“I dedicate this accursed prose to the damned.” – Junji Ito: Maniac on Netflix
I have, as of this writing, seen the vast majority of the live action properties that have been adapted from the works of Junji Ito, but precious few of the animated ones. When it comes to live action films, virtually the only gaps in my viewing record are Scarecrow from 2001 and 2011’s Tomio, directed by Ito himself, whilst Junji Ito: Maniac is the first of the various anime adaptations I’ve seen, skipping over Gyo and the previous Junji Ito Collection, the latter because I have heard… not good things.
Was I excited about Junji Ito: Maniac, which actually has an incredibly unwieldy title that adds a whole extra clause that I won’t bother reproducing here? Cautiously. At least the key art that they had trotted out for the show seemed good and, honestly, if the series had ever lived up to any of that key art, we might have had something special on our hands here.
Unfortunately, some of the same people behind the Junji Ito Collection are responsible for this one, and Junji Ito: Maniac certainly gets off to a rocky start, beginning with one of the most inappropriate opening songs I’ve heard in a while. For one thing, the show makes the decision to adapt several of Ito’s more comic stories, including two featuring the morbid Soichi, as well as the first episode, “The Strange Hikizuri Siblings.” We can debate the effectiveness of Ito’s humorous tales, but for me they number among his weakest even while, in the context of his overall oeuvre, they serve a similar function to the “hot and cold showers” of the Grand Guignol. More to the point, “Hikizuri Siblings,” as it is presented in the anime, is handily the worst episode of the bunch.
In fact, it takes until episode 3, a faithful adaptation of “Hanging Balloons,” one of Ito’s most classically Ito stories, before the series really tackles anything that feels more that slight. Even here, however, we see one of the key difficulties of adapting Ito to the screen. The style of animation used for Junji Ito: Maniac is generic to the point of feeling almost sterile – an approach that could potentially work, if the style took a sharp turn during each episode’s reveals of horrific scenes, in order to deliver some extra punch. However, that’s mostly not the case here, and even Ito’s most disturbing panels are rendered inert as a result.
It isn’t until “Intruder,” in episode 5, that the series rises above “literal but uninspiring adaptation.” The original story behind “Intruder” was part of a series of linked pieces, and here it feels like it ends prematurely, but the music and production decisions here at least make “Intruder” feel like its own thing in ways that help to distinguish it from the manga while also working on their own merits. It’s something the show will pull off all-too-seldom, with one other notable example being “Unendurable Labyrinth” in episode 10.
More than perhaps anything else, Maniac is a case study in why adaptation is about more than merely reproducing things as directly as possible. The stories follow Ito’s manga almost exactly and, as such, many of them are spooky enough on their own merits, especially if you’ve never read the original story. (“Tomb Town” was a new one for me, for instance, and kept me involved the whole time as a result.) But they all still feel like pale reproductions of something much better, even when they’re at their best.
Indeed, this has generally been the case with adaptations of Ito’s work, which struggle to find ways to bring to a new medium what makes his pieces so effective and affecting in their original format. Pretty much the only Ito adaptations I have seen that really justify their own existence are the live-action Long Dream and Uzumaki from 2000, both of which were helmed by the same director, who managed to bring their own sense of indelible weirdness to the proceedings, capturing the feel of an Ito manga, rather than merely the text of one.