Japanese Release Date: 15th February 2012
UK DVD Release Date: 03rd of September 2012 (Terror-cotta)
Running Time: 71 mins.
Director: Takayuki Hirao
Writer: Takayuki Hirao (script), Junji Ito (Original Manga)
Starring: Mirai Kataoka (Kaori), Hideki Abe (Shirakawa), Ami Taniguchi (Erika), Masami Saeki (Aki), Takuma Negishi (Tadashi)
Junji Ito occupies a very special place in my life. He makes my nightmares. I can think of few other manga-ka or filmmakers that have had the effect of leaving me genuinely unnerved. Gyo (Japanese for fish) is the first of his stories to get an anime adaptation. Does it work?
Kaori is visiting Okinawa with her friends Aki and Erika for a grad trip. They are staying at a beach house owned by Kaori’s fiancé Tadashi’s uncle and are enjoying Okinawa’s beautiful beaches when she finds herself caught in the middle of a land invasion by bizarre fish which scuttle on land with sharp metal legs and spread a “Death Stench”. These fish turn aggressive and soon spread across the island and spread further afield to Tokyo where Tadashi resides. Kaori decides to return to Tokyo and find Tadashi. She hooks up with a freelance cameraman named Shirakawa but things are about to get a whole lot weirder than she could have imagined.
Anybody familiar with Ito’s weird fiction manga will know that his skill lies in taking something simple in an everyday situation like a physical feature or a desire and crafting something truly dreadful that twists relatable characters. Sometimes his stories become so unhinged that logic can fly out of the window but even then they are still affecting thanks to the mood, the ideas, and imagery which are so visceral. Movie adaptations struggle in conveying these stories and change things to make them more accessible as seen in the live-action Uzumaki and here.
The anime has been adapted by Takayuki Hirao who is the anime’s writer and director. He learned his craft under the guidance of Satashi Kon and even directed the first episode of the magnificent Paranoia Agent. Hirao has simplified Gyo’s story and turned it from pure psychological horror into a simple apocalypse movie that uses the brilliant animation to foreground the action and weirdness and the disgusting and brutal body horror. As a result Gyo has created a new nightmare for me… that of the sea and what lurks in it!
Have you ever stared out at an ocean and wondered what lies beneath the surface? Think about it. Oceans are large areas that have been barely explored and thousands of years of evolution have crafted so much life which is mostly undiscovered. This does not take into account the impact that humanity has had. The last few times I have looked out to sea I only thought about what was on the surface. What Gyo does is give vent to the sense of fear that surrounds the unknown and making the everyday crash against the monstrous.
Ito’s skill at having everyday scenes broken up by the weird is both believable and grisly to witness. It starts quickly with little scene-setting, the early scenes where the threat makes its way to shore are menacing. It starts off low-key by hiding the approaching horror, showing reaction shots or having a fish-cam rushing around but soon the troubles bubbling beneath the waves are revealed as it heads to shore and it is unnerving.
A fish with legs? It seems absurd at first but sighting the way they move their relentless nature gradually becomes horrific. You might never consider fish to be a threat outside of water but these critters are a real, though mindless threat. Initially a pest that people try to ignore and exterminate the true nature of the threat is gradually revealed and it becomes a chilling fight between humanity and what we take for granted, fish. Kind of like the Birds in du Maurier’s/Hitchcock’s book/film of the same name, the twisting of something harmless is pretty mind-bending. Ito’s depiction of the things is creepy. Much worse is to come for humanity in the anime as people face the threat of mutation. Bodies become grotesque and humanity slips away but even when characters become hideous monsters there are moments that remind us they were once people. Seeing their changes and suffering is very queasy and sad.
The mutations highlight another part of Ito’s successful formula, his brilliant artistry, particularly the character designs. They look realistic with long (but not too long) limbs, realistically proportioned and individual faces that brilliantly convey terror, and natural bodies. They look vulnerable and are easy to identify with. Every moment a biomechanical fish skittered by made me wince because I was painfully aware of exposed flesh. These bodies are a perfect canvass for the body-horror Ito likes to inflict on characters. The anime’s character designer Takuro Takahashi (who has worked on Death Note, FLCL, Jin-Roh – The Wolf Brigade) brilliantly brings Ito’s style to the screen and keeps the lines around the eyes as characters bear witness to cosmic horror.
The animation from UFOTABLE (Garden of Sinners, Fate/Zero) is clear, bright, and sharp. The CG did not mesh perfectly and I felt distracted by some of it. The big budget Haneda airport scenes also lacked excitement because they felt weightless. That said the rest of the animation is brilliant and thanks to the fast-paced editing it is easy to forget any complaints and get stuck into the action. Hirao picks camera angles perfectly to maintain the film’s forward momentum and highlight the horror. Mid-shots of characters making their escapes will cut to long-shots showing the carnage around them and again, Ito’s use of focussing on gaze is here as we get close-ups on eyes.
The script discards many of the elements of the manga which means that some things feel under-explained but the anime still captures the weird events that unfold and the fates of multiple characters caught up in it pretty well. The pace is relentless and the changing nature of the situation is handled well. Characters are quickly sketched but solid. Kaori is simplified and becomes a likeable pragmatic protagonist while her friends Aki and Erika get a malicious dark fake-friendship to explore. Ito’s penchant for black humour is used here for highly amusing effect, weaving in and out of the narrative at different moments. My favourite was the salary-man fleeing a wave of fish while kids record the action on their phones.
Junji Ito has had his weird fiction work adapted into live-action films with Tomie proving popular and Uzumaki charming with its weirdness. Gyo is the first anime adaptation and it does a solid job as a ripping yarn that combines body horror, surrealism, and the supernatural to great effect and allows these elements to grab the viewer through great animation. While the lurid DVD cover struck me as silly the overall package is great and it even features a text interview with Junji Ito himself. I found this pretty entertaining and I hope this leads to more of his work getting adapted.
Update (19th August): The official website has changed the release date of the DVD to the 03rd of September.