Scattered Thoughts – Dissecting Tomie

     Yep, the title is a pun. A bad one. You’ll get it. Let’s move on.

     I’ve already written about Junji Ito and anime adaptations of his manga. Gyo was a failure through and through (Ufotable, what have you done?) and quite recent Junji Ito: Collection, while it had several stronger stories, was equally forgettable at best. It turns out that Collection also has 2 special half-length episodes that I recently watched, episodes that feature probably the most famous character Junji Ito ever created – Tomie. Knowing what a catastrophe Collection was, I was inevitably cautious but at the same time I tried to remain as optimistic as possible. Tomie, one of the first published stories (in 1989) by Ito so far has inspired 8 live action films and a TV drama. You’d think that the source material should be strong and compelling enough so even the terrible production of Studio Deen shouldn’t be able to destroy that, right? Ito is far better at writing short stories, so Tomie truly looks like one of the best options out the huge catalog of Ito’s manga. Yet, after watching the specials I can do no better than to laugh at all the improbable events and question who on earth could’ve created such a ridiculous, silly, unbelievable and, well, bad story.

Tomie beautiful manga

The gorgeous star of the show

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Scattered Thoughts – Ito Junji: Collection and how to fail at horror

     It’s no secret that this season’s biggest horror anime isn’t that great. It’s really a shame because manga of Junji Ito usually is very entertaining. On the other hand, the outcome was to be expected to some extent – a previous attempt to adapt Ito’s manga also failed horribly. Then maybe Ito’s works aren’t suited to be animated? Looking even more broadly, are horror stories capable of evoking that specific emotion in an animated form? At least to this question I have an answer, and that is yes. So let’s look at what Collection did wrong, comparing it to some better representatives of the genre.

     ///EDIT: last night Super Eyepatch Wolf uploaded a video about Collection, and it’s not unexpectedly right to the point. I’m not sure I can add much to the discussion, but this piece is already written, so oh well. I guess I need to execute my ideas immediately…///

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Scattered Thoughts – why did Gyo fail?

     First of all – why is Gyo important? It isn’t, really. Still, there are a number of reasons why Gyo is worth investigating. For once, Junji Ito is a name you probably encountered if you’ve had any opportunity to familiarize with horror manga. Despite being popular, the only Ito’s work that has received an anime adaptation remains Gyo (which is interesting by itself), and Ito’s relation with anime remains relevant because of the new adaptation of some of his stories that has been announced some time ago. Returning to Gyo, its anime adaptation was made by ufotable, and that’s another interesting fact since at the time it was made the studio was just starting to build up its fame – Kara no Kyoukai movies weren’t as known and Fate/Zero had started half a year ago, but in times of Steins;Gate it was crucial not to be a studio known only for one good anime. Other ufotable’s projects had been even more obscure, so Gyo was a perfect opportunity to show off technical capabilities and affirm the name of the studio as one among the best in the industry. Still, the result seems to be rather frowned upon, so there arises a question – who’s at fault – Junji Ito or ufotable?

The former dental technician - sensei

     Junji Ito is an acclaimed mangaka and arguably one of the best in making horror stories. To be frank, that’s not really the truth. The truth is that Ito is incredible in thinking up how to mess with everyday world in order to bring horror elements and create an ominous and very unsettling atmosphere. His realistic and detailed drawings (especially all the unnatural and monster stuff) make every story far more disturbing. Still, the problem is that even if Ito knows how to get everything started, it seems like he has no idea how to conclude anything. More often than not the horror elements are so powerful that they sweep the ordinary world away and we get effectively an apocalypse. The characters usually are just left hanging with no clear conclusion when the things get so bad there’s no way of returning to at least a partially normal living conditions. On the other hand, Ito’s short works tend to stop right after the climax and thus leave some space to ponder what happened and what might happen next. It turns out that developing a story and providing a resolution sometimes is a worse choice than leaving an open ending exactly after the big reveal or a strong horrifying moment.

A walking fish?..

     Gyo in this context isn’t an exception. I guess the mystery of what exactly the horror elements are in this case is explained right away so it doesn’t really count as spoilers, does it? Anyway, you have been warned because the pleasure of seeing dead fish walking on seemingly mechanical legs is a pleasure you can’t miss. Ito has confirmed that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had been a huge influence on him. Ito just came to think that a more terrifying thing than a shark in a sea would be a shark that can walk on land. And walk on land it does. A story seems pretty basic as a couple of tourists in Okinawa (at first) – Kaori and Tadashi – start observing weird things and how they get out of control in a true Junji Ito fashion.

...yup, this walking shark...

     Why Gyo fails as a satisfying manga mainly rests on the choice of trying to explain the strange phenomena. It could be argued that characters also aren’t that good, which is quite true, especially in Kaori’s case. The girl mainly spends time in a neurosis state arguing with Tadashi quite annoyingly. Yet, I think that it at least gives some uniqueness as a fighting couple isn’t what you usually get as the main characters in any manga. Especially when things escalate you can’t really accuse anyone of acting the way they do – human tolerance to weirdness and horror isn’t infinite after all. Still, let’s leave the characters aside because the pseudo-scientific explanation that hardly feels plausible with the best wishes overshadows everything else. Of course you have to have germs that were secretly cultivated for military purposes. Even if that was an alright explanation, there’re still many things left in the dark – for example how does the gas produced by the germs can make dead bodies move in a non-random way and pursue people? Do the mechanical legs multiply? The story finally lost its momentum near the end when a totally bizarre and pretty random circus scene was inserted that doesn’t really feel like being from the same story and that is another recurring flaw of Ito’s manga.

