In terms of great living horror legends, Japanese mangaka Junji Ito is easily one of the most distinctive. His manga, featuring oddball characters with sunken eyes and creepy smiles being menaced by all sorts of monsters and phenomena that are often more absurd than traditionally "spooky" (although there’s certainly tons of that, too) are truly one of a kind, always finding a way to turn the comically strange into something more bone-chilling than just about any shuffling zombie or deranged serial killer. He’s made terrifying body horror out of sleeping bags, existential horror out of oddly shaped imprints in a fault, and my favorite: creating a full-blown, genuinely horrifying apocalyptic scenario out of fleshy, noose-equipped weather balloons.
Naturally, with an author as infamous and popular as Ito (he’s even worked with Pokémon developer Game Freak for promotional art), it’s only a matter of time before film adaptations start rolling out. There are a lot of them out there, but only three of them have really managed to cross over from hyper-niche spaces, and they just so happen to be the ones based on what are arguably his three most popular books. They are Tomie, Uzumaki, and Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack, and by God are they wild.
Well, maybe not Tomie (1998). The first Ito adaptation is, fittingly, based on Ito’s first published manga, a spooky shojo (a manga aimed at teenage girls) tale about a mysterious, immortal young woman with the power to make any man fall for her—and make any man kill for her. It’s weird, it’s fast, it’s nasty, and while not necessarily major Ito, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The Tomie movie is not that. Instead, it’s a slow burn mystery/coming-of-age hybrid about Tsukiko (Mami Nakamura), an amnesiac art student who was apparently the classmate of one Tomie Kawakami. See, Tomie "died" a few months ago, and since then, a large number of students and faculty have mysteriously all killed themselves or gone insane, and what’s more, historical records are saying this isn’t the first time an identical Tomie Kawakami has mysteriously died. And as Tsukiko goes about her life and detectives go about investigating Tomie, subtle horrors begin to pop up around them until the titular creepy schoolgirl finally makes her appearance.
Unfortunately, it’s a long wait. Now, slowburn horror isn’t inherently bad—Beyond the Black Rainbow doesn’t have anything spooky happen til the third act, and it’s easily one of my favorite films of all time—but the buildup has to have something to it, something keeping you invested. Tomie doesn’t. There’s just a long parade of uninteresting character beats for people whom I found near-impossible to care about, and by the time Tomie herself shows up, the film’s already squandered so much of its goodwill that I found it incredibly difficult to care.
Now, credit where credit is due, the biggest thing Tomie has going for it is Tomie herself: Miho Kanno. Kanno, who was handpicked for the role by Ito himself, absolutely kills it. She’s the ultimate of the archetypical J-horror dark-haired ghost girl, normal from a distance, but the more you watch her, the more you realize something is just profoundly, terribly off about her, down to the smallest gestures and gazes. But while Kanno’s great, the script isn’t quite up to snuff. Even when Tomie arrives, she doesn’t really have anything to do but look vaguely menacing. Sure, things happen, there are scares, a mystery is developed and resolved, but it takes a titanic effort to care about any of it when it feels like the film itself doesn’t.
Still, it’s not all bad. Tomie benefits greatly from the cinematography of Akira Sakoh and Kazuhiro Suzuki, who consistently capture moody, melancholy images that help keep even the film’s dullest segments consistently visually interesting. Additionally, the soundtrack is quite nice, with the standout being the absolutely mind-blowing main theme, a haunting mix of calm guitar and manic, synthesized English lyrics. Even if the film itself is a bust, I’d almost say it’s worth giving a shot just to hear that track kick in and, for a brief moment, all is right in the world.
Still, I really can’t find a nice way to put it—Tomie is a misfire. It has a cool concept, a great villain performance, and strong presentation, but it really does feel like an in one ear, out the other movie. You sit, you watch it, things happen, but it’s gone in minutes, and watching it isn’t exactly enjoyable, either. If you really want to watch some worthwhile Ito adaptations, then I would recommend skipping past Tomie and going straight to Uzumaki (aka Spiral).
Uzumaki is Ito’s most famous manga, and rightfully so. Serialized between 1998 and 1999, the Uzumaki manga is, for my money, one of the finest works of cosmic horror ever printed, a dark, eerie tale about an entire seaside village collectively giving in to madness as inexplicable, spiral-based phenomena distort the town and reality itself. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind work, and of all the big-name Ito manga, it has the visuals that’d most interestingly translate to film.
Thankfully, the movie adaptation of Uzumaki, simply titled Uzumaki (2000), is quite good. The story is largely the same—in the seaside town of Kurouzu-cho, something horrible is brewing. High school student Kirie Goshima (Eriko Hatsune) and her boyfriend, Shuichi Salto (Fhi Fan), are noticing all sorts of differences in their sleepy little town, with spirals infiltrating and warping seemingly every aspect of life, from the town’s food to the very anatomy of the townspeople.
Then people start dying. And things just get worse from there.
Normally, I’m not the sort of person to be disappointed when a film adaptation deviates from the original text, but Uzumaki makes a misstep so crucial I feel there’s no way to discuss it without addressing how the source material handles it: the pacing. In the manga, there’s a rhythm to the terrible goings-on in Kurouzu-cho—a slow, steady cycle of build and release, with individual stories of small, strange phenomena making way for inexplicable grotesqueries, each tiny event accumulating until it snowballs into an all-out apocalyptic scenario with no chance for salvation and even less for a painless end. It’s a plot that, for lack of a better word, spirals downward, a clever way to incorporate the work’s visual motifs into a pacing that’s both incredibly eerie and thematically appropriate.
