By Junji Ito
200 pages, black and white
Published by Viz
Junji Ito is Japan’s master of horror comics, but it’s only recently that his work has appeared in English in the forms of Tomie and Uzumaki. With each new work that’s translated, Ito’s powers of terror and suspense grow stronger. What’s surprising about his new work Gyo is not that it’s as scary as ever, but that as the next major work after Uzumaki, Gyo is almost a deliberate reversal of what he did in Uzumaki.
Tadachi and Kaori are vacationing in Okinawa when Tadachi sees something shoot by him while deep sea diving. The incident might have gone forgotten if it wasn’t for the oddity whipping through the grass that evening at equal speeds to the first mysterious occurrence… When the creature turns out to be a fish with strange, insect-like legs propelling it across land, no one is prepared for the larger and greater manifestations yet to come.
Uzumaki‘s terror came through telling a story of isolation, where the female protagonist and her unhinged boyfriend are pulled in more and more to the threat of the spiral as it drew in the immediate area away from the rest of the world, making it a threat that no one else could escape. By contrast, Gyo‘s approach is to look outwards, taking an isolated incident and having it expand across all of Okinawa before settling its gaze on the rest of Japan. By having the strange legged plague increase from a local to a national threat, Gyo is able to keep the threat not only important, but also more and more terrifying. Gyo still has a lot of smaller moments that work well within such a larger-scale story for Ito, mind you. Kaori’s neuroses about bad smells and her increasing terror is a story in its own right, and Ito is able to evoke real sympathy for a character that you’ve spent the first half of the collection growing more and more irritated towards. The only place the story ever seems to falter is when the explanation for the legged fish shows up; since it ultimately serves to set up a more terrifying second half, though, it’s only a momentary misstep in an otherwise enthralling book.
With a book as strange as Gyo you’ll need art that can carry off the ideas, but those who have seen Ito’s art in Uzumaki will know that’s not a problem. Ito is able to bring menace and suspense to Tadachi’s deep sea diving trip at the beginning of the novel is eerie enough, with its shadows and feeling of claustrophobia despite being in such an open expanse of water. Once the walking fish appear, though, things go from bad to worse. (Or, depending on how you look at it, good to even better.) By making the legs look like those of insects, Ito cleverly made the initial glimpse of the creature one of distaste, one that increases as more and more of the creatures appear. Perhaps a true testament to the power of Ito’s art is that when walking sharks and worse begin appearing, he keeps them from looking silly. Having our protagonists being stalked by a shark moving across the front porch should have been ludicrous, but just looking at it can’t help but send a shiver up your spine.
Gyo is another tremendous success for Ito. It’s no small wonder that anyone working on horror comics in Japan looks up to him; you really cannot get any more terrifying than the nightmares that Ito puts on paper. In the end, my only complaint is that I’m absolutely dying to see Volume 2. More, please.