Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories (2013)

To continue the focus on J-Horror for the time being, we’re now going to have a look at a show that has, well…possibly everything to do with this sub-genre. You can find it on Crunchyroll, and as of 2020 is still going, and now has a live action version of itself available. You could watch a whole season in less than an hour, and yet every episode has real intrigue and suspense. This is Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories.

So what is it about? Well, in the intro of every episode, at 5pm in-show, the sound of a small drum would be beaten, and all of the children in a playground would stop what they’re doing, and turn their attention towards a man wearing a yellow mask who appears to have an elaborate box or cabinet with doors on display. The man is not a pied piper or weirdo spying them (thankfully), but rather he is a special kind of Sweet Vendor known as a Kamishibai Narrator, with Kamishibai being translated as “Paper Play”, “Paper Drama” or “Paper Theatre”. But here it’s a Yami Shibai, which instead means “Dark Play”. We are then given a short story with a start, middle and end, followed by a catchy little theme tune that changes from season to season.

Now to discuss the intricacies of this contraption:

The Art Style and Animation is far from new, but how it is platformed is, to a degree. It provides us with possibly the most minimalist anime you will ever see (Nearly as minimalist as some anime in the 1960s and 70s), as there is emphasis on animating with either the camera or by moving still images on screen to create the impression of animation. It could also be argued that this is like a motion comic, in which we witness individual stills in a slow paced and kinetic presentation. If you to compare this to, let’s say Makoto Shinkai’s ‘Your Name’ or Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, it’s like comparing fire and water, if I’m honest. Very different to each other. Either you hate the style, or it’s fantastic. The Art Style includes realistic anime character designs with drained colours and dark backgrounds, even during some daytime scenes. Much of what we see is a little dreary…setting the mood rather perfectly.

The Voice Acting, as far as I’m concerned, is very spot on and solid. There’s no english voiceover for this – and I have no problem with that because it may take away from the authentic nature of the story presentations. There’s subtitles, and when it comes to frightening vocals…you don’t need a dub to be scared of what you’re hearing.

The Stories, Themes and Characters are all stand alone from episode to episode, the only character who appears in all of them is the Narrator introducing the story. The characters themselves are very much normal people you would find anywhere, but particularly in Japan; Curious Children discussing Urban Legends, People moving into strange new places that might be haunted, High Schoolers witnessing their fears manifested in a nightmarish fashion… There are no bad characters, just vague and underdeveloped ones that anybody could slot themselves into the role of, which is why I’m giving them a three, no more, no less. The Stories and themes borrows from many aspects of Japanese Horror, Urban Legends, morality tales and Folklore, including the Lifts that go to dark and disclosed floors, Ghost Neighbours, Children hearing or seeing Demons that would see them locked in a room and told not to leave until morning…while a bowl of salt burns when the demon is near to protect them. At times the visuals can delve into HP Lovecraft’s cosmic horror territory, including the episode of the Salaryman who is so tired that he’s seeing a moving, talking pile of meat trying to get him to look at it…kinda grim. But in general, I love how this is done, even if the animation style is not to everyone’s liking.

The Music is very creepy, creating the kind of squirm that would be associated with watching Ju-On and The Ring…only it’s quick and easily taken in, with the end themes bringing you back to reality.

Would I Recommend Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories? Yes I would! I thoroughly enjoy these bitesize horror stories that make me think I’m watching a Japanese version of The Twilight Zone, while also witnessing a preservation of an old art form for a newer audience. It continues the theme of Old and New going in the same direction, and in this case, the New is giving the Old a new lease of life by being an anime on TV, phones or internet in general. Considering Kamishibai was once a primary form of escapism before the “Electric Kamishibai” (now known as the Television) took its place, it was the equivalent of a Comic Book with voiceovers, background noises and suspense to create an audio-visual experience. In its own right – it was more advanced than Radio…And now the art form is given both a revival of interest and a more international audience. So if you like Horror, do check it out. It’s well done.

Art Style: ****1/2

Animation: ** (When compared to other animations, but ***** for the fact that this is a very deliberate style of storytelling)

Voice Acting: ****1/2

Characters: ***

Story: ****

Music: ****3/4

Themes: ****1/2

Overall: **** or ****1/4, depending on how you feel about the animation

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