Directed by Tomoya Takashima
Animated by I Love Computer Art (ILCA)
Suitable for 13+
Urban legends are only effective if one’s imagination can clearly picture them. If you’re lacking in that department they might not bother you at all. However, if you’ve got an active imagination, urban legends can give you a serious fright. The anime Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories caters to the crowd that might need a little help visualizing those myths. The series, consisting of two seasons, covers a plethora of Japanese urban myths. From the slightly unsettling to the absolutely horrifying—and often just plain weird—Yamishibai has it all.
Each episode of Yamishibai starts with the same scene. A group of children playing on a playground are called by an enigmatic storyteller. He raps on a drum and says, “Step right up and have a look… It’s time for Yamishibai.” This is an imitation of the Japanese tradition of “kamishibai.” Described as “poor man’s theater,” kamishibai was a traveling oral tradition. A storyteller would cart his stage around on the back of a bicycle (exactly like the main character in Yamishibai), and would tell a story using illustrated cards. Yamishibai’s art style is an homage to the illustrations kamishibai storytellers would use. The characters in the anime are portrayed as paper figures, and move very simply through their environment. While this can be off-putting, especially for those who might already think Japanese animation is basic, it is still unique in the world of anime. Plus, the historical accuracy is novel.
Many creepy cultural stories are very short, leaving much for the listener to contemplate themselves. Yamishibai works in a similar manner since the episodes are only four and half minutes long. It’s hard to imagine that a plot could play out well in such a short amount of time, but Yamishibai does just that. Some of the stories do not have a clear conclusion, which again reminds me of many an urban legend, and allows Yamishibai to worm its way under your skin. It preys on some of our deepest fears and phobias, and everyone that watches it will react to it differently, with their own most memorable/nightmare inducing episodes.
While all of Yamishibai was haunting, it did become apparent that the first season was slightly darker than the second. Yamishibai’s first season was eerier, relying on darkly unnerving situations, whereas the second season went more of a bizarre route. For example, Season One contains an episode that follows an elementary school teacher staying late to finish some work. Making copies of some paperwork, she notices long black lines permeate the printouts. When she opens the lid on the copy machine to try to figure out the cause, she sees a ghostly face with long black hair staring back at her. She jumps back, terrified, as the machine clamps shut. While the audience waits with baited breath, the teacher lifts up the lid on the machine again, only to find nothing there. Blaming the previous sight on sleepiness, she attempts to go back to making copies. It doesn’t take long for the same long black lines to appear on the pages. As they print out at an increasingly furious pace, with more and more lines appearing, the teacher tries to stop the machine. She eventually pulls the plug, and opens it once again, this time finding long black hair draped over its surface. Slowly, the hair retracts back into the paper feed drawer. The woman uncertainly opens the drawer, clearly horrified at what she might find. She breathes a sigh of relief when she finds nothing. But of course, as she closes the lid on the copy machine one last time, we see the same ghostly face from before staring at her from behind the machine. Thus marks the sudden end of the episode.
To compare, there is an episode in Season Two of Yamishibai that features another female teacher. This teacher has transferred to a small town from Tokyo, and sits down to eat lunch with her students. The cooks bring in a large pot of food, and the children excitedly cheer, “Ominie-san!” The teacher looks rather hesitant by comparison, and we soon see why as the lid is lifted from the pot. An ominous dark purple concoction issues steam from the depths of the pot. After the mysterious meal is served up to everyone, the students dig in hungrily. The teacher watches horrified as the gruesome sound of crunching bones comes from the children. She packs up her portion of the food to dispose of later, and when she holds it over the incinerator it begins to wiggle back and forth. As she gasps and lets go, the foul culinary mystery falls into the fire. Obviously still hungry, the teacher stops at a restaurant on her way home. As she beings to start eating her food, she hears two men behind her order the same strange meal, “Ominie-san!” She exits the restaurant to the same sound of bones crunching. The episode then cuts to the next day. The young woman is calling in sick to work. She tells her mother that she simply needs to rest, and then she’ll feel better. Some time passes, and we see the teacher sitting at the table about to eat a dinner her mother has made for her. It doesn’t take long before we find out that her mother has mixed in some “Ominie-san” into her daughter’s food. The young woman’s face looks crazed, and we hear an insane, low chuckling as she digs into the dish.
Much of Yamishibai’s Season One is like the “Hair” episode, featuring rather traditional Japanese horror tropes. This is in stark contrast to Season Two, which moves away from classics in favor of “wtf?” land, just like the “Ominie-san” episode. The animation style was a tad different in the second season as well. The contrast in colors was more obvious, and the art style seemed more detailed and polished. Nevertheless, Yamishibai maintains a solidly cohesive horror theme throughout the series.
Yamishibai’s short episodes make it a perfect series for binge-watching, and the variation in stories is sure to keep anyone amused. The fact that Yamishibai is keeping the traditional art form of kamishibai alive is reason enough to watch it. It allows you to immerse yourself in a culture completely different from the one most of us grew up with. While the art style might be too basic for some, its novel look allows the stories to be more memorable. If you’re looking for a quick spook to put some pep in your step, or want a series short enough to entice your friends into the world of horror anime, Yamishibai would be perfect.
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