Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tale Of The Macabre Review: A Mid-Tier Adaptation That Leaves Us Wanting More

Horror mangaka Junji Ito is a master of the genre, there's no other way to put it. His utterly horrifying art style has ensnared as many fans as some of the best horror films, and his massive oeuvre of long-form work and short story collections have been devoured by those who love the macabre and sinister. His special narratives have been adapted many times over the years, and so far, none of them have really been quite right. "Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre," the new Netflix series that arrives on January 19, is unfortunately not going to be the series that fans can hang their hat on either. It's in no way a bad time, but definitely lacks several key elements that make Ito's work his — and without those things, it's hard to truly feel like I'm watching one of his stories.

"Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre" is an anthology series that immerses the viewer in the stories of Ito. Across ten episodes, we're presented with stories from the artist's collected works, each more bizarre and twisted than the last. The horror artist's special and unique tales are animated and reimagined in color, with familiar characters that have long-standing arcs within his lore and others who we only meet once. There's one thing, though, that everyone has in common: something ominous and foreboding is going to happen to them.

Not his style

Right off the bat, the first thing that will strike any Ito fan watching this series is that the artwork simply isn't harrowing enough. Aside from the fact that it would've suited the artist's style to do the show completely in black and white rather than color, the artwork on the show is much softer and thinner in its style than Ito's actual drawings. There's a sharpness and boldness to the lines he draws, and he also has a distinct way of shading his subjects in a way that makes them even more intimidating and frightening than they already are in his natural style. This series lacks that feel almost entirely. That doesn't mean there aren't cool visuals, but they don't entirely feel like they belong to the mangaka, and, well, that's why we're here, isn't it?

Curating the selection well

No Ito stories are truly bad, but some are much more exciting and frightening than others. In a series like this, it makes the most sense to pack on the impact as much as possible — and there are a ton of disturbing Ito stories to choose from. But the series functions much the same, cherry-picking an uneven batch of tales that sometimes shock and awe, and other times bore and barely interest. It's clear the creators of this series (which, for the record, Ito doesn't seem to have taken part in beyond agreeing for his stories to be made into a series) either didn't do the deepest of dives into Ito's catalog, or they felt some of the more gruesome stories were just that: too much. 

I would've loved to have seen "The Enigma of the Amigara Fault" — my personal favorite of Ito's — or even something really unsettling like "Glyceride." We get a few appearances from key characters in the Ito oeuvre, like Tomie and Souichi, and to be fair, those stories are some of the more successful ones throughout the season, but "Maniac" doesn't always pick the best stories to represent Ito's world, which is a definite misstep when it comes to keeping people hooked over 10 episodes.

What it feels like to read Ito

I was also struck by the episode opener, considering that an anime's opening credits sequence is an important part of the overall feel of the series. The upbeat music is a bit out of place, but the fact that it's a screamo-style song kind of makes up for it. The visuals are very colorful, which feels strangely at odds with Ito's core style, but so does a lot of the color in this series. That said, it's psychedelic, strange, and a bit gory, so it's striking enough to do the job. It just doesn't exactly fit in with the darkness of Ito's style, an overarching issue within this series. Another element of note is the series' voice actors, who are consistently believable and compliment their drawn characters well in their speech. It's a great group of voices that are fun to listen to and complement the genre of stories well.

Overall, however, this series doesn't accurately reflect what it feels like to read an Ito story. The goal in all of these adaptations, of which "Maniac" is just the latest and certainly won't be the last, is to get as close to that experience as possible. This one just doesn't quite make it there. It's not entirely dislikable, and it may be a more fun watch for those less precious about Ito's work or even folks who aren't invested period. But for fans of the mangaka's work, it's going to feel like there are holes and improvements that could've been made.

Ito's work stands out no matter what

The episodes that keep us on the edge of our seats or draw us in with their imagery are a direct result of Ito's visceral imagery (even though the show doesn't even come close to touching his brilliance there) and his engrossing stories. To its credit, the series is never actively bad, it just doesn't live up to the kind of heartstopping uniqueness that has made Ito's work a horror touchstone. The artist is truly a genius of the genre, and we've been waiting for a long time for a solid adaptation of his work. While the Netflix series isn't the one to hang your hat on, it's enjoyable enough to give it a shot despite the shortcomings — and you know what, it might actually tide us all over until that gorgeous "Uzumaki" adaptation finally comes to fruition.

"Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tale of the Macabre" arrives on Netflix on Thursday, January 19, 2023.