By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Small-town Japan. You might think it’s an idyllic spot to nab yourself a discarded 18th century Japanese house and live out your days in pastoral bliss when it’s actually a hive of “Deliverance”-level backwards, backwoods tight-knit families that are cannibals. That’s putting it nicely. This is what the TV series “Gannibal,” based on the manga by Masaaki Ninomiya, would have you believe. It might ruin you altogether for rural tourism.
This horror series, now playing on Hulu and Disney+, stars Yuya Yagira as Daigo, a policeman who is sent to the one-monster town of Kuge after the former policeman “disappears” purportedly due to shame over gambling debts, but we’ve already seen in the preceding scenes that he lost his mind…or something. Daigo arrives with his lovely wife and mute child in tow. (Why is there always a mute child? It’s the telltale sign that something “happened” to mute her. I have never encountered this in real life, yet if we go by the film and TV industry, it’s as common as ice cream.)
Things are instantly weird. The townsfolk give Daigo an excessively friendly welcome, which turns into “we’re keeping an eye on you and making sure you see and do things our way.” Already a bit overwhelmed by their suffusion of generosity and fresh market produce, Daigo is then further thrown by clan Goto, who show up to announce that their grandma has died. Well, been mutilated. They are sure it was a bear. Daigo first demonstrates his police-ly acumen by pointing out grandma has human teeth marks on her arm, which sends the Goto’s into a rage. Are you disrespecting our grandma?! And then they all have a laugh. Got you. Let’s have a beer.
So now you get how it’s going.
Back home, Daigo is dealing with his needy wife (Riho Yoshioka) who wants him to set up the TV and doesn’t understand why he has to hobnob with the locals. (She’s not annoying; this is just the plot. She’s very charming and a totally sympathetic character in fact, as Daigo frequently leaves her alone, as he must, and she gets to do things like find the words “RUN AWAY” carved into the molding or be chased by murderous Goto’s.) “Do you always wear sandals,” Goto’s young and upcoming leader, Keisuke (Show Kasamatsu), asks her. Um, yes? Too bad. Gonna hamper your ability to play the prey to our psychopathic mob.
So yeah, it’s not really like a “secret” that something is odd in Denmark.
In an interview with the Weekly, Yagira, speaking through a translator, indicated that his favorite parts of the series were the action scenes. He enjoyed preparing for the fights, learning how to use a firearm, and his favorite moment is a giant explosion in episode three. Indeed, it is during the tense and violent parts of the show that we get a sense of Daigo’s underlying personality, the one that is only hinted at, that endangered his family and got him sent here in the first place. He is remarkably calm under pressure, despite his outwardly timid demeanor, and displays, at times, a devil-may-care attitude. Yagira adopts a haphazard smile—if it can be called a smile, maybe a grimace—that perfectly encapsulates this surprising element of Daigo’s psyche and might also be a nod to the art of the manga.
When Daigo decides to go up the hill to the Goto encampment by himself, we first think he is remarkably naïve or going crazy, like his predecessor. As Yagira explained, it’s Daigo’s sense of duty and justice that compels him. We begin to understand that when the Goto’s say this new police officer is “good enough” for their tiny hamlet, it might have been meant as an insult, but it’s actually true—he is good enough. He’s a one-man-show who smoothly handles multiple criminals by himself. He is successfully loading them into the police car (not sure what kind of Keystone cop havoc was going to happen as his police-issue vehicle is miniscule); and he is only unsuccessful in wiping his hands of the entire ordeal right then and there because of, let’s just say, some unexpected interruptions by meddling elders, and horrifying supernatural hassles. Not fair.
“Gannibal,” the show, stays VERY close to the manga—which has sold almost 2 million copies since it came out in 2018—and was the most watched locally produced original TV series on Disney+ in Japan when it first released in late December 2022. It’s creepy, and it will get into your head. I loved the layers it provides that keep you hungry to learn more (but not…that kind of hunger, like it will turn you into a vegetarian, okay?). Everything that seems obvious is maybe not. The cinematography is appropriately evocative; it’s moody and foggy, you’re up in the mountains, with crazed weirdos up in your personal space, and you want to stay on tiptoes at all times.
There is also a fascinating mix of history and lore. Although it sounds a bit preachy or forced at times, we are given some information on what is called “endocannibalism”—eating your dead to inherit their spirit and their power—yum. But it’s a practice with some following around the world, or used to be (just used to be *nervous laughter*). We are also told that “back in the day” villages in Japan all had their own governing systems, and we’d like to stay that way. Thank you very much, you don’t have any authority here, Mr. Policeman.
Yagira’s acting is great, so nonchalant, so natural. He is the first Japanese actor and the youngest from anywhere to win “Best Actor” at Cannes, for a movie called “Nobody Knows,” and he carries the show surprisingly well, but there are many strong characters—some come on a little too strong. It’s over-the-top, extravagant horror at its best, and it’s got everything—including innocent children exchanging presents with giant ghost zombie ancestors (I don’t know, but I’m grossed out). It’s a skin-crawling view into what I hope is a nonexistent world.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.