Friday, 19 October 2018

WATCHING: Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (2012)

The strange and scary does not have to be the serious. You could say that some horror works best when incongruity is heightened, when the uncanny becomes out of control, and we are forced to ask ourselves not why the object of our fear wants to hurt us, but why it can entirely exist at all. Junji Ito's seminal manga Gyo was first published in 2002 and, at first glance, it looks ridiculous. Fish have legs. They are walking out of the water. On paper it looks silly; those spindly crane fly-like legs look like they're just stuck on, and they take over the streets like their storming through a rush hour. But the terror, of course, is not in those fish at all.

In the manga, young couple Tadashi and Kaori are some of the first to see the walking fish in Okinawa, and with Kaori's enhanced sense of smell, she soon becomes tortured by these fish; they have a "death stench", the smell of a rotten corpse, and it is pervasive, following her all the way to Tokyo. Like any good horror writer, Ito feeds us ideas and withholds others just enough to shock us with the perfect reveal, exacerbating the menace of these creatures even after key aspects of their origins are unveiled. The two leads are especially traumatised, with Tadashi struggling to help a more and more irrational Kaori, whose demise, despite her annoying behavior, is still tragic and upsetting.

Despite the fish, the most disturbing aspect of Gyo is what the stench, the germs, do to humans, and this is where Ito's mastery of body horror comes in. Human's become what is indecent, foul and ugly. Bodies bloat, discolour, and expel the nauseating smell out of every orifice, and before long you loose most of yourself, and the abandoned gas-powered legs of dead fish collect your body and you become nothing but fuel. Your body abandons itself to this new terror, a shameful vessel that goes against all of societies polite norms, violated in view of everyone.

The 2012 adaptation, directed by Takayuki Hirao, changes up some of the original story, and not to positive effect. A half hour special that was spread out to 70 minutes, Kaori is now introduced as the main character, and Tadashi spends most of his time away in Tokyo on the other side of a phone, and he takes the place of Kaori and her ultimate fate. A couple of extra characters are introduced too, Erika and Aki, Kaori's friends in Okinawa, and they serve no real purpose for the story other than to just be some grotesque titillation for its audience. The lack of relationship between Kaori and Tadashi in the anime version really hinders any emotional effect you are meant to have with what happens to Tadashi. Indeed, many things seem inconsequential, dragged out and, crucially, not scary or disturbing, resulting in an ending that doesn't come close to the heartbreaking one experienced in the manga.

One thing I did like about the anime though was it's very subtle references to the painter René Magritte, a Surrealist who excelled at the uncanny, and which homages to his work adorn the houses in Gyo. The obvious reference is 1934's The Collective Invention (above), which subverts the romantic beauty of mermaids, and obviously links in with the idea of fish having legs, but there is an underlying horror to Magritte which connects to some of Junji Ito's work; the incongruous, the questioning of what seems obvious ("Ceci n'est pas une pipe"), and the disturbing reality that sometimes the mysterious is forever condemned to be a mystery.

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