Horror is a genre that seems to come in waves, with dramatic drops and rises in quality. There will be a large amount of rather mediocre and uninspired bits of horror that get released, mostly capitalizing on recent trends in more popular and much better horror films to the point of stagnation. Then there will come an upswing, with releases that have a greater focus on standing out among the crowd and doing something a little more interesting and inventive.
Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories expertly finds itself in the latter category, even after having just completed its third season in Japan. The show follows an interesting and rarely used format: the collection of tales. Each episode of this show is presented as a standalone story, each no longer than five or six minutes in length. While it isn’t the first show to use this style of bite-sized horror tales—among others, there was a live-action show released in English as Tales of Terror from Tokyo that was similar—it is one that knows how to use it with the ease of a master.
Each episode gives the introduction of a mysterious and, frankly, very creepy storyteller arriving at a playground and calling the children toward him to give them a new tale of horror. What struck me first about Yamishibai is the animation style, which is very minimal, but nevertheless unique. It moves less like a standard cartoon and more like a lavishly detailed paper puppet-theater piece. The title itself is a play on words of an actual form of Japanese theater known as kamishibai, meaning “paper theater.” In the case of this show, we’re presented with “dark theater.”
Once I realized how the format of the show worked, I had to wonder just how well it would succeed at being scary. Five minutes is not a lot of time to establish a setting, tone, and atmosphere, which are things that any good horror story has. My previous experience with this with Tales of Terror from Tokyo was hit or miss; some stories simply weren’t scary, and some were even outright comical. Yamishibai, however, doesn’t face this problem. Each episode managed to feel scary—or at the very least unnerving and unsettling.
Another way Yamishibai succeeds is by simply breathing life into the genre of Japanese horror that, at least for me, had grown stagnant. With the success of Ju-On (remade as The Grudge here in the West) and The Ring, the market was flooded with films trying to capture that same success of those films by simply ripping them off. While the ghosts of those films are traditional depictions of ghosts in Japanese stories, it was hard to not start craving a little variety. Yamishibai seemed to feel the same way. The tales aren’t always about ghosts, instead choosing to center on curses or hideous monsters lurking in the shadows of our modern society and sometimes even neither of those, and just something else entirely that’s hard to describe. When an episode does tell a ghost story, the ghosts feel unique, like something that hasn’t been seen before, while still carrying that very traditional style one expects from Japanese ghost tales. Even when a story didn’t scare me on a person level, I still enjoyed it, feeling like I saw a very unique tale of the supernatural.
A key word in the title is “dark” and that is something the show takes to heart. In the end, that’s really what these stories are. They are wonderfully dark and entertaining and give us the unsettling notion that there is still a reason to fear the darkness in our modern society and that forces beyond our control can still get the better of us.