Across both volumes of Gyo I kept asking myself: Where on earth is Junji Ito leading is with all of this? The creator of Uzumaki had spun out one fascinating and hallucinatory (and often depraved) variation after another on his basic theme: a wave of monsters, half-machine and half-animal, that come ashore from the sea and infest civilization. Then I got to the end of the second and final volume and realized, to my dismay, he wasn’t heading much of anywhere.
The end of Gyo is terribly disappointing, so much so that it comes close to trashing the whole series. It doesn’t so much conclude as it simply terminates, on a note of vague and unresolved hope, one that seems ill-suited to the incredible darkness that suffused the book up to that point. The second volume does take the premise that was set up in the first volume and expand on it — but only slightly, and in directions that are more for the sake of atmosphere and general weirdness than coherence. Not that this is a bad thing; at the bottom of it all, every horror story runs because it is an engine of fear, not logic. The bad news is that Gyo keeps edging towards an explanation of what’s going on, but pulls up short and leaves us frustrated.
The things we do see, though, are just plain visionary. When the “death-stench gas” runs out of animal hosts, it switches to the next highest beast on the evolutionary scale: mankind. This already started in microcosmic form with Kaori, the narrator’s girlfriend, but before long narrator Tadashi finds himself stumbling through a world where the mechanically-assisted dead outnumber the living by many orders of magnitude, dragging Kaori’s putrefying body (still clamped into one of the death-stench machines) behind him.
Like Dante in the Inferno, Tadashi bears witness to one ghastly thing after another, like seeing the one scientist who had a clue as to what they were dealing with being turned into a death machine. Most memorable is a circus of these machine-corpse abominations, a scene straight out of a Tim Burton movie that could easily support a story on its own. Then Tadashi comes across a small cadre of human survivors who are doing their best to stem the tide, and who theorize that the gas itself is a life-form — a living, thinking being that has developed its own technology, its own civilization and a means for perpetuating itself in new forms. Tadashi joins up with them, gives Kaori a proper burial, and after a few more ruminations about the meaning of it all the story ends.
It’s deeply frustrating to see the plug pulled like that — especially after reading Ito’s Uzumaki, which comes to a thoroughly complete (if extremely grim) conclusion of its own. But maybe the conclusion isn’t the most important thing in a story like this. On reading Gyo I kept drawing mental parallels with Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s groundbreaking movie Tetsuo: The Iron Man (which is pretty much required viewing for anyone reading this). That film felt like a spiritual ancestor to Gyo: it, too, featured various monstrous hybrids of man and machine that threatened to take over the world. Tsukamoto was more interested in showing you things than explaining them, and the ending he comes up with is similarly arbitrary. But what a ride it is. And likewise, maybe the best thing to do with Gyo is just savor it for what it shows us, and not worry about where it’s all headed.
The two volumes of Gyo are about three-fourths of one of the best horror manga out there. The way things peter out in the 2nd volume is unquestionably disappointing. But the ride you’ll have before you get let down is more than worth taking, so grab both volumes together.