The Uzumaki movie doesn’t do that. Instead, it tries to compound all the separate stories into one, condensing the timeline so almost all the stories are set up in acts 1 and 2 and paid off in act 3. So instead of getting a constant, horrifying domino effect of tiny scares building into massive ones, the film basically decides to let it all loose in the final thirty minutes or so, save some noteworthy early deaths.
Granted, unlike Tomie, it’s not like the first hour is dull or anything. While all the setup isn’t ideal, it allows Uzumaki to get its own, less exciting, but still serviceable rhythm. Here it resembles something more like a watered-down Jigoku, using the bulk of the runtime to slowly let dread accumulate. It’s in the snails all across Kurozu-cho, many of which get their own disgusting closeups. It’s in the way Shuichi’s father, Toshio (Ren Osugi), obsesses over spiral patterns in food and art. It’s in the little CG spirals twisting in the corners of the frame, warping the environment and misdirecting your gaze. Even the blocking and cinematography gets in on the game, with elements in the frame forming their own spirals or God’s eye shots even spiraling in on zooms. It’s really a clever buildup for what it is, and it makes sure that even when the story’s slow, the atmosphere is always building.
Of course, a lot of the credit in that department also goes to just how weird director Higuchinsky is willing to get. In the absence of Ito’s panel layouts, page flip scares, and other comic-exclusive trickery, Higuchinsky borrows from the toy box of one of American cinema’s greatest formalist pranksters, Brian De Palma. Higuchinsky does everything: jump cuts, long takes, unconventional POVs (the best being of a bullet in a spiraling pistol chamber), split screens, absurdly wide compositions, absurdly tight compositions, reflections, and even full rotations of the frame. It adds a sort of poppy playfulness to the proceedings that few horror movies this bleak possess, all while staying in line with the weird bits of humor and form-pushing that help make Ito’s work so unsettling.
Besides Tomie and Uzumaki, I’d wager that the biggest Ito work would be GYO, and of the three, it’s quite possibly his strangest. Like Uzumaki, GYO follows an apocalyptic scenario where suddenly, every fish in the pacific ocean spouts massive, mechanical legs and an insatiable hunger for flesh. It’s one of Ito’s strongest premises—instantly striking and absurd, but increasingly terrifying the more you think about it.
It’s a great story that could theoretically make a great film, but from a monetary perspective, adapting it in live action would be nothing short of a nightmare. So, when it finally came time for a GYO movie, it went in an entirely different direction: anime.
GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack (2012) is a sort of alternate interpretation of the manga’s plot, taking the same basic setup, key plot beats, and iconography, while changing enough major details and employing enough baffling tonal choices that it doesn’t really feel anything like the manga. The most instantly noticeable change, however, is also the most fascinating. The point of view is different. Ito’s GYO followed Tadashi, a man out with his girlfriend, Kaori, on vacation in Okinawa. After the bio-mechanical fish attack the island, he and Kaori escape to Tokyo and embark on an odyssey to get to the bottom of the mutations and survive the attack.
The anime, on the other hand, barely features Tadashi at all. Instead, Kaori travels to Okinawa with just her friends Erika and Aki, who plan to spend their time relaxing at a beachhouse with some local boys to keep them (well, mostly Erika) company. Unfortunately, it isn’t long until they start finding small fish scuttling around on metal legs, and soon after, far deadlier creatures are coming ashore, turning Kaori’s vacation into a nightmare. Now, Kaori is on a mission: get home, find Tadashi, and escape from this nightmare.
If only it were so simple.
GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack was directed by Takayuki Hirao, who would later go on to direct episodes of action/horror anime such as Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress and Attack on Titan. Given that, it’s worth noting that the film is very much Hirao’s GYO more than it is Ito’s, full of explosions and fights and thrilling action sequences. Unfortunately, those action sequences really don’t belong here, and especially not the shape they’re in during the finished product.
Take a showdown Kaori and her photojournalist pal Tsuyoshi have with a massive legged shark. Tsuyoshi gets battered around like a rag doll, flying through the air and smashing into cars, without as much as a dent on him. Every main character in GYO: Tokyo Fish Attack is like this, seemingly invincible rag dolls, iron men who can withstand any punishment dished out, or at least any punishment until the plot conveniently requires otherwise. They’d fit right in with Hirao’s other works. In an apocalyptic nightmare? Not so much.
Weird plot and tone issues aside, it’s impossible to talk about GYO without talking about the elephant (or eight-legged whale) in the room: the animation. Ufotable, the studio behind series such as Fate/Zero and the Garden of Sinners movies handled the animation, and for the most part, it’s quite good. Character actions are fluid, backgrounds have a decent enough level of detail, but when it comes to showing the monsters, everything falls apart. See, almost everything in the film is 2D animation, the biggest exception being the manga’s signature, hulking eight-legged sharks. They’re in 3D, and they look awful—like big, janky PlayStation 2 models stomping around this perfectly fine 2D animated world. The choice may have helped on the budget, but all it does is take the punch out of what would otherwise be the film’s scariest moments, reducing them to nothing but awkward unintentional comedy.
GYO isn’t terrible, really. It’s just a bummer. Even when divorced from its source material (as difficult as that can be with direct adaptations), it doesn’t work as a horror film or an action film or as an enjoyable piece of animation. While it’s certainly not the worst animated Ito adaptation (this year’s Junji Ito Collection, an anthology series featuring shoddily animated takes on Ito short stories, takes the cake), it’s really not worth a watch for anyone but Ito completionist. But hey, just like all the other adaptations here, love it or hate it, there really isn’t any other type of horror out there quite like Ito’s.Next: Read Earlier Installments of This Series!