It's a horror anthology based on the traditional storytelling method of kamishibai (paper theatre). "Yamishibai" means "darkness theatre". None of the stories are linked to any of the others. They all end horribly and they all look pretty weird. I liked it.
One surprise with this franchise, incidentally, is the directors. This first season isn't by anyone famous, although I'm quite looking forward to his other horror anime, Kagewani. Season 2 though will be directed by the startling line-up of Noboru Iguchi, Shoichiro Masumoto and Takashi Shimizu. That's a combination I never expected to see together. I think Season 3 went back to ordinary anime directors though.
Anyway, Yamishibai's framing conceit involves a creepy git telling horror stories to children in a playground. He's using a paper theatre. The animation reflects this, which is both artistically effective and super-cheap. It looks like a storyboard. You'd barely call it animated. The story's told mostly with cuts and pans, or perhaps a flat cut-out image moving across the screen. People's mouths don't even move when they're talking. All this works, though, partly because disorientating semi-realism can be very effective in horror and partly because the cutting and panning is dynamic enough to create a sense of life. The visuals don't feel static.
Besides, we've always got the voice actors. Then, in addition, the storytelling tends to go pretty fast, since each episode only has four minutes to do something horrible to someone.
Occasionally the animation style might, perhaps, be pushing against the story. There's a bit in ep.1 where someone scary is in the protagonist's room, so of course a live-action film of this would slow down and linger on him going inside. We'd be accompanying him as he opened the door and peered around. We'd feel it. Here, though, no. The animation's too crude for that. The bloke opens the door. Bang, he's inside. Mind you, it's partly done that way for the sake of a funny punchline, en route to a follow-up punchline that's not funny in the slightest.
Oh, and the art style's hardly beautiful either. It's all old-fashioned and anti-pretty, which I like. The monsters are all-important, obviously. There are quite a few Japanese-style ghosts, which makes sense since most of these episodes could loosely be classified as Japanese ghost stories. There are also some scary freak faces like the Joker, some of which work better than others. Most effective though are the ones we don't see properly at all and instead we're going "what the hell is that?" That dancing Tormentor in ep.13. Iyayayayayaya, get away from me. I'm not convinced that the Overhead Rack (ep.6) or the Video (ep.11) are entirely effective, but Tomonari-kun in ep.12 is just... what? What was that? Seriously, what was that? That was a good episode.
You'll need some Japanese cultural notes, because the episodes go pretty fast and never bother with explanations. (Or, indeed, sometimes with endings.) Throwing your arms in the air and saying "banzai" is a celebration. (Saying "zanbai" instead doesn't mean anything at all, unless you're trapped in ep.2.) Paper seals with weird calligraphy on them can be used to trap ghosts and do other magical things, according to onmyoudou tradition. (If you see a seal somewhere in your apartment, don't remove it.) Oh, and falling down a toilet as in ep.10 is possible. It's not a magical thing. Japanese toilets are sometimes space-age and amazing, but there are other old rural ones that are basically just a hole in the floor. One would like to think that there's normally no one living down inside them, though.
I've got three seasons of this to watch and I'm not convinced it's going to sustain three reviews. It's an anthology. I've described the house style. Beyond that, it's just a question of whether you like any individual episode, which is impossibly subjective. Maybe the best way of summarising the season is to run through them?
1. "Did I forget to lock the door?" There's a creepy old woman staring out of the window of the apartment across the street. Has an ending that will have puzzled lots of non-Japanese viewers.
2. "Zanbai". Might have been more effective as part of a longer piece, giving a bit more context and reason. As it stands, it's like a surreal vignette that hasn't really been given any meaning. You still wouldn't want to be in that hospital, though.
3. "Calm through laughter." Genuinely creepy and it's not even the monster that's doing it.
4. Reminds me of Exte. I like Exte.
5. One of my favourites. "Because Daddy's work is more important to him than we are, we'll celebrate your birthday just with the two of us." Nasty and unsettling ideas, ending up in a horrible reflection of the previously established themes. It's a proper little story, with a proper ending.
6. Not the strongest episode, although there's something there in the workaholic deciding that he wants to die. The monster didn't work for me, though.
7. Predictable, but in a good way. It's classical.
8. Another one that feels like a horror spin on a fairy tale, but the most memorable thing about it for me is its monster's name: the Umbrella Goddess.
9. There's something disturbing in the way one accepts the sacrifice as the right and proper order of things, I think, until... yow.
10. This one's fine. It's the "you fell into the toilet" one.
11. A ghost video!
12. Has the best monster so far, since it's really an anti-monster. What's even more sinister is the small boys who are his friends and say they play with him. "Tomonari-kun looks happy."
13. That dancing. What the hell?
In short, pretty good but a bit disorientating. The stories are liable to start without enough set-up and end while you've still got one foot in the air. Then there's the deliberately ugly animation style. It's not lovable, but I think it's worth attention.