...and a walking arm?

     Ito usually gets inspired by random daily events that are only a bit unusual or unexpected, be it a thought he had, a shop window he saw or a woman that looked in a particular way. Ito then takes these elements and works them into being more unsettling, not necessarily trying to make a horror manga. Such stories sometimes form larger narratives but as the mangaka doesn’t usually try to think particularly good ways to connect them, the end product might become anything from the cohesiveness of Uzumaki’s everything encompassing spirals to disjoint and having very little common elements stories like Black Paradox or Gyo itself.

The quite famous Amigara fault

     To go off on a tangent a bit, there are two short stories included in the published Gyo volumes. The Enigma of Amigara Fault is probably the most well-known and regarded  as one of the better of Ito’s works, examining the claustrophobia and at the same time morbid fascination with confined spaces. The story also can be a perfect example of Ito at his best – not trying to explain stuff too much and just leaving everything at the climax. Nevertheless, it’s the other story that appealed to me almost infinitely more than Gyo itself – The Sad Tale of the Principal Post spans only 4 pages and is impossible not to spoil but it shatters all of reader’s expectations and masterfully provides a totally unexpected conclusion which by its ridiculousness is able to overcome its unbelievability. It’s only 4 pages, please go and read it.

The new Kaori with her red-shirt...I mean red-skirt...
anyway, it's the new Kaori with her new friends

     Let’s now leave the manga and jump right to its anime adaptation, though in some respects it can hardly be called one. The first minutes of the anime already present plenty of differences – Kaori is the only main character (Tadashi’s left in Tokyo which means we hardly see him at all) and it’s two of her friends that the girl starts experiencing the fish attack. As the story moves on, it becomes clear that for the most part Kaori’s and Tadashi’s original roles are swapped. The couple’s struggle to survive gets transformed into quite a simple story of Kaori trying to find her boyfriend in all the confusion. Along the way she’s helped by a random journalist because you can’t have a story without a male lead, can you? Naturally you begin to wonder why there’re so many changes introduced. To some extent it’s understandable because having a strong female lead usually is commendable but the way it affected other parts of the story makes it barely Ito’s Gyo. And all these changes just seem pointless. Why would you introduce new characters and split the original experiences of Kaori and Tadashi when there was a completely normal and reasonable story in the manga? Also, the anime tried to appeal to all sorts of audiences, and that means that the horror isn’t the only thing you get in Gyo. The thing is that the anime in the beginning didn’t shy away from including fanservice, and fanservice of the most ridiculous level – Gainax jiggles, obligatory pointless sex and a woman getting undressed while trying to escape some nasty pursuer. Moreover, the said woman (try to guess which of Kaori’s friends she is) was just an original character made specifically for that purpose and Junji Ito could never have drawn anything like that. But even fanservice isn’t consistent – the creators forcefully added new scenes but somehow missed a shower scene in the original manga, and that scene even had some justification for being there.

Run, Forrest, run!

     When you watch the anime, you find some certain elements of the manga or scenes that clearly were inspired by the original Gyo, but in any case it remains only elements and the essence is lost. In such a case a walking octopus among all these fish becomes a pretext to introduce a tentacle scene. You know, tentacles? Any spirit of the manga and any element that makes Ito’s works recognizable as his own just simply vanished. At least in one respect the anime was equal to its counterpart – the questions concerning the mechanism by which the fish can walk, some other over the top moments involving the gas and a seemingly incomplete (although completely different) ending leave a lot to be desired.

Ito's stories never end well, do they?

     The animation belongs to an interesting period in ufotable’s history. Character designs try to be somewhat close to original manga ones but ultimately they end up being far more simplified and vastly different from the beauty of Ito’s art. At least usual Ito’s same-face-syndrome has been taken care of. The designs also are quite fluid – one moment you can even start guessing whether some rotoscoping was involved and other times you can wince uncomfortably at the seemingly unfinished product. Anyway, the designs come from a period when ufotable still cared to draw not as-pointy-as-you-might-prick-yourself (Tales series) noses, if any noses at all (Fate series). The backgrounds signify the point when the studio started moving to its present aesthetic, that being 3D more times than not, and that 3D looking quite lifeless and at odds with the 2D characters. Some 3D elements in Gyo look surprisingly well-made, as ufotable’s 3D department in general is quite adept at what they do, it’s just that it doesn’t really mesh with the 2D stuff. The studio might be excused because at the time of making Gyo the 2nd season of Fate/Zero was also in works but that’s only a fool’s argument. Even if 3D was done far better, I still think the story of Gyo was just more suited to be told in manga form. Bright colors clearly doesn’t retain the same ominous atmosphere that a usual black and white manga panels are able to achieve.

Psychedelic, but not that disturbing after all

As you see, Gyo is plagued by all sorts of trouble, and some of them came from Junji Ito himself while others were added by ufotable. Ito’s prime concern is to create unsettling imagery and what becomes of it and how it can be incorporated into a story (that should have an ending) seems to be of no bigger concern to him. It’s as likely as not that the longer stories of his will feel cohesive and finished and that is the main problem with his manga. Ufotable changed quite a lot in its anime adaptation and few of these changes were for good, or at least necessary and logical to begin with. From a historical perspective it was quite fun to see how a transition from the old ufotable to the new glossy aesthetic plagued by post-production gradients looked at some point. But yeah, Gyo makes little sense and even somehow you became interested in this cheap horror flick, go read the manga, especially the short stories.

     Have you ever encountered Gyo at some point? What do you think about Junji Ito’s storytelling and current aesthetic of ufotable?