First published in Japan in 2002 and translated into English in 2003, Junji Ito’s Gyo has been re-released this April in a deluxe hardback 2-in-1 edition by Viz Media. Designed to complement Ito’s classic Uzumaki, the handsome matte cover opens to endpapers in which the two protagonists, Tadashi and Kaori, shriek and shrink away from something resembling a gooey fish on mechanical spider legs. Don’t look at the endpapers at the back of the book if you don’t want to spoil the horrible transformation that takes place during the course of the story.
Gyo is a bit shorter than Uzumaki, but it has the same sense of terrible inevitability. The book opens with the pacing of a great slasher flick—stretches of tension punctuated by startling jabs of action. Ito begins with a fake-out: as Tadashi and Kaori vacation on a remote part of the Japanese coast, snorkeling and relaxing, Tadashi is chased by sharks while exploring a sunken battleship. He barely escapes with his life, missing the real danger lurking in the depths. He and Kaori take a stroll around a fish market where the stench puts her off, setting up personal tension between the couple. Back in their room, she asks Tadashi to brush his teeth before they make out, prompting a defensive fight about her “neuroses” before Kaori walks out. She is pursued by Tadashi, who finds her spooked by a reeking spot on the side of the road and a mysterious rustling. Something runs past them.
For the next 15 pages, Ito builds up a sense of dread in the banal through the constant use of onomatopoeia. The couple moves around their apartment, showering and reading, desperate to ignore the fish stench that has now invaded their space. Each hears a small “fssssshhhhh” hovering at the edge of their hearing and the “tok tok tok” of insectile limbs on the floor. Finally Tadashi corners the source of the noise in between the dresser and wall. He crushes it, only to find a fish: blank-eyed, gape-mouthed, and mounted on sharp mechanical legs. When he throws the fish outdoors, the resulting lull of safety is short-lived; soon the bag containing the creature comes floating back in, both menacing and ridiculous.
The inherent silliness of the creatures adds a quivery edge of laughter to the horror. Gyo plunges headlong into the absurdity of its premise, as Tadashi and Kaori return to Tokyo with the bagged and rotting fish to consult Tadashi’s scientist uncle. Ito’s drawing style is realistic, which makes the world of Gyo that much more believable, even as more and more mechanized dead sea creatures emerge from the ocean to attack Japan. Sharks, squid, and tuna overrun the streets, pulsing with tubes and expelling noxious gas, their dead eyes creating an uncanny contrast with their inexorably violent approach.
At this point, the axis of destruction tips: nothing and no one is safe. Many times I thought things couldn’t get any more messed up, but they did. Yet this is exactly what I want from body horror and Junji Ito: to take me to a place I couldn’t imagine going, somewhere on the border between hilarious, terrible, and awe-inducing. The last half of Gyo is a hellscape worthy of H.R. Giger, through which Tadashi wanders as the reader’s stand-in, gasping in disbelief and holding onto the one thing that still makes sense to him: finding Kaori, no matter where she is or what state she is in. Even though Gyo was originally published over 10 years ago, it’s worth keeping the remaining details a secret for those readers who have never been delighted by its grotesqueries. Suffice it to say that this body horror invades all orifices, earning its OT rating. Luckily Tadashi retains his humanity in the face of a world gone mad, and that allows him to survive as witness to the cataclysm.
As a bonus, the deluxe edition of Gyo includes two of Ito’s short stories, “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.” The first is only four pages long and doesn’t have much space to build plot or suspense, but the latter is a story of the uncanny so unsettling that I feel it’s already a classic, worth the price of the entire volume.
Gyo 2-in-1 Deluxe Edition
by Junji Ito
Viz Media, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)