I Like Gyo, But I Also Like Writing About Horror
When Gyo made the rounds a little more than a month ago, much of the reaction was not surprising but nonetheless left me scratching my head a bit.
I can understand not liking Gyo for the plot; it is, after all, utterly ridiculous on the face of it, and gets more ridiculous as it goes on. The events that occur are downright stupid and certainly not interesting in and of themselves. And the characters aren’t super interesting, either, which I think is a bigger problem. But the thing that makes me wonder is why anyone looking for an engaging plot would look to horror for that in the first place.
I wouldn’t call myself a horror expert, but I’ve experienced plenty of it — a decent amount of literature, and lots of movies (which will be my frame of reference here). I’ve seen plenty of what folks would consider “great” horror films, and plenty of not-so-great ones and lots in between the two. So believe me when I say this: There aren’t many horror flicks that have what I would consider to be a “great” plot or even a “good” plot. Many are pretty damn simple at their core. Psycho is something I would call a great horror movie, but its plot is pretty standard potboiler fare, notable mainly for The Twist. Night of the Living Dead? It’s just people fighting zombies the whole time. The Thing? Scientists fighting an alien. And on and on.
I write this not to disparage these great films (and I do believe they are all great), but to make this point: Plot does not matter at all to horror in a visual medium. (Some out there would say plot does not matter at all in any story, but I don’t think I am qualified to open that can of worms.) After all, what scares us is not complex; actually, it’s simple, like that figure lurking in the dark, or that towering monster, or that unknowable creature that inhabits a place your mind cannot comprehend. We don’t need a deep plot to feel fear. We just need something to drive that fear. In many horror films, plots are, at best, simply convenient packages to deliver what actually matters; at worst, they get in the way. (See, say, Don’t Look Now, which has an awful ending due to the need to resolve whether Donald Sutherland is actually seeing the ghost of his dead daughter. Everything great about that movie has nothing to do with the plot.)
Now, many folks might not be scared of what they see in horror films, which is fine. I’m not particularly scared by many horror films, either. (Although The Thing did scare the shit out of me for many years.) However, and this is something I bring up in my review of Another on The Nihon Review (cheap plug!), the aim of the best of horror is not simply to scare but to unnerve. Anyone can bust out a cheap scare. It takes something truly special to get under your skin and linger, to crawl under your fingernails and fester, to get in your brain and shake the ever loving fuck out it. To me, that is what makes worthwhile horror.
When the daughter comes back to life and eats her mother in Night of the Living Dead? That will never fade. When Mark commits the first murder in Peeping Tom and the viewer sees it through the lens of his camera? That will never fade. Nina slowly breaking down during the course of Black Swan? Not fading away. Hell, that episode in Shiki? I am never, EVER forgetting that shit. All great moments for reasons that have zilch to do with great plotting.
So, hey, I’ve prattled on about what makes great horror, but what does it have to do with Gyo? Well, there are myriad ways horror can unnerve the viewer. Peeping Tom does it by turning the viewer into a voyeur. Shiki does it by turning the screws mercilessly on well-drawn characters, pushing them not only to their physical and emotional limits, but their spiritual limits as well. (Probably a weird thing to say, but this is likely what appeals to the most people with horror.) Gyo does it by reveling in the Weird, and this is a big part of why I liked it so much.
The way I see it, horror is the one genre unafraid to plant its feet in the realm of the Weird. This serves as the basis for everything I love about horror. It gives everyone creative carte blanche to do whatever the fuck they please in a horror story. They think up the most twisted images, construct the most insane settings, dwell on the most fucked-up situations, and the best of the best package it in a style that you just do not see from other types of movies. You’d never get anything like Suspiria, Re-Animator, Rosemary’s Baby or what have you in any other type of flick. For better or worse, horror exists in its own world.
Let me bring up one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre. Its plot is utter fucking nonsense: A kid in a circus grows up under the thumb (so to speak) of his psychologically domineering — and armless — mother and commits murders under her influence. It’s such a dumb idea, but Jodorowsky is utterly committed to it and this insane, weird idea permeates everything in the movie. The visuals are twisted, the emotion is suitably heightened, there’s an undeniably surreal feeling behind everything that happens . . . simply saying Jodorowsky is in another world or dimension with this stuff doesn’t do justice to the movie. There is no word for the place his film inhabits. That’s what makes it incredible to me.
To an admittedly far lesser extent, this is the type of thing Gyo accomplishes. There’s no two ways around it: This is a story about fart-powered fish and a gaseous cloud with consciousness. It’s really fucking stupid. But at the same time, the ideas and monsters are god damn twisted in a way that sticks with me, and not just in a “LOL SO DUMB” B-movie horror kind of way. I read a good amount of complaints about the circus scene, but that’s actually my favorite part of the OVA. It comes out of nowhere, it’s ridiculously crazy and it’s pretty much weird for the sake of weird. It’s something I can’t get anywhere else. If you don’t want to get that, then that’s fine, but then I again question why one would watch Gyo if you weren’t looking for that in the first place.
Do I think Gyo is great horror? Not really. I have my issues with it: 1) The characters are kinda meh, though I did enjoy Madam DP’s transformation into a hulking, disgusting monster and glasses chick going nuts, 2) That said, the “bitchy, slutty chick” archetype is so god damn tired; I wish it would go away forever. There are plenty of ways to make a character into a terrible person without resorting to, “HEY, SHE BANGS TWO GUYS AT ONCE, ISN’T THAT DISGUSTING?????” and 3) The music tries a bit too hard, but that’s sort of forgivable if it’s going for a B-movie atmosphere.
Even with this in mind, though, it does a decent job of running head-on with its crazy premise without any regard to whether it makes sense or isn’t totally insane. That’s totally fine with me.