The Great TOH Junji Ito Read-Off: GYO
Something is rotten in Okinawa. The stench creeps through the streets, through walls, and seeps into your skin. Something is wrong here. Terribly, terribly wrong.
Spooky season is upon us and that means it’s time to read a ton of Junji Ito. Junji Ito is and has been THE horror mangaka for decades now. For many, such as myself, he’s the gateway to Japanese horror manga in general, with his list of influences giving more of a primer to check out before you delve into explorations of new blood in the horror manga scene. Japanese comics and literature are experiencing a bit of a heyday in the English-speaking world, with publishers like VIZ, Yen Press, Vertical, Kodansha, and others pumping out translated, phenomenal works left and right at reasonable prices.
Ito is notable for his incredible command of body horror, with zooming in close-ups of grotesque imagery filling entire pages after dread and tension have built up to breaking point.
Without further ado, let’s get into GYO: The Death-Stench Creeps; the first book by Junji Ito I ever read, and my first real primer to Ito’s style.
First, a little music to set the mood:
Unless you already have a deep-seated fear of the ocean and everything in it, evil fish running around on robot legs probably doesn’t sound that scary. However, like Stephen King at his best, Ito is able to take a goofy-on-the-surface idea and turn it into something unsettling as it develops and he adds layers.
To be honest when I first started reading I found it hard to keep from laughing because in Lynchian absurdity, everyone is screaming most of their lines right from the get-go.
note that manga is read from right to left
One thing Ito is good at is taking fairly common beliefs and behaviors and turning them into neuroses that begin to feed into the developing motifs of the story. Kaori develops an obsessive aversion to bad odors after she arrives in Okinawa, to the point where she refuses to touch her boyfriend, Tadashi, until he showers, or kiss him until he brushes his teeth. Every time.
The creeping stench shows itself for the first time and Kaori becomes the first victim, compulsively cleaning herself over and over while Tadashi is sent out to buy air freshener and cleaning supplies. He returns to a reeking house, Kaori lying unconscious on the floor. After something rushes past him, Tadashi manages to slam a chest of drawers into whatever it is and the culprit is revealed. This one fish is the portent of an infestation. The stench now overruns Okinawa. If Jaws scared you at all, prepare to be given the high octane version in GYO.
Tadashi and Kaori manage to make it back to Tokyo, but the infestation is showing itself to no longer be a local event as the surrounding islands of Okinawa begin to be overrun as well. Even worse, the first fish shows itself again, seemingly drawn to Kaori, who is now showing signs of something being deeply wrong. Tadashi takes the fish to show his uncle, a well-known inventor and researcher. As Kaori grows more unhinged, Tadashi’s uncle soon finds out these aren’t just mutated fish.
Similar to how Godzilla can be viewed as an allegory to the atomic bomb and its impact on the Japanese people and their culture, these really are more than just evil fish. GYO explores the impacts that weapons research can have years later, and Ito drives straight for the worst outcomes at breakneck speed. The development of horrifying chemical warfare technology from WWII has come back to haunt humanity, starting first with the very country that developed it.
With this revelation, the body horror begins, and poor crazed Kaori and Tadashi’s uncle are the first victims. All across Japan victims bloat up and have uncontrollable gas, and they begin to deteriorate and deform. Kaori has become one of the worst smelling things on the planet, a fulfillment of a fear so bad that she begins to seek out suicide.
Tadashi is left as an unaffected narrator who guides us through his now-rotting world. With Japan breaking down around him, the worst and strangest of humanity comes out, as others are reduced to mindless cattle. As things coalesce into a parade of Bosch-esque horrors around Tadashi he stumbles upon the Citrous Circus, where a demented ringleader has his infected performers continue with their act for an audience of none in a dying city.
man those guys who upload manga to shady websites must cut the pages out of their books before they scan them or something
Despite the world falling apart around Tadashi, humanity’s own pest-like persistence is showcased as he meets up with a group of survivors and they continue to move onward.
The deluxe version of GYO also comes with two bonus short stories—the honestly quite goofy “Sad Tale of the Principal Post” about a dad who somehow ends up crushed under the foundation post of wood for his family’s house and refuses to get medical help because he doesn’t want to damage the house, instead opting for screaming with his family in the crawlspace and then dying.
The second story, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” like many Junji Ito works explores obsession, especially mass obsession and hysteria, and is much more unsettling than “Principal Post.” Human-shaped holes appear in a mountainside and people are drawn to them. They enter the hole that they are sure is their own, never to be seen again as they push forward.
Like most Ito works, GYO didn’t really scare me. A few parts were a little unsettling, and the body horror was definitely grotesque and stomach-churning. But unlike a prose novel where I’m free to form my own images and impress my own neuroses and fears onto the work, everything is right there on the page of a graphic novel. Despite all this, GYO had me hooked and I soon sought out more of Ito’s work.
GYO is available in English through VIZ Media.
Banner image made by Anton Oxenuk.