Japan Cuts Review: Gyo


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

I don’t know if anything I write can accurately describe the experience of Gyo. After the screening over the weekend, I was confused and yet laughing. It’s such an audaciously strange anime full of farts and fury, teeming with mutant fish bent on world domination. Gyo goes into such unpredictable places. It’s baffling, but bafflement can be fun, and this is a fever dream of a movie full of many delightfully repulsive bafflements.

The old “Citizen Kane of _____” cliche gets used pretty often, and usually it’s facetious. I keep applying it to singular instances in a niche genre or sub-genre. But Gyo really is the Citizen Kane of apocalyptic flatulent fish movies. This is the kind off story that H.P. Lovecraft might have written if he was afraid of bad gas as well as seafood.

Gyo (ギョ)
Director: Takayuki Hirao
Rating: NR
Country: Japan

The story begins in Okinawa with three friends: Kaori, the pure-at-heart hero of the story; Erika, the slutty and self-absorbed; and Aki, the frumpy third wheel. It’s the sort of set-up you’d expect for a slasher movie, and it initially plays out that way. Someone or something watches them in the dark through bushes and trees. All Erika can think of is getting laid, all Kaori can think of is her boyfriend, and all Aki can think of is being miserable. It’s in this slasher-like moment that they first notice a foul stench. It’s like rotting flesh, one of them says. The smell of death will only get worse as the movie progresses.

When the smell is especially strong, it’s rendered as caramel-colored stink lines, like thousands of paramecium filling the air — the olfactory equivalent of Kirby krackle. Some scenes use this visual representation of stench to remarkable effect. As the movie gets permeated with bad gas, the film resembles a flatulent Van Gogh; even the night skies are overcome by an undulating, colorful stink. It would almost be beautiful, this rancid aurora borealis, if it weren’t for the chaos on the ground.

The source of the stench is millions of mutant fish that have invaded dry land. They’re able to walk around on these robotic insect legs of unknown origin. It’s the stuff of nightmares: it doesn’t go together, but when joined together, it’s hard to keep the image out of your head. The first encounter the friends have with these mutant fish is rabbit-sized and harmless. It’s dispensed of easily, though maybe not in the most sanitary way. The second encounter: land shark. Much more harrowing. It makes Kaori want to return to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Tadashi. Erika though? You guessed it: she still just wants to get laid.

Gyo is adapted from the manga of the same name by Junji Ito. I’ve only read one Ito story in full, and it happens to be “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” one of the bonus stories in Gyo; I also saw the film adaptation of Ito’s Spiral (Uzumaki) years and years ago and remember enjoying it. In some ways I’m glad I haven’t read the manga. Adaptations tend to pale in comparison to their source material. You expect certain moments to be recreated, or in this case a certain look. Ito’s visual style in particular is scratchier and much eerier than the clean art of the anime, but that was bound to get lost in translation.

So not knowing the story, Gyo wound up being a strange and unpredictable journey through absolute madness. Since the mutant fish infect their victims during an attack, you’d expect the story to become just another zombie film, but thankfully that’s not where it goes. (It’s depressing to write “just another zombie film” these days, by the way.) Why would a movie full of mutant sharks on robot legs go somewhere predictable?

I mentioned bafflement at the beginning of the review, and sometimes the feeling of shock and confusion can unhook your brain. That might be the ultimate power of WTF-moments. You’re forced to stop, reorient yourself and your way of thinking, and consider what just happened while you’re catching up to what’s happening. There’s a sense of danger to it all since your mind can’t find the pattern or complete the sentence, so your attention is held by that unpredictability. Watching Gyo, there were a couple of moments where I thought, “Is this happening?” And it happened, and I laughed because of the incredulity. Anything goes in this surreal and stinky movie, and that’s where so much of the revolting pleasure comes from.

The only thing you can predict with any certainty is that Kaori will wander Tokyo in search of Tadashi, and she does this with the help of a freelance photojournalist named Shirakawa. He’s on the trail of the truth behind these mutant fish. He even expounds on truth and subjectivity during one scene in the film. It’s plopped in there and then dropped as a thread, but maybe the idea of truth is all over Gyo, not overtly but lingering like that sour human odor in cheap hotel rooms. The truth behind all of this mutant fish business gets obscured — covered up by stink lines, buried under the mass of bodies. No one’s going to figure this one out, or at least not easily.

The end of the film is irresolvable, so much so that someone in the audience yelled “What?!” at the screen. Part of it was angry — “What the fuck did I just watch!?” — and part of it was confused — “What the fuck did I just watch?” — but I think a lot of it was also in the surreal spirit of the movie — “What the fuck did I just watch!?”

The crowd burst out laughing and then applauded, as if to say, “I know, man. We’re all in the same boat.”

What the fuck did I just watch?

Alec Kubas-Meyer: Gyo is one hell of an experience. I found out the basic premise of the film about three minutes before it started, but that did nothing to prepare me for its absolutely insanity. It’s basically the equivalent of being smashed in the head with a walking hammerhead shark, to the point where I had literally forgotten about the movie I had seen less than two hours prior. I didn’t even remember that I had seen another movie. And that’s because there is no room for anything in your head other than Gyo. It’s like the flatulent gas that powers the walking machines, which fills up their hosts and then makes them explode. Yeah, Gyo is kind of like that. And it’s one hell of a trip. 80 – Great

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.