The climate is changing and maybe there’s nothing we can do. Our world is not one that requires us, and as we all start to make that realization we turn to cosmic horror in order to better understand our pessimistic, apocalyptic fears. Elder Things, Dreamlands and colours from out of space all offer us a fantasy window into realities that don’t require human eyes, and perhaps are best viewed with other unspeakable senses. When it comes to these horrific viewing glasses few are as clear as Gyo, by Junji Ito.
A horror manga about an ancient germ from the depths of the ocean, Gyo works as an allegory for climate change. Part pandemic thriller, part creature feature, the story begins with the invasion of Okinawa from the sea. Marine life with sharp, spindly legs begin to crawl onto land and terrorize the human population. The invasion spreads to the rest of Japan and eventually the world, before moving to the next, much more horrific stage.
From the very first chapter, Gyo evokes the creeping feeling of cataclysmic global change by characterizing its monster as an invisible invader. The fish with legs are heralded by a terrible stench, described by characters as being reminiscent of hot human corpses. To the reader, such characteristic makes you double blind. Not only can the menacing germ not be seen, you can’t smell something in a story. You are left knowing that the helpless characters are overwhelmed by a paranormal odour because they are constantly screaming about it, and while you’d think that to be a mercy, there’s something very upsetting in being told about a sign of danger that you can’t notice yourself.
I held my breath while reading Gyo because of the fictional smell. It was a subconscious reaction to the horror on the page, and it amplified my gasps when the book actually left my mouth agape in shock. There are images in Gyo that—while not as deeply nightmarish and intellectually disturbing as some of what’s contained in Ito’s more famous Uzumaki or his one-off the Enigma of Amigara Fault (which is contained at the end of the delux edition of Gyo from Viz Media and actually keeps me awake at night)—actually left me in disbelief.
The whole effect is a suffocating feeling as you progress deeper and deeper into an adventure that simply can’t have a happy ending for humans. Gyo is the tale of a world turning its back on humanity, taunting us with the stench of our own decomposing bodies as if to say Nothing lasts forever, but you are much more fleeting than I.
What really hammers the whole thing home, and therefore makes Gyo essential reading for the modern horror fan, is the sense of guilt Ito pours into his characters. The humans blame each other for the monstrosities, the stench and inevitably their own failure to save themselves and eachother. Yet, not a single person within its pages did anything wrong. As the need to point fingers recedes, Gyo settles into a passive, contemplative mode only achievable in moments of deepest pessimism. What if no one’s to blame? What if we are so insignificant that we didn’t even cause our own tragic demise? When it’s all over, and we are wiped out by an indifferent entity with nothing we would call memory, did we even exist in the first place?
Gyo is available anywhere you can buy manga. Go get it.