Director: Takayuki Hirao
Screenplay: Akihiro Yoshida, Takayuki Hirao
Based on a manga by Junji Ito
Voice Cast: Mirai Kataoka (as Kaori); Ami Taniguchi (as Erika); Hideki Abe (as Shirakawa); Hiroshi Okazaki (as Professor Koyanagi); Masami Saeki (as Aki); Takuma Negishi (as Tadashi)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
This is the second anime based on the work of a legendary horror manga author I've covered. The first was (entry #8) The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990) which is based on the work of the titular man who is as known for his obsession with red and white stripes as he is chilling readers' blood. In Umezu's case I've unfortunately yet to read his work as of this review's date of publishing, but the author of Gyo, Junji Ito, is someone I've been pleasantly (or is that unpleasantly?) introduced to thanks to the recent reprinting of his work from Viz Media within the last year or so. Ito is a unique voice, both with his trademark drawing style and his storytelling; the fact that, early into publishing his work again, Viz have even released his autobiographical story about raising cats means that, if his work does well, we will hopefully get the likes of his uber popular Tomie stories in the future1.
A bold characteristic of his horror stories is that, while he does use various tones to his story ideas, he does tap a great deal into cosmic horror, the same type of horror of mankind being in the dark with the scope of the universe that was cemented by the tales of HP Lovecraft. Uzumaki (1998-9), his most well known story including its 2000 live action adaptation for film by Higunchinsky, is entirely Lovecraftian; even though its premise is uniquely strange to Ito, about spirals terrorising a small town to the point they transform both flesh and reality for all those trapped within the local area, the story especially with what wasn't filmed in the live action movie evoked entirely the psycho-mythological horrors of a Lovecraft work like At The Mountains of Madness (1931). The monsters and beings that terrorise the living in Ito's work, from what I've been able to access with the new Viz Media releases, usually exist outside the rational minds of human beings even if they are ghosts, the kind of irrational terrors that Lovecraft specialised in. Gyo evokes both Lovecraft's Dagon (1919) and the nautical horrors of William Hope Hodgson and while its premise is ridiculous on the surface - dead fish with mechanical legs, thus proving there's something worse than Jaws when a shark can walk on land - the result is creepy, legitimately disgusting in its obsession with decay and putrid rotting. With both the manga and the animated film there's an appropriately apocalyptic tone where the fish march out of Okinawa and eventually take over Tokyo, Japan and likely the world.
The adaptation is not as good as the manga, but it succeeds (pun not intended) on its own legs despite some flaws by managing to perfectly capture the story's central idea. The film succeeds in creating an end of the world scenario that admits how absurd it is but is still gross inducing horror, the fish monsters the result of a gas (and bacteria within it) that if it infects a host - aquatic, animal, human - turns them into a bloated gas bag, the machinery on them a gas powered entity which combines to create horrific bio-mechanical creations to overwhelm modern Japanese motorways and streets. A pinch of salt has to be taken that a premise like this which involves bodily gases as a main plot point could evoke giggles or merely gross people out without the inducing of horror, but horror is as much a genre to deal with that which is considered inappropriate to discuss in ordinary conversation - disease and illness even if it contains aspects that may be unintentionally funny, like farting, are still potentially distressing. Revulsion is still a powerful emotion to induce especially as the body is still seen as taboo in certain bodily functions to this day, so the disgust the story induces is appropriately required as the horror of death. The rotting of a living person from man to schoolgirl, when its revealed later in the plot, leads to the bacteria turning their skin almost frog green as gas comes out of every orifice, still distressing when witnessed animated, more so when the human body meets machinery, tubes going into places they dare not go and the mix of black humour, disgust and sight of things one feel shouldn't be depicted out of politeness makes this a potent cocktail2. In a slight spoiler that you can skip to the end of the paragraph about if need be, the mechanical legs as well are revealed to have been a creation of the Japanese military in World War II to harness the gas as a biological weapon, the premise upturning the habit of Japanese horror and sci-fi reflecting their monsters through the American involvement in the war with a creation the fault of the Japanese themselves on the future generation. As well, this is a tale of nature eventually overruling mankind, something as absurd as fish land inspired the more you think about it; one, if you see the dead eyes of fish heads on food stores, there is something unsettling about the appearance of fish in terms of their appearance especially as something we kill in thousands and eat; two, the absrudity of the idea, while in danger of not being scary to some, is more original than another vampire or zombie as, while the resulting fish are technically undead zombies themselves, they reflect the idea of anything being dangerous, especially as like zombies they are dangerous on mass; and finally three, back to Hodgson and sailor's tales of yore, the ocean is a place which holds danger for human beings, not only covering most of the Earth but a place with legends of giant octopus, (one such creature appearing in the anime), white whales which destroy ships, and real life creatures that are poisonous or accidentally confused humans for seals and rip pieces out of them.
