With each new season of anime, I’m always on the lookout for a new horror series. Unfortunately, most seasons I’m disappointed. Sure, there are plenty of anime series with ghosts, monsters, and other horror-related characters, but those series usually end up being comedy, action, slice of life, or some combination thereof. Straightforward horror anime seem to be few and far between. So I was very happy when I opened up my Crunchyroll queue the other day to find a fourth season of the short-form horror anthology series Yamishibai had begun. Not only that, but the first three episodes had all been released on the same day! Great news, right? Well, yes and no. After watching the three episodes, I’m still happy that the show is back, but the feeling of the show is different this season, and I’m not sure if I like it very much.
For those new to the series, Yamishibai is an anime series that features scary stories about the supernatural. The full English title is Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories, but in addition to ghosts, the show also features monsters in some episodes. Each episode is a brand new story, typically recounting a Japanese myth or urban legend, and lasts about four and a half minutes.
The title, Yamishibai, is actually a play on words and describes the way the stories are presented as well as the tone of the show. The presentation of the show is based on kamishibai which is a form of Japanese street theater. “Kami” means “paper,” and “shibai” means “drama,” so kamishibai translates to something like “paper drama” or “paper play.” In kamishibai, a narrator will tell stories using a series of pictures as a visual aid. Similarly, the animation style of Yamishibai uses what are practically a series of still images. Characters tend to look like paper cutouts with little in the way of animated movement. It gives the show a kind of eerie stillness that fits with the dark theme. After all, “yami” means “darkness,” so the play on words makes the title mean “darkness drama.”
That’s one thing I’ve enjoyed about the series, it’s dark tone. The first two seasons really really good and some of the stories wound up being very creepy. I wouldn’t say any of them were scary, but creepy is about as good as you can do in four and a half minutes. Season three started to get a little silly. There seemed to be more of a focus on monsters, and some of them were just goofy. I still enjoyed the season overall though. I’m not sure about this season yet.
For one thing, the tone created by the art is different. Previous seasons used washed-out colors to give the show a darker feel. The characters were also drawn in a fairly simplistic style which worked well. Judging from the three episodes of season four so far, the art is a lot brighter and the character drawings feel much more defined. I don’t think going brighter and more detailed is a good way to go. It makes the images less creepy, so even if the story is good, the effect will be lessened by the brighter picture. Also, previous seasons used a film-grain filter to add some extra texture to the images, but that’s gone in season four. It all just feels too clean to me. I prefer the dirtier, darker look.
Another thing hurting season four is the reliance on narration throughout the entirety of the episodes. There has been a narrator before, but for the most part, narration was limited to introductions. The stories were allowed to play out using just the characters. Now, the narrator actually narrates the entire episode. It feels very unnecessary, and I think it detracts from the impact of certain scenes when quietness and mystery would be much more effective. I understand that using a narrator to tell the story makes the show feel more like traditional kamishibai, but it doesn’t work terribly well for a television show. Also, it feels so different from the three previous seasons that the narration is actually kind of distracting.
Tone and presentation aside, I have enjoyed the stories in the first three episodes of season four. The goofy monsters of season three are gone, and the more creepy ghosts and scenarios seem to be back. Although, the plotting of the episodes might be a little lazy. For example, I don’t think we need to see a flashback to earlier in the episode when the episodes are only four and a half minutes long (which happens in episode one). But the overall stories have been good so far, and I’ve enjoyed every scary reveal at the end of each of the first three episodes, so any plot nitpicks are very, very minor and barely worth mentioning. The show is still written as well as it was in previous seasons.
Give it 3 Episodes
I’ll keep watching the fourth season of Yamishibai, but I think I would recommend that other viewers tread cautiously. If you’ve never seen the show before, start with season one. It’s definitely worth watching. If you have watched Yamishibai before and enjoyed it, then give this season a shot. Just be aware that it feels a lot different than what has come before. I don’t think the differences are good, but for me, they’re not enough to get me to stop watching. For others, they might be.
Title: Yamishibai (闇芝居)
Also known as: Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories, Yami Shibai, Theater of Darkness
Director: Masaya Kaneko
Writer: Hiromu Kumamoto
Premiere: January 15, 2017
Episode Length: 4:30
Availability: Streaming on Crunchyroll
Preview/Music Video (The song doesn’t go well with the show itself, but this video gives you a sense of the animation style):