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Two school girls running towards a giant face smiling and looking at them Image: Studio DEEN/Netflix

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Netflix’s Junji Ito Maniac translates Ito very faithfully and horrifically

Studio DEEN’s latest Ito anime shows the limits of adapting him from manga

A man experiences his dreams as if they last thousands of years, and ultimately desiccates and crumbles in his bed. Insectoid mechanical limbs power themselves with the rotting corpses of sea creatures (and eventually humans). People from all over feel an inexplicable compulsion to enter human-shaped crevasses that appear in a cliffside, and when they emerge from the other end… Well, that’s become the stuff of internet lore.

Junji Ito has drawn some of the most indelible horror images of the past decade. He went from a cult figure among manga fans to a sort of creepypasta icon as his work was shared over social media sites like Reddit and Imgur. His various series and collected editions have been getting officially translated and published in the U.S. at a brisk and steady pace for years now, giving him even wider exposure. And now an anime anthology series has come to Netflix, made up of segments each based on one of his short stories. Unfortunately, Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre is as awkward an adaptation as its title suggests.

I can’t recommend Maniac on any of its own merits, because it has none — anything worthwhile about the show comes directly from Ito’s ideas and imagery. Yet this also makes it an oddly fruitful case study for anyone interested in the vagaries of adaptation, and why what works so well on a page might not on the screen. This anime exactingly and faithfully replicates Ito’s stories, often to the point of precisely reproducing his panels in many shots. While watching, I could pull out the original manga and read it almost as a storyboard for an episode. So why are stories like “Hanging Balloon” or “Whispering Woman” so terrifying to read but not nearly as involving to watch?

At issue is the disparate amount of effort involved from one medium to the next. Ito is admired by fans for his appreciably fucked-up imagination, but there’s more to his illustrations than how creatively he can render monsters and awful body contortions. Even if he wasn’t a horror artist, his work would be impressive for his intricacy. (This is most apparent when he ventures outside of horror.) He layers his pictures with countless small (often gross) details that lend them weight and uncomfortable verisimilitude. Whether he’s drawing something slick with fluids, jagged and rough, or crusted in grime, you can nearly feel it under your fingertips, and then you’ll shudder even more.

A black-and-white panel from Junji Ito’s Uzumaki. A writhing pile of horrified faces appears to be screaming, with intricate line work around their pupil-less eyes adding to the horror. Image: Junji Ito/Viz Media
A man with a creepy face and weird teeth in a still from Maniac Image: Studio DEEN/Netflix

In contrast, Studio DEEN adopts a generic, often sterile aesthetic. It makes what’s technically the same imagery much less vivid. There’s a moment in “The Strange Hikizuri Siblings” when one of the titular siblings vomits up ectoplasm during a seance. Ito draws the stuff to look so viscerally revolting that I gagged slightly the first time I read the story; in the anime it’s oddly smooth and clean. Ito’s art is immediately recognizable not just for his signature character design but even his way of drawing stains or shadows. Most stills from this show look like they could come from any number of other anime.

As another example, take “The Story of the Mysterious Tunnel,” one of my favorite Itos. The plot concerns a disused train tunnel that lures in hapless people who are then absorbed into its walls and floor. The climactic set piece, in which several characters attempt to escape the tunnel, sees most of them fail, screaming as they merge into the tunnel. In the manga, every brick is richly textured, and the stippling drawing of the floor makes it look almost animate, as if the characters are being digested. One man’s face is a mask of torment — his eyes gape, with dark circles under them emphasizing his terror, while his mouth is slack-jawed. Ito pencils in deep wrinkles and beads of sweat. This guy is fucked and he knows it, and all he can do is plead for someone to explain what is happening. In the anime, the man… looks mildly perturbed and confused as he sort of slides into the floor via a haphazardly composited visual effect. The impact is simply not the same.

A big reason for the loss of detail across formats is the transition from black and white in the manga to color in the anime. One could make a case for Ito as the best contemporary comic book artist working in black and white; he’s a master of shading and especially contrast. Like Edward Gorey crossed with H.R. Giger (to say nothing of his acknowledged forebears in horror manga, like Kazuo Umezu), he sometimes verges on chiaroscuro. But that’s a tricky element to incorporate in a moving image that you still want to be legible, and consequently the anime is literally brighter than Ito’s art — which in turn dampens the atmospheric dread. Even Ito’s less impressive stories can contain notable images and effectively creep out the reader. So much of Maniac goes through the motions without the right vibe.

A man smiling and laughing and pointing; his eyes are completely white Image: Studio DEEN/Netflix

DEEN is the same studio behind Junji Ito Collection, the previous anime anthology adapting some of Ito’s shorts, and all the issues I delve into here were already present there. Much of the same staff, including director Shinobu Tagashira and writer Kaoru Sawada, have returned from that earlier series. It’s disheartening to continue to see treatments of Ito’s work that feel more like cash-grabs based on his “brand” recognition than true attempts to convey his spirit. “Hanging Balloon,” one of his most popular stories, is tanked by the fact that the titular beings are jankily rendered CGI effects, awkwardly juxtaposed with the civilians they’re hunting rather than inspiring terror.

All these problems are not specific to this show, but rather symptoms of endemic issues that come with rushed, cheap productions in the anime industry. It’s just particularly noticeable when this kind of low-effort approach meets the output of such a beloved creator. This is especially noticeable with horror, which depends so heavily on careful attention to rhythm and framing to elicit the right response from an audience. But Maniac is stiffly animated, generically soundtracked, and indifferently acted. Ito can spend hours working on a single page by himself. Without an attendant level of care, no adaptation can measure up.

A promising contrast can be seen with the upcoming (and, frustratingly, continually delayed) anime version of Uzumaki, Ito’s classic series about a town falling apart under a series of spiral-themed curses. Which is all the more impressive, given that we so far have less than a minute of footage of that show. But look at it! Look at how detailed it is, how much attention is paid just to the animation of a girl walking down a path, how striking the compositions are, how creepy it is even though there’s little actual action. It seems to speak to much more investment from the creative staff. Hopefully it will be worth the wait.

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

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