The film changes plot points. A major one is switching the protagonist's gender to being the girlfriend who is concerned for her boyfriend in Tokyo during the attacks rather than the male hero, the characters from the original story Kaori and Tadashi switching places with Kaori the one we follow rather than the other way around. This is a change which may actually be the one virtue the anime has over the original manga as, while it's still a great book, the idea that Kaori, who is originally a damsel who is drastically different in personality and is part of a plot point that becomes a plight for Tadashi, is changed into a passive heroine here is a nice little change which alters a great damn deal of the tone as a result.
Other changes are mostly in the characters created for the film and their characterisation. The main heroine is surrounded by two female friends who get a slice of the screen time. One is the stereotype of the nerdy, shy girl but she at least gets to be involved with one of the manga's more memorable images. The other is unfortunately the stereotype of the glamorous young woman who sleeps around, one whose only possible reason for existing as she does in the anime is so that the depiction of a sex act with three people (discretely shown) that would usually only be seen in live action porn can be written in; she as a depiction is the one real blot in the adaptation which stings as, while he uses stereotypes, Ito even when he has sexually explicit moments or female characters as monsters was always more tasteful even in the tasteless, preferring either the truly alien, likable characters, sympathetic monsters or those with his trademark madness projected from their wild bulging eyes.
Thankfully the choice of a female protagonist is treated with the respect it deserves as a radical change, where even thought she shows signs of the events happening around her hurting her, including breaking down and crying like a child when stopped by military personal from reaching a place, she's able to eventually accept the fate of what is likely the end of humanity around her. It also means that, when in the manga originally it's the boyfriend who had to deal with a longer plot line involving her being drastically changed physically that he has to cope with, the shorter take here with her having to deal with it really changes the way the story goes. It may come off as crass to say this, but considering the stereotypes of girlfriends that can be found in horror in any language of being a mere damsel, simply changing the gender of the person we follow, not even taking account the effect depicting them as gay or bisexual, can alter the span of a story if, following a heterosexual woman, the one in peril she has to find is her boyfriend. Followed here by a male photographer wanting to learn the truth of the outbreak, a new side is shown that nicely mirrors what Ito does in the manga where its Kaori having to feel the grief of what happens rather than the boyfriend having to feel grief for what happens to Kaori.
In terms of adapting the manga in general Gyo does have to truncate the plot and bring the story up-to-date from 1999 to the 2010s, the internet and YouTube (implicitly described) playing a great sub textual part in how it both informs the public but proves to be useless against the natural threat. The film manages to create an appropriately destroyed, abandoned cityscape where the streets are only populated by monstrosities, filling this with a fully fleshed-out narrative which manages to cover a great deal in only seventy minutes or so, quite a feat which the anime has to be applauded for despite its flaws in some of the priorities in storytelling. It even manages to include the circus segment of the original manga - a strange tangent where, in the middle of the end of the world, people have taken infected members of the public and turned them into an attraction in a circus of decay - without feeling like its missed the important plot points it has to deal with to make sense. The result of this economic storytelling as well is that, fitting the work its adapting, it develops its own idiosyncratic quirks that would make Ito proud, all the while avoiding what happened with the live action Uzumaki film, which was longer in length, in having to abruptly end with no real climax that used still shots of events it sadly didn't depict.
Technically the only issue to be found with Gyo is that, using 3D animation for the aquatic monstrosities at times, the glaring difference between 3D models and 2D animation can be spotted, a common issue still with many anime, only with sharks with mechanical legs sticking out like a sore thumb. Altogether it's an impressive production in terms of trying to adapt a source that could've immediately become too absurd in motion, not only succeeding in adding the menace that is in Ito's work alongside clear absurdity but also making itself stand out as having its own personality alongside the original source. Sadly its likely to be neglected with the otherwise superior original comic, but as adaptations go particularly in the barren area of horror anime, its commendable as an example which feels suitably unique rather than lacking in comparison to manga.
1 As of this review being published, we might be getting Tomie by Christmas in a deluxe set, pleasing me greatly. As for any of the live action adaptations made in Japan, if I could see any they might appear on the site even if they have no connection to anime.
2 This is a common trait of Japanese horror manga I've cherry picked that I've grown to admire even if at times I worry I'm becoming desensitised to material that would cause others to puke. Currently, the day this footnote was created, I am going through the first omnibus volume of Franken Fran (2006-12) by Katsuhisa Kigitsu, a work that deliberately steps over the line in terms of good taste from the beginning with grossly depicted body horror in the panels. As much as I fret that this type of material is too gross at points, too transgressive to the point of merely being offensive and crass, like with Ito I also realise the discomfort their imagery cause if probably more morally appropriate for horror storytelling and also more important in getting gut reactions out of people and forcing them, through the usually great illustration of Japanese manga, to look at their own sack of bones and flesh they call their own body with greater thought.