By Bob Clark
In one of those now perennial summer seasons during which the theaters suffer a surplus of big-budgeted movies derived from superhero stories and other narratives originating in the sequential arts, it seems an apt time to reevaluate and consider what most people really mean when they talk, usually with some matter of condescension, of the so-called “comic book movie”. Whenever one’s talking about something that’s literally based on a comic book, like any of the myriad of Marvel or DC properties that have found themselves transformed into blockbuster entertainment in the past few months (to say nothing of the film franchises that have spawned them over the past twenty or thirty years), the term feels correct, but mostly superficial. Yes, characters like Batman or the Avengers first made their debut in the pages of comics, but we don’t ordinarily define stories or characters from other sources by the medium they originated from– we don’t label Branagh’s or Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations “theater movies” or Coppola’s Godfather trilogy “novels on film” (though he himself did label a chronological recut of them a “novel for television”). And there’s plenty more films that find themselves slapped with the “comic book movie” label despite being based on something from another source (the perfectly cast but horribly directed The Shadow, jumping to movie screens from the radio) or even being an original work altogether that merely shares the same genre elements (one could call the Flash Gordon film a “comic book” movie and almost be correct, but not so with other, more successful space operas).
For the most part, “comic book movie” is really nothing more than a term of shallow genre disparagement, looking only for the most base similarities between the stories and visual deliveries and sufficing to end the comparison there before deeper looks can even be attempted. And though that line of thinking very often results in the unjust writing off of great, unlikely seeming works both derived from comics (most could watch Road to Perdition and History of Violence and be none the wiser of their origins) and within the medium itself, I can’t help but wonder if the critics who rely upon treading water with that term may occasionally stumble on a more interesting truth that goes beyond the base genre similarities and further into the ways that the two mediums are linked, and more importantly separated. For as many have observed as the two art forms have developed over the course of the past century, both cinema and comics share a great deal in common as embodiments of visual storytelling. More than any other expressive forms, one is able to express the emotions and communicate the substance of a narrative above and beyond the boundaries of language to a larger audience in these mediums– it helps to be able to understand the language any given work is created in, or at the very least have a reliable translation provided, but even without that there’s something about the sheer visual language of comics and cinema that can allow one to follow any given sequence of moving or still imagery and keep up with it, somewhat. It’s that difference between moving and still imagery, however, that makes the creative opportunities offered by the two mediums so distinct, yet also what can create frustration when those opportunities aren’t taken full advantage of. In that regard, though it’s based on Junji Ito’s jaw-dropping manga, Takayuki Hirao’s animated film of Gyo is one of those comic-book inspired works that deserves better than to be called a mere “comic book movie”.
Because if nothing else, Hirao’s film (originally made as an Original Video Animation and exhibited as part of the Japan Cuts portion of the New York Asian Film Festival) is very much a motion picture in the best sense of the term, and finds ways to inject movement all throughout his retelling of Ito’s decade-old manga. Though at times this means losing some of the visceral power that’s present in the still imagery of Ito’s original, and throughout the bulk of his celebrated horror-heavy output, it helps drive the anime and keep it moving as something of a cliffhanger steamroll engine, never letting up or giving the audience a moment to catch their breath and regain their senses from the panic of the sight of countless fish, sharks and squids come to walk upon land and wreak havoc across Japan. That pace of breakneck speed with which the film barrels through the manga’s story helps demonstrate the ways in which the experience of time can differ from medium to medium– a story which takes a mere 75 minutes to tell on film can be given two full volumes in manga form, and lose precious little of substance in the translation (indeed, there might even be a little padding with extra characters and subplots to make things longer).
Nearly all of the same exact story beats are hit upon their bull’s eye– a group of vacationing teenagers discover a foul smell affecting nearly all of Okinawa, are attacked by an invasion of fish and other aquatic life on gas-powered pneumatic legs that quickly spreads to mainland Japan, and learn the frightening phenomana’s origins with experiments conducted by the Imperial Navy during WWII and its connection to the supernatural in a bizarre series of events which includes a high-flying mad scientist, a deranged non-sequitor circus and more inflated corpses than you’re likely to find in a backwater riverbed. What’s first apparent about the screenplay and resulting film by Hirao are a series of alterations made to the characters we follow through these almost identical stories– instead of following a young man as our protagonist as he seeks to protect and save his sensitive girlfriend from the rising threat of the “walking fish” and their disease-spreading stench, we find ourselves watching a young woman (ostensibly the same character as the girlfriend) as she and a gaggle of anime stereotypes (the chubby bookworm, the vain super-slut, the two dimwitted beach bums she hooks up at once) struggle to escape the rising tide of terror and escape back to the mainland where she hopes to find her boyfriend (in time to die with him, I suppose).
Right away, the gender reversal and additional cast members rob the story of some of its psycho-sexual drama– on the page, Ito’s work very often boils down to a two-person character study between a beleaguered boy and his frigid, paranoid girlfriend whose violent reactions to her lover’s touch, taste and smell feel worthy of Polanski in his Repulsion days or Todd Haynes during Safe. At the same time, however, the new central character and supporting players help inject more variety into the story and avoid some of the pitfalls from the original (it’s hard to sympathize with the girl from the manga the more she’s reduced to a screaming banshee), and at least there’s an element of equality to some of the gender-switch substitutions. Like the boyfriend in the manga version she’s given the distraction of a tag-along love interest, here in the form of a rough-and-tumble photojournalist (in the manga, it was a comely young female scientist), who helps facilitate much of what makes this animated incarnation different from its pagebound counterpart. Though there’s equal amounts of suspense, chases and devastation throughout both versions, there’s slightly more emphasis on the cliffhanger-driven action in the film, as the girl and her entourage constantly find themselves fleeing in terror from sharks and other predators of the deep parading about on gas-powered legs. Sometimes, Hirao simply takes instances from the manga and injects artificial camera movements to create a cinema verite effect (a practice that’s become more and more common with the advent of digital animation tools), one that feels a canny match for the dynamic, jagged panel design that Ito often employs on the page, sometimes letting his images spill out entirely borderless to capture the panoramic horrors.
It’s fitting in a way that Hirao decided to pair his heroine with a photo-journalist, because there’s something of a photo-album effect to the intense detail that Ito renders his imagery with in the original manga, something that takes full advantage of the still-image property all comics have. At times one can almost forget that one is looking at drawn images when pouring over the ragged collages of Ito’s intricately cross-hatched stills, and subliminally believe that all these drawings are merely black-and-white photos covering some horrific event detailed in the vague passages of urban legend– a Loch Ness or Sasquatch for the digital age. Hirao’s film carries far more movement, naturally, but also comes without the distancing of black-and-white (as natural for manga as it would be unnatural, by now, for film). These two aspects, as well as the presence of CGI imagery to produce the masses of walking fish and marauding monsters throughout the film, come with the risk of destroying some of the hard-etched realism present on every page of Ito’s manga, the very ingredient that makes his over-the-top apocalyptic horrors at once so convincingly terrifying and yet so absurdly amusing.
Hirao’s sense of economy both with movement, color and digital artifacts help take advantage of the new medium, however– whereas Ito’s original contains its horrors in the dark and shadows of inky monochrome, Hirao makes his film a vision of bright, almost candy-colored world under invasion from elements of decay. Though at times it’s hard to gauge whether some of his color-choices are funny in an intentional way or not (the sight of a sexpot girl ballooned to a green, flatulent animated corpse recalls the Shrek films), everything works with some register of absurdism. The loss of documentary realism from the still-to-motion transition is also made up for from Hirao adding a theme of the “walking fish” phenomenon being captured on video and uploaded onto the internet, allowing for the film to have its own little echoes throughout. Even the advent of digital imagery allows for the movie to match the epic scale of Ito’s original, and at times even reach to top it with new sequences like a plane’s forced crash landing amidst walking fish as far as the eye can see, or scenes that show the invasion spreading all around the world.
Most important, however, is the element of movement that courses through every moment of the film, turning every scene into an active, pulsating moment of unnatural panic and riot. There are moments that Hirao captures here that match the frenetic, joyous surrealism of Paprika, and notes of sly humor that would be worthy of Kon at his most unrestrained (fitting, seeing as Hirao was an episode and animation director on Paranoia Agent). Moreover, they help the film become something more than just a rudimentary repackaging of Ito’s manga for animation, something that has and does happen with a rather alarming frequency in the closely related industries of manga and anime in Japan. At times, of course, there are some manga that feel less as fully realized comics works on their own and more audition pieces for future animation projects (the same could be said of the tidal wave of subpar young-adult literature in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight‘s success here), and others that strain to be matched in the same kind of quality between the two mediums, even when the same creator is responsible for both (Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Otomo’s Akira have equally devoted fans for their manga and anime incarnations). Gyo as an anime might not be as accomplished as the manga, but at the very least it feels every bit as good as it can be as an anime at all (or at least on its terms as a budget-friendly OVA). Furthermore, for whatever limitations it has on the screen, Hirao’s film carries with it a sense of how to compose frames for motion in a way that many films based on comic books or merely compared to them lack. Like the best of genre filmmakers, he knows when to choreograph the range of motion in his frame from one area to another, and when to merely punctuate his instances into single angles.
In this sense, the addition of digital imagery helps make the film pulse a little more naturally than traditional hand-drawn animation and its limitations of fixed imagery– whenever possible, his shots have beginning, middles and ends of their own, instead of merely conveying a single idea, a single fragment of imagery to be edited together into a montage whole. This is where so many of the most maligned and acclaimed big-budget sci-fi and fantasy films of the past decade and beyond have often stumbled when conveying their action onscreen. Unlike the Movie Brat and 80’s brethren they glean from, directors like Christopher Nolan or Joss Whedon more often than not isolate the motion and imagery of their films into isolated bursts of single shots stitched together, rather than maintain sequences that weave from one place or image to another within the take before cutting to something new. At times, one can even sense where one image begins and ends right on the storyboard page themselves, their directors following them as closely as a mangaka’s static panels on a page. In that sense, perhaps some of these spectacles really are “comic book movies” after all, and for whatever flaws in its story or execution Hirao’s Gyo may have, at least it managed to make it to the screen alive.