prominent surreal horror to stories evoking the spirits of
As a bonus, the conclusion of each episode includes a few short spoken sentences of a continuing story about a man driven mad by bugs that seem to be… well, you can find out for yourself. Aside from that perk, the episodes can be watched in any order, or selectively skipped.
Junjo Ito is perhaps best known to readers here as the original author of the killer-spiral horror story adapted into the live action feature Uzumaki (2000). He’s a prolific manga storyteller in Japan, alternating between short story collections like these, longer works like “Uzumaki,” and collections featuring recurring characters (including the bewitching Tomei, who appears in one story here, and impish nail-chewing teen Soichi, who appears twice in “Maniac” and also anchors the closing segment.) “Junjo Ito: Japanese Tales of the Macabre” was created by Studi Deen, who had released a previous collection of Ito shorts in Japan, in collaboration with Netflix, who owns exclusive streaming rights.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: