Adaptations are a tricky business, quite a bit more difficult than they appear. Many try to be as faithful as possible, leading to inherent problems due to the change in medium. Others try to account for the medium in any changes they make, which could be good or bad. Others still recognize flaws in a work and attempt to improve on them, often leading to polarizing results. It’s difficult to find adaptations that are actually better or even as good as the original works, leading people to claim that the original is always superior, and that is often the case. However, no matter what your stance on adaptations, I think it’s fair to say Gyo is not the way to do it.
Junji Ito is an interesting manga artist. Although he is widely recognized and fairly popular with a large body of well-liked works, few of them ever receive adaptations, and when they do, they are often live-action, despite his works being much more suited to the fantastical world of anime. Some people say that Ito’s works can’t be adapted and that manga is the perfect place for them and that makes sense. The physical experience of actually reading a manga and dreading the turn of every page creates a personal pace to the horror that an anime or movie can’t provide. However, when adapting a work by one of the greatest manga artists of all time, it’s probably not a good idea to turn it into a cheap slasher flick.
I originally read Gyo a few years ago and walked away a bit disappointed. It was certainly unique, but I wouldn’t call it scary. Disgusting sure and that in itself has a bit of horror to it, I but never felt terror while reading it, which I thought was a bit strange coming off of the amazing Enigma of Amigara Fault. However, I can at least say it was a memorable and unique experience that definitely had a voice. This OVA is a different beast altogether. It takes the focus away from discovering this abominable world through the eyes of an unknowing protagonist to focusing on the characters themselves as they react to and try to survive in this world. In a story centered around the setting and the absurdity of its events, this is a fatal move that shows a huge misunderstanding of either the source material or its audience.
Gyo tells the story of a foul odor covering the Earth. The Death Stench is soon discovered to be coming from fish roaming on land on mechanical legs. As the fish start to show up everywhere, we learn the mystery of their mechanical legs and how they’re starting to affect humans. The plot is a bit silly and it only gets sillier from there, but some of the best horror has a hint of comedy to it. The OVA follows largely the same plot but ignores most of what made the original work.
The OVA switches the focus from the manga’s protagonist to his girlfriend and follows a completely separate plotline where she is on a post-graduation trip with her friends. It quickly establishes its willingness to embrace every cliche horror trope by switching out the original duo for a gaggle of frisky teenagers. They have the slutty popular bitch, the resentful overweight girl, two guys to provide protection/sexual tension, and our protagonist as the pure maiden dirtied by this corrupt world. It’s easy to see where these cliches will go and Gyo never makes an attempt to surprise the viewer. It simply regurgitates decades of horror movie cliches.
The animation is passable but not distinct or ambitious in any way. Comparing it to the clean but dark and heavy lines of Ito’s manga makes one wonder why the anime looks so bland. For a horror film, it is very bright, with little atmosphere to speak of. Ito’s drawings suck the reader into the page and disgust and frighten while leaving people unable to look away. Turning the page itself can be a challenge but you know you must or you’ll be haunted in a completely different way. This anime manages none of that. Its scenes of horrible atrocities are delivered in such a lifeless way they barely register with the viewer. This may possibly be an effect of reading the manga first but no matter how outlandishly horrid things got on screen, I remained unaffected. The idea is much scarier than the execution, which can’t be a good thing.
The anime attempts to humanize its characters compared to Ito’s original caricatures. There is a greater focus on backstory and development with more overall characters showing a wider spectrum of personalities, even going so far as to make metaphors about the stench of decay and the lingering sentiments of the deceased and beauty only being skin deep. However, this turns out to be a point against the anime. When making a work, or doing much of anything, not doing it at all is generally better than doing it poorly. None of these themes are developed and all of the characters remain startlingly one-dimensional. Shoehorning character development and themes of death into a silly B-horror movie about stinky fish on mechanical legs is a waste of both the creators’ and viewers’ time. Ito understood that, which is why the manga centered around the universe he created, just like he understood the inherent ridiculousness of the situation and never made the manga take itself too seriously. In its attempts to remove the silliness and up the horror, this OVA wound up with a dry, toneless product. The problem with half-assing things is that they just come off as middle of the road, boring, generic. Artistic works aren’t a checklist of concepts, characters, and events. Time spent on unnecessary ideas is time wasted.
I was looking forward to watching this OVA to see how Ito’s manga style would translate to animation but I wound up walking away just wondering why anyone would choose to adapt a work by an established and respected manga artist only to completely alter the material. The obvious answer is that the original manga is too strange, too experimental, and indeed it is. Rather than having a flowing narrative with well-developed characters and a satisfying conclusion, Gyo felt like a fun idea that Ito came up with and wanted to see play out. One of the most interesting things to me about manga is how it allows that authorial voice to shine through in a way anime does not. Manga are largely created by one person or a small group of people and they are much cheaper and easier to produce, leading to many unique, unfinished, offensive, horrific, and otherwise ridiculous works to be created that would be unfeasible in most other medium. Gyo was certainly one of these. Most of Ito’s works are, which is why they are rarely adapted into anime. There was no way for this to be widely successful or appeal to a broader demographic, and by changing the source material, they also alienated its core audience, the original fans. This is the first of Ito’s works to be adapted into anime and with results like this, it makes me wonder why they even tried.
Don’t waste your time. Not the worst anime but very underwhelming considering the subject matter.