Words an’ Pictures: Creeping Death Stench from the Depths of Humanity

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Greetings bores and ghouls! For this week’s installment, I’ve decided to continue in the same vein as my previous post and take a look at another one of Junji Ito’s fantastic yowl yarns, Gyo.

In Gyo, Junji Ito creates a landscape of terror that is much more rooted in recent history than the surreal nightmare portrayed in Uzumaki, making it a more traditional narrative, but also meaning it hits closer to home. I say traditional in a comparative sense, because although the main structure of Gyo’s plot is more conventional than that of Uzumaki, it is still very original.

Essentially, Gyo follows a young couple, Tadashi and Kaori, in a story that is similar to apocalyptic zombie tales, except that rather than simply using the living dead, Ito portrays rotting fish equipped with mechanical legs overrunning Japan. As bizarre as that may seem, it only gets stranger, as it is explained that what is actually going on beneath the surface is a viral plague in which the germs take control of host bodies, generate an odor close to that of rotting flesh, and then use the bodies as batteries to fuel their mechanical leg structures and further spread the plague (it goes even deeper, but I’ll leave that for you to find out).

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At just under 360 pages, Gyo is shorter than Uzumaki, but it still features a more coherent plot. Rather than being divided into episodic segments, Gyo feels like it is moving through a connected story from page one. The novel begins with Tadashi and Kaori on vacation in a beach house, and it becomes evident very quickly that their relationship is strained, with Tadashi getting fed up with Kaori’s “neuroses.”

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The first few chapters focus mainly on this relationship, with Kaori complaining about a horrible stench that seems to be pervading the entire community, and Tadashi being initially dismissive. After a few harrowing experiences, however, it becomes apparent that there really is something “fishy” going on. The couple talks to Tadashi’s scientist uncle, Dr. Koyanagi, bringing him one of the bizarre-legged fish that exudes a stench of rotting flesh.

Koyanagi explains that the fish and stench remind him of a project  his own father told him about. Koyanagi’s father, he explains, was involved in biological weapons research during World War II, establishing a main theme of Gyo, and one of the main differences between it and Uzumaki.

In Gyo, as in Uzumaki, human beings undergo terrible and bizarre ordeals. The difference found in Gyo, however, is that it is implied that the humans are much more at fault. While the plague in Gyo certainly has otherworldly elements, it is implied early on that much of it came about from humanity and the desire for increasingly terrible weapons. Gyo could definitely be seen as an outcry against the mechanized horrors of the modern world, and Ito even makes mention of recent history when he mentions that Koyanagi’s father played a part in biological warfare research for the Imperial Japanese Army. Throughout the story, various human characters embrace and even facilitate the virus’ spread, evoking memories of real war crimes from the not-so-distant past and reminding the reader of the extent of darkness that can be present in the human soul.

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Junji Ito’s Gyo is many things, but ultimately most of its themes converge on the common idea of guilt. As the story goes on, Tadashi feels more and more guilt — for treating his girlfriend poorly, for being a survivor, and, although not explicitly stated, possibly just for being a part of humanity.

The human element of Gyo is, to me, the most upsetting piece of an extremely terrifying narrative, and in reading it I could not help but think about our own history and all of the horrific crimes that humanity has committed against itself (including, but certainly not limited to, Shirō Ishii and the rest of Japan’s war criminals, which may have been what Ito had in mind).

It is this element that pushes Gyo past being simply a nice piece of grotesque comic art, and it’s what has brought me back to it several times. On re-examining the plot (particularly the concept, which is outlandish to say the least), I realized that there are several places where Gyo could become completely ridiculous, but it never gets there by virtue of the depth of a horror that is all too familiar to human beings today, and of course thanks to Ito’s masterful technique.

I would certainly recommend Gyo to anyone who is a fan of Uzumaki, but it is a testament to Ito’s ability that it can also stand alone as a comic that is similar in style to Uzumaki but has its own unique feel and themes. Overall, I’d say that Gyo would be a great read for any fan of horror comics, but particularly someone who is looking for something different, deeper, and more rotten.

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— Quinn Stratton, Comic Blogger

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