On a recommendation from Martin Skidmore, last night I read all of Junji Ito’s horror manga Gyo: The Death Stench, which is out in English now. It was very impressive and entertaining. I’ll try to keep spoilers in this review to a minimum, but some are inevitable:
I’m not usually a big fan of horror in any medium, because I don’t much like being frightened: but Gyo isn’t so much frightening as creepy and thrilling and unsettling in its consistently perverse imagination. The first half of the story mixes thrill-powered chase action, weird body horror and onrushing global disaster and is shot through with a sense of the ridiculous. The ‘enemy’, initially at least, is a walking fish, and the scenes of the fish dashing about are at least half-funny: Ito knows this, and the way he gradually shifts the balance from amusement to disquiet is very skilful – certain sound effects that begin as almost comical end up as grotesque, tragic almost. He’s an excellent draughtsman, particularly good at evoking rot and decay, which the story consistently calls for.
The second half of Gyo, set a month after the first, is a stunning parade of grotesquerie made horrifying by the way there’s clearly an internal logic and backstory behind its development: you can see the comic as a zombie story, but though I don’t know much about the 00s zombie boom I get the feeling its stories aren’t usually as well-worked as this, or as creepily graceful. Much of the second half is harking back to an older type of tale – Gothic horror, but also the travelogues through a ruined Earth of War Of The Worlds: we all remember the heat rays and battles with the Martians, but tend not to focus on the red weed sequences. Some sequences in Gyo are sublime, in the old sense of the word – filled with terrible imaginative beauty.
There’s also a gloomy allegorical weight to Gyo: it harkens back to the atom-phobia of Japanese monster classics, but its ultimate vision – machines roaming endlessly, choking the atmosphere with vile gas while mercilessly seeking fuel – taps into more contemporary fears, though with enough subtlety that I feel slightly gauche pointing it out. Definitely recommended.