Great Yokai War

After making a veritable tidal wave with a slew of twisted DTV hits including the Dead or Alive trilogy, Visitor Q, and Ichi the Killer, Japanese cult film director Takashi Miike hit a rough patch in which most of his films went unnoticed or, worse, disliked by the throngs who had so recently celebrated his cracked vision of filmmaking. The fact that Miike was directing upwards of four or five movies a year meant that, previously, if he hit a couple clunkers it was no big deal, because something new would be coming out in a couple months. But a couple high-profile flops, including Izo, his collaboration with Takeshi Kitano, coupled with the fact that another DTV maverick (Ryuhei Kitamura) was gobbling up the big budget theatrical jobs (although his success at such films, specifically Godzilla: Final Wars is a topic of considerable debate) were pointing to the notion that Miike’s career was going to be very much a live fast, die young sort of comet.

As such, there was considerable pressure on Miike, both artistically and professionally, to prove that he wasn’t out of the game so quickly. Never one to favor subtlety, Miike decided to more or less put all his chips on the table and throw himself into a mega-budget (for low budget filmmaking), special-effects laden fantasy film based on the yokai stories of old. The yokai — a seemingly endlessly bizarre parade of creatures based on Japanese folklore and pure imagination of the authors — found pop culture popularity in manga format as Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro, which was published in Shonen Magazine from 1966 until 1970, though it found a home in many other manga magazines with the word “shonen” in the title. Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro was about a young boy, Kitaro, with a host of magical abilities and the mission of reconciling the world of goblins and ghosts — yokai — with that of the humans. Kitaro’s own father was a yokai (if I recall correctly) who died before Kitaro was born. However, possessed of a desire to keep an eye on his son, he literally keeps an eye on his son, becoming a disembodied eyeball that resides in Kitaro’s empty left eye socket (which is usually covered by Kitaro’s floppy hair). The comic was created by Mizuki Shigeru, and the town in which he lived serves as the backdrop for the story in Great Yokai War.

Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro made the leap to cartoon television show in 1968, and has enjoyed several reincarnations since then. I would love to see the original series get some attention stateside, especially since all I’ve ever seen of it are third generation bootleg VHS tapes with no subtitles. Still, a ratman with the power to expand his scrotum to hot air balloon proportions is an international language that needs no translation (sadly, said creature doesn’t show up in Miike’s film, though you just know he wanted him to). Both the manga and the anime owe a great deal to Mizuki Shigeru’s interest in Japanese folklore, yokai, and the Shinto religion. The entire yokai mythology isn’t entirely dissimilar to rural folklore from the west, in which a variety of spooks and goblins, both benevolent and evil, inhabit the world around us (but especially the woods).

Yokai are probably best known to Western fans thanks to three live-action films produced by Toei Studios in the late 60s and were absolutely packed to the gills with outlandish creatures, including the crowd-pleasing, jig-dancing bamboo umbrella with one eye, one foot, and a huge waggling tongue. I first saw one of these films back in 1993 or so, when my friend Pat got a tape from one of his friends, who had just returned from Japan. The tape was unsubtitled, of course, but it was pretty easy to figure out what was going on. And anyway, you hardly need a comprehensible language when your movie is crammed with kappa, dancing umbrellas, women with super extend-o necks, weird little guys who look like they have a turnip for a head, and all manner of other insane monsters. A couple years ago, those three movies found their way to domestic DVD, and I was happy to actually be able to understand what was going on — to say nothing of finally seeing the other two yokai films, which until then I’d only seen bits of in the trailers that were on the old tape we had.

Things were pretty quiet on the yokai front for many a year, until Sakuya, Slayer of Demons came out and boasted a gratuitous but never the less welcome cameo appearance from the core yokai cast of yesteryear. Unfortunately, Sakuya is a fairly flawed film that mixes quality supernatural fantasy action with grating “little kid” humor that becomes well nigh insufferable thanks to the amount of self-indulgent whining. When a kid character is so bad that it can ruin guys with medieval bazookas fighting a giant spider woman, you know a line has been crossed.

When Miike dusted off yokai mythology for his movie, I can’t say I was excited. I wasn’t excited because, frankly, I’d just started a new job and I wasn’t keeping up with the overseas entertainment industry, so I had no idea Miike was even making a yokai film until the dang thing came out and I started reading reviews. I’ve never been a huge Miike fan. I liked the Dead Or Alive films (even the oft-maligned third film), Fudoh, and Gozu. Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer bored me to tears, and everything else didn’t do much more than elicit the response, “Eh.” Oh, City of Lost Souls. I liked that one, even though it seems pretty well maligned, too. So the point is that I don’t get all rabid and excited the way I do for, say, a new Sabu film (not to be confused with Miike’s film, Sabu). Speaking of which — what the hell, people? Every piece of crap Miike and Kitamura drop down the back of their pants gets a “special edition” DVD in the United States, but no one has touched a single Sabu film? That’s just flat-out insane. Even Kiyoshi Kurasawa films get DVD releases here (which is fine by me), and yet Dangan Runner, Drive, and all the others from Sabu remain MIA.

My take him or leave him attitude toward Miike thus established, I can admit that when I heard about Great Yokai War, I was pretty excited. All those monsters and potentially insane battles seemed like a perfect match for Miike. When I further heard that it was supposed to be a kid’s film, I didn’t fret. There are plenty of good kid’s films, especially from Japan. When I heard that the main character was himself just a kid, my enthusiasm ebbed a bit. I was still smarting from that horribly annoying kid in Sakuya, and I wasn’t itching at the opportunity to revisit that particular type of disappointment. Still, the recommendations kept flowing in, so I decided it was high time I checked out Miike’s yokai blow-out myself.

Great Yokai War was conceived not so much as a remake as it was a celebration of the original film’s 40th anniversary. Rather than acquiring the services of a tested children’s film director, rights holder Kadokawa Group decided to snag Miike as director, a move that may remind some of you of Toho’s decision to put cult film fave Ryuhei Kitamura in charge of the 50th anniversary Godzilla film. In my opinion, Kitamura’s Godzilla film is an absolute disaster, but fans are sharply and vehemently divided on that topic. Would the yokai fair any better under the protection of a man best known for movies in which a whore is drown in a kiddie pool of her own feces, a middle-aged woman squirts gallon after gallon of milk from her breasts, or a woman gives graphic birth to a fully grown yakuza? It was a pretty bizarre decision, but that’s only because the fact that Miike has made more innocent and sensitive fare (Bird People of China, Blues Harp, and even a previous kid’s film, Andromedia) is often lost amid the jumble of exploding guts full of ramen noodles and giant robots with giant penises.

One of the other defining characteristics of Takashi Miike’s oeuvre are the lengthy and often grindingly dull stretches of filler stuffed between more substantial set-pieces. These occur not so much because Miike has to pad out the running time as because Miike’s genuinely wants to make actual plot and character development a part of his spectacle, and he just happens to fail at it more times than he succeeds. Still, points for ambition, and it’s that ambition, even when he fails to realize it, that makes him a better writer and director that Kitamura, who is happy to dispense with character development and plot altogether and joyously embrace over-the-top non-stop action (which has worked to his advantage many times, and against him at others). But Kitamua and Miike both have shown a similar faltering over aspects of their stories that don’t involve the gross-out gags or breakneck action. In their defense, this is hardly a problem that afflicts them alone. The question remained, though, how would Miike handle the narrative of a film of this scope? The scenario lends itself to making a Kitamura-style action blow-out, but the old yokai movies succeed primarily because the goblin characters are charming and endearing.

The quick impression of Great Yokai War (which other than boasting lots of yokai, has a completely different story from the old film) was that it was pretty good, but it wasn’t as good as I had hoped. Heavily dependent on CGI for backgrounds, the film possessed a cheaper look than I wanted from it. Fortunately and unfortunately, CGI has made a quantum leap forward in terms of quality when it’s used for backgrounds and set dressing, which means that when something is a bit crude, it’s threadbare nature is all the more noticeable. The CGI work in Great Yokai War comes off as a tad clumsy, which seems a pretty silly criticism from me considering how much I enjoyed the patently ludicrous and unconvincing puppets and make-up that comprised the yokai themselves in the old films, as well as in this one. All things considered, it’s a relatively minor quibble, but it just feel like the CGI could have been realized a bit better.

As a fan of the old films, I was also disappointed that the original gang of “primary” yokai are used for little more than cameo and background players in this new adventure. I know that’s just me being stodgy, and I should be thankful that anyone at all wants to put a one-eyed, one-legged, tongue-waggling bamboo umbrella in a film, but I missed that thing having more of a role, to say nothing of the turnip-head thing with the grass skirt. I guess I should have learned some of the proper names of these monsters and ghosts. The kappa once again gets a major role, as he did in the old yokai film, and I really have no complaints about the cute water nymph in the skimpy kimono playing a major role (do great legs, a beautiful face, and elf ears make up for weird green webbed hands and feet? I’ll only know when I’m faced with the choice in real life, which should be soon, by my calculations), but besides her and the kappa, the rest of the main yokai cast are underdeveloped and underused. One of them is a flying shroud, another is a bellowing red-faced guy, and then there’s a guy who obsesses about azuki beans. Most of these parts are filled by veteran Japanese actors, but half the time you’d be hard-pressed to recognize them if you didn’t already known for whom you were looking.

Any fears that Miike is going to pull punches because this is a kid’s film will be quickly dispelled by the beginning of the film, in which our young hero Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) has a nightmare about the annihilation of Tokyo, highlighted by a psycho woman in a cheek-revealing white mini-dress (western audience fan fave Chiaki Kuriyama from Battle Royale, Azumi 2, and Kill Bill) and towering, snow-white beehive hairdo. We also get a small-town farmer discovering that his cow has given birth to a slimy, moaning calf with a vaguely humanoid face and a tendency to trill out portents of darkness and doom. Now this is the sort of kid’s film I can get behind.

As a fan of frightful and fanciful fare from a very young age (though I was terrified by Disney’s Pinocchio), it always irritates me when a film is judged “too dark” or “too scary” for little kids. Those were exactly the sorts of movies I loved growing up, and it pains me that modern children are subjected to increasingly bland, insipid entertainment simply because someone, somewhere might think that a kid would get scared. Hey, guess what? Some kids think its fun to be scared. Others like to be wowed by Grimm’s Fairytale style stories full of the macabre and menacing. Yeah, some kids will run screaming for the door, but I figure a parent should be a pretty good judge of what will scare and delight their child versus what will just terrify their kid and make them wet the bed. From the beginning I realized that, regardless of what I might think of it as an adult, Great Yokai War is exactly the sort of movie I’d embrace as a child. And I decided this before I’d even seen the sexy water nymph.

After a jarring intro that is signature Miike, the film settles down for the next hour or so in an attempt to get its cards in order before the 52-pickup free-for-all of the finale. Tadashi is a young boy who has moved to a rural village with his mother after a divorce. His father and older sister remained in Tokyo, though only his sister plays any part in the story. The father is a non-entity, undoubtedly a reflection of the MIA fathers who are committed entirely to work, much to the detriment and alienation of their wife and children. Tadashi is having a hard time adjusting to life in the village, where the local bullies pick on him for being a city slicker who ain’t down with the ways of the tougher country folk. These being small-town Japanese bullies, they do things like encircle and taunt him lightly, as opposed to the rural elementary school bullies with which I was familiar in Kentucky, who would forego taunting and jump straight to shoving your head in a toilet or throwing coleslaw at you during lunch.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the bulk of humanity (humanity’s utter obliviousness to the world around them is a lynchpin of the story), a grim-faced villain named Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa, playing it completely straight-laced despite the insanity of the situation) and his whip-wielding assistant Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama) have established a base inside a giant filth-belching industrial factory, where they use black magic to convert the kind and peace-loving yokai of nature into hideous Shinya Tsukamoto-style cyborgs covered with rust and grime and saw blades. Obviously, Great Yokai War is another in the long line of Japanese films with overt pro-environmental messages — something I’ve always thought was as admirable as it was ironic coming from a country that dammed all its rivers and can’t get enough delicious, delicious whale meat. Still, you can’t really make a proper yokai film set in modern times without dealing with environmental concerns, as the yokai themselves are intrinsically tied to Japan’s countryside and natural environment. Tackling a yokai story in the modern era means the domain of the goblins is going to be in direct conflict with modern society. Kato himself is a human who has become a demon. Incensed by the way humans use items then cast them away with total disregard, he has decided to harness the resentment and hatred in the world and use it usher in a new era of darkness.

At a village festival (during which we get a fleeting glimpse of a town square monument to Kitaro himself, a bronze statue which really exists and is part of the hundred-statue yokai monument in the town of Sakaiminato, which is also home to the Mizuki Shigeru Museum, which also makes an appearance in this film), Tadashi is chosen by the ceremonial kirin to be the Kirin Rider, the young lad in charge of defending the village from evil until the next festival. This would be a fun ceremonial post for a young boy to assume were it not for the fact that actual dark forces are threatening Tadashi’s new home. Tadashi’s grandfather (played by the legendary Bunta Sugawara, of Battles Without Honor and Humanity fame, among others), who alternates between bouts of lucidity and senility, seems to be the only one who understands that Tadashi’s new title may be a bit more than a novelty, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much he understands.

Things begin to get weird for Tadashi when he is told by the bullies that the Kirin Rider has to journey up to Goblin Cave to retrieve a sacred sword. Once again, although the yokai may be recognizably Japanese, the set-up of the story is universally familiar, or rather, it’s familiar to anyone who grew up anywhere near the dark, menacing woods or a house that was rumored to be the home of a witch who ate little kids. It proves that, while the cosmetics of any given story may be particular to a certain country or people, a common chord runs through all the stories and gives them an instantly recognizable and universal appeal.

No sooner has Tadashi set out for Goblin Cave than the yokai start coming out in droves and Tadashi finds himself charged with learning how to be a true Kirin Rider and stopping Kato’s apocalyptic scheme. The “chosen one” plot is pretty standard fare for the fantasy genre, in which a seemingly unprepared an incapable person is selected to be the “chosen one” and must discover the strength within and defeat the evil, so on and so forth. To Great Yokai War’s credit, it never once actually uses the phrase “chosen one” or “chosen one foretold by the prophecy,” so hats off to it for that. The magic, however, is rarely in the uniqueness of the story, but rather, in your execution of tried and true material. Takashi Miike splits his time between working well within the bounds of what we expect from a family-friendly fantasy and pushing it toward greater depths of maturity. The end result is never quite as thrilling as it should be, but it’s still plenty fun and has to be commended for its attempt to be something more than just mindless kid’s movie fluff.

For starters, there’s the sexual tension underlying some of the action. Most obviously, you have Chiaki with her rear hanging out the back of a tiny micro-dress, snapping a whip and cackling hysterically (seems that has become her trademark). On the other hand, you have river nymph Kawahime (Mai Takahashi — is she the same Mai Takahashi who got debunked as a fake psychic by James Randi, because if she is, that’d be pretty cool), who wears an open-sided tunic showing off a lot of thigh that she doesn’t seem to mind the young boy steals a caress of every now and then. Although perhaps sounding a bit inappropriate for a kid’s movie, that’s only because adults tend to forget what it’s like to be a kid, especially an eleven-year-old boy who is just starting to discover, you know, those feelings. At the heart of Great Yokai War is the story of a boy exiting his boyhood and entering his teen years, on his way to becoming an adult. Obviously, some sort of sexual discovery, even one as restrained and innocent as it is here, is going to play a part in the kid’s life.

In fact, it’s this concentration on the age-old “boy becomes a man, or at least