4 out of 5
Between the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft and the body horror popularized by the early films of David Cronenburg, we have the works of Junji Ito: in which vaguely grounded explanations lead to all sorts of bizarre – and disgusting – mutations of Man, only to continue morphing and building to smothering levels, toppling over into a sense of endlessness…
Gyo, a multi-part serial collected by Viz in a compact and appealing hardcover, comes bundled with two bonus stories: The Sad Tale of the Principal Post and The Enigma of Amigara Fault. The former, at only four pages, is a pretty perfect encapsulation of Ito: a family discovers the father / husband impaled by a supporting pillar underneath the house. But with no explanation for how he got there, and recognizing that the pillar is the ‘principal’ one – the keystone – they cannot move him and must leave him there. We have the unknown; we have horror; and we have the forced acceptance of this being the new reality. It’s grimly funny, but also wonderfully effective.
Gyo’s 350 pages obviously have more room to expand on this template, and my god, do they. Junji proves the legitimacy of his chosen media format within a few pages of his work: the sights and experiences we witness are most effective as art. While there’s an OVA of Gyo, which I’ve yet to see, a key component of the story is an ever-present stench, represented by suffocating, wavy lines encroaching near every panel, and the main ‘beast’ in the tale is somewhat conceptually humorous but horrible to see; in both cases, such sights being animated (lord forbid a live action version…) would, I fear, lessen their impact. Even if that’s not the case, the way Ito paces his tale drags us through the stink and dross, though the story moves at a fast pace. We cannot help but linger on his detailed artwork of decay.
Kaori and Tadashi are on vacation. Kaori smells something horrible, which Tadashi chalks up to her being too ‘sensitive.’ Alas, the smell increases, and then there’s something scuttling around the vacation house. Sure, giant bug would be bad enough, but what about a fish that’s somehow been wired to a pair of mechanical legs? You can chortle – and Ito does take advantage of that initial reaction at several points – but start to build on that concept: creatures of all sorts, leaving the sea, on mechanical legs that seem not to need any external source of power or fuel… By the time you get to the shark bit, you’re already likely weirded out, but Ito’s thought of setting Jaws on land (as paraphrased from the wiki page) is fully realized, and then some. Ito’s continually proven skill with these horror stories is not just the starting point, but that he follows that point on and on and on, and there’s a chapter called The Death-Stench Circus which had me chortling uncomfortably: it’s ridiculous, and it’s terrifying.
The sole problem I had with Gyo: the characters. It doesn’t really need them, but out of the ones we have, Tadashi’s dedication to Kaori throughout – which drives most of his actions as our tour guide through the atrocities – hardly makes sense. Kaori is presented solely as a shrieking bundle of bickering and neuroses; Tadashi at one point comments on her beauty, and I guess that’s all we have to go on. I’ve read very little of Ito at this point, but unfortunately, there does seem to be a dislike or disregard for females in his work: they often exist on the same plane as Kaori, simply as objects who hate or act hatefully. There’s a disgusting incel-like mentality behind their representation as objects to want or who “use” being wanted, and Gyo could be read along the lines of having all of its horrors caused by Kaori. This is not explicit, and rather besides the point of all the creepily delightful art and atrocities on which we may instead focus, but early on, as Kaori is yelling about stinky smells and Tadashi why won’t you doooo something about it, you’ll undoubtedly question what use she has in the story besides this.
The aforementioned Amigara short story involves mysterious person-shaped holes that appear in a crevice that’s recently opened. People become obsessed with the holes when, one by one, they realize that specific holes are shaped exactly for them. Junji again takes a compelling idea and continues to follow it out, and why not poke and prod at our nightmares of being buried alive at the same time.