#1 Buffet of Ghost Stories
Japan is no stranger to ghastly tales. Many have passed from generation to generation, growing from local village tales into internationally-recognized stories. Some have even been adapted into anime! Thriller Restaurant is a show all about such stories.
The titular Thriller Restaurant serves as a narrative framework. Each episode is presented as a full-course meal consisting of three stories; an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. These stories largely revolve around three kids who live in what must be the most haunted city in Japan. Transfer student Shou has traveled around the world to collect horror stories from all over. Class president Reiko is a haughty rich girl who rejects the supernatural. And Ako is a timid but well-meaning girl who is easily dragged along by the fascinations of her friends.
Cutting each episode up into three slices is not an uncommon approach, but works really well for Thriller Restaurant. It gives each story the breathing room it needs to be interesting, without allowing any of them to drag on. The stories themselves are also varied. Some are the classic Japanese stories also tackled in other horror anime, but mixed in there are original folk tales and even Western influences. Even those stories that struck me as familiar were kept interesting thanks to the fun protagonists and new twists.
#2 No punches pulled
I’ve heard people my age complain that children’s entertainment nowadays lacks the edge of TV programs they grew up with. While it may lack the immediate morbidity of something like Tales of the Crypt, Thriller Restaurant serves as a strong counterpoint to such sentiments. Its marketable exterior hides stories that are often brutal.
Monsters who hunger for human flesh, shocking accidents that leave spirits trapped on Earth, and mysterious deaths are par for the course here. Perhaps my favorite story is one of the European-style ones. In it, a deceased princess is placed in a tomb, but each night the guard stationed at her resting place vanishes. When a devout knight is then tasked with guarding the grave, he finds the princess possessed by an actual demon. As he foils its attempts to kill him night after night, this demon becomes ever more violent and monstrous-looking. It’s intense stuff and the religious themes were an unexpected inclusion for a Japanese children’s story.
Characters can also actually die and even the protagonists are routinely risking their lives. Not even children are safe. There’s one story where a kid makes a silly mistake and dies in an absolutely terrifying way. The kinda stuff that makes you skin crawl just thinking about it. And it’s not some fairytale, temporary death that gets reversed so the kid can learn a moral or anything. That little fellow is gone.
#3 Character design and presence
Last but not least, I was amazed with the look of the characters. I don’t know whether to praise the original picture books or the anime’s character designer but Thriller Restaurant enjoys some surprisingly standout designs all the same.
An effort is made to make every character feel special in nuanced ways. Ako, for example, has very thick strands of hair that almost look like a bunch of dog ears. It’s unusual, in a way that I found very amusing. Even minor characters get this kind of treatment. Such as Ako’s mother who somehow has an even wilder hairstyle than her daughter. Or the largely-inconsequential classmate Mari, who I mistakenly believed was going to be a main character based just on her design.
This being a low-profile series aimed at kids, I had tempered my expectations for the animation quality. Yet while the animation has its share of shortcuts, it doesn’t skimp on the actual characters. When you see the whole classroom, each kid is drawn with adequate detail. No faceless, motionless crowds or greyed out background characters. An effort that I appreciated seeing, especially in a kids’ anime with a limited appeal.
More like this…
Gregory Horror Show: Horror stories using a spooky business as the narrative framework.
Hyaku Monogatari: Bundle of various short, small-town horror stories.
Restaurant to Another World: Magical restaurant filled with fantasy creatures.