Written by Robert Frazer on 08 May 2015
Distributor Viz Media • Author/Artist Junji Ito • Price £14.99
What... the... Hell?
I did intend to write a review of Terracota's release of GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack! back in 2012, but wasn't able to muster the willpower - let's just say that it would have been an uncharacteristically prosaic entry from me. My fellow staff member Mark Burke had the greater strength to overcome the block and articulate his own thoughts on the inimitable experience that is GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack!, and it will suffice here to say that those beguiled by the boisterous exclamatory title and led into the film expecting a kooky and campy ironically-bad B-Movie creature-feature... well, you can't fault the movie for its originality. It certainly astonishes you with quite a few, er, plot twists.
Still, as bizarre as the experience was, it isn't so surprising if you're aware of the original source material. The story was developed by Junji Ito, a leading light in horror manga who is already notorious (can a horror writer ever be merely "famous"?) for his Eisner-nominated Uzumaki, which was rereleased late last year in a deluxe hardback omnibus format and which gives a dramatic insight into his freakishly twisted world. Following GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack! we now have the original manga from which the movie was adapted, Ito's 2004 two-volume mini-series GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps, first published in English in 2008, reprinted in a second edition last year, and now republished again in a collected omnibus. Quite a nice one too - a thick hardback with embossed outer covers and colour inner covers too. Manga don't often fly off the shelves like the latest Katie Price autobiography, so for a manga to enjoy three pressings must indicate a work of quite poweful impact - but is it just overwhelming awe at the macabre majesty of black grandeur which plunges you deep and long into an absorbing void, or has its popularity only been a perfunctory, superficial, quickly-discarded rubbernecking of a crash site?
The title "GYO" is the literal romanji of the symbol for "fish" in Japanese. However, "gyo" itself is never used on its own in writing or speech, and always has other descriptors attached to it for all the various kinds of fish swimming in the sea. To have "gyo" on its own indicates that these fish are half-creatures - and lurking in the vacant space beside them is something unknowable and terrible.
Tadashi and Kaori are a young couple in the flush of love. Tadashi has taken his girlfriend Kaori to Okinawa for a romantic getaway, borrowing his scientist uncle Dr. Koyagani's holiday home there to better enjoy the golden glitter of the sun, sea and sand... but instead of absorbing the perfumed scent of roses, the two are assailed by the putrescent stench of fish. The smell dogs them wherever they go around the island, and it puts a dampener on the occasion. The horrid stench is even present inside their villa, which is where they find the source - a dead fish caught in the Venus flytrap-like jaws and squirming wormy tubes of some spindly, spiny, skittering dagger-pointed spider-crab which shoots around the floors at stabbing speed, terrifying Kaori. Tadashi eventually kills the vile little thing by crushing it against the wall with the settee, and dumps it in the trash.
The smell won't go away though - for this was just the start. A whole tide of sealife is crashing over the rocks and beaches of Okinawa, all driving these lurching, scuttling spider-crabs and their lethal punching legs - whether it be tiny pilot fish nipping at your ankles or hulking sharks and squids crushing trucks and crashing through buildings! The flood of weird, stinking, slimy composite creatures smashes through the coastal villages like a tsunami, and as the residents pick up the pieces and Tadashi and Kaori find their holiday unceremoniously cut short, they return to Tokyo only to find that the flood of creatures has reached the mainland as well. As the foul fish terrorise Tokyo Bay, a new evil is discovered - anyone injured by the creatures in their rampages has been contaminated by an incurable germ which causes bodies to swell and bloat as their bodies emit the same repugnant smells as the fish - and both Kaori and Tadashi were pricked by one of the sharp legs of that first creature in the villa...
Those of you who have already seen GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack! will find GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps a familiar, but not an identical, experience. The story follows the same general arc but there is however a significant change in perspective. Whereas Kaori was the heroine of the movie, Tadashi is the hero of the manga - in the movie he was separated from Kaori before it began as she went to Okinawa not with her partner but for a girls' week out with some friends, but here they're together for the first act of the story. The characters of the photographer and Kaori's two friends who accompanied her on her Okinawan hen do were all inventions for the movie and don't appear in the manga. Many of the set-pieces you saw in the movie are also in the manga, but the different cast means their arrangements is shifted around a lot. The movie added some events and omitted others - the airport crash was invented for GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack!, but whereas Dr. Koyangi's flying machine was barely glimpsed in the film it has a big role in a final climatic confrontation in GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps, the movie version probably dropping it because of the maddening jealousy of the two monsters which attack the heroes not making sense with their female protagonist.
Changes to the characters between versions are a mixed bag. In the movie Kaori had no real personality, she was just a figure which disasters could happen to; now she acquires some character, although not really for the better as she becomes pestering and whiny, and her jealousy mutates savagely as the disease overtakes to warp her into a monstrosity putrid with hate as much as infection. This isn't a bad thing - it is a horror manga, it would hardly generate much fear if everyone was a plaster saint - but you have to wonder why Tadashi even got involved with Kaori in the first place if she's endlessly complaining about everything. Extended scenes with Dr. Koyangi do give him wilder mad-scientist demented power, but against his obsessions with studying the alien frames that are ensnaring the infected, it seems strange that no-one at all seems interested in Tadashi's apparent immunity to the disease. It's nonsense - Japan is virtually drowning under the fog of the death-stench oozing out of the fish that have walked up onto land, and half the population is decaying before people's very eyes and emitting more of the foul contaminated air, yet when he wakes up after a month-long coma as right as rain despite being drowned and stabbed multiple times, the attending nurse just gives a bored shrug and asks him to clear the bed so they can get someone who's actually sick in there. With an attitude like that it's no wonder you're losing! This also affects the ending - the movie's ending was downbeat but at least definitive, with Kaori's immunity in that version being a faint and meagre final consolation as the entire world suffocated under the death-stench; here though the manga just peters out, as if Junji Ito just ran out of ideas of what gruesome abominations he could sling on the screen. He wraps it up with some other people literally just appearing at Tadashi's elbow, announcing "we're university researchers! Let's find a cure!" and they all walk off together. It destroys its own atmosphere, blowing away the horror with a double-barrelled blast both of a sense of hope, and the laughably nonchalant non-sequitir of the encounter itself. While the ending of the manga is disappointing though in comparison to GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack!, the opening is much better - rather than just some discretionary cutaway in a trawler's catch, we have a dreadful and atmospheric exploration of a wreck by some scuba divers who encounter something terrible incubating within the looming sunken hulk.
This establishes the importance of art to a manga like GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps. The story is a long round of utterly grotesque body horror, mutating and warping possession and violation of the self. This manga certainly earns its "Explicit Content" warning on the cover - as snaking tubes ram themselves up anuses to suck up the noxious gases spuming out of them and power the jolting, impaling limbs of the walking death-machines, it will certainly put you off tentacle hentai for a good long while. If you want to be as stomach-churning as something like Tetsuo: The Iron Man though, you are utterly dependent on the quality of your art to successfully depict such appalling gruesomeness - Junji Ito justifies his position as a harbinger of horror by rising to the occasion with luridly detailed images of the rotting, the infected, and distended maws stretched in contorted yells of terror. It works a lot better than the ill-fitting CGI used in the movie. As much as the death-stench machines are the threat, though, what does stand out are several big splash pages where leering deaths-head ghosts reach through the gas to assail Tadachi, as if the sky itself is smeared with reeking vomit - it's a truly warped vision from a marvellously mad mind.
Sound effects have been redrawn in English as well. This will always get praise from me - I always enjoy it when publishers make the effort to do these translations. Manga are a visual medium and it defeats the purpose of reading them if you have to interrupt your reading and flick to the back of the book and read an index to find out which entry is yours amidst the gushes and the whoomps, or squint to find a miniscule footnote in the panel gutters - Viz have done a lot better to redraw everything here to keep you immersed in the story.
The spare pages in the second volume are rounded off with a couple of one-shots unconnected to GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps. The first story, The Sad Tale of the Principal Post, could be presented as either a moving depiction of the sacrifices parents make for the comfort of their families, a heroic acclamation the nobility of labour in breadwinning fatherhood, or negatively a bleak and tragic indictment of the self-consuming hollowness of suburban life... although you do need a bit of imagination to make the leap. The second story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, seems so absurd that it's rather hard to take seriously - the infamous "This is my hole! It was made for me!" panel has been doing the rounds as a perfect image of desperate lame otaku dweebs for quite a while now - but it is a work of some inventiveness and however much you want to snicker about how overblown its first pages are, it rallies and finishes its own story and the whole series on a gruesome, terrifying image that reinforces the horror of Junji Ito.
I usually hesitate to recommend something to "fans of the genre" because it seems something like a cop-out, relying too much on self-indulgent tropes than actually engaging creative content, but horror's idiocyncracies make it quite a different beast and readers should know what they are getting into with foetid physical ghastliness. The story may be a disjointed series of bolted-together incidents (particularly when Tadashi literally just stumbles across a circus waiting for the hero to just wander on in, as you do) and there's no real sense of psychological dread, just gross-out visual aberrance; but the art is suitably sickening and as it is a horror manga, in terms of being horrifying it definitely succeeded... if nothing else it might make you beat the ass of the next graceless twerp who breaks wind in public.
Robert's life is one regularly on the move, but be it up hill or down dale giant robots and cute girls are a constant comfort - limited only by how many manga you can stuff into a bursting rucksack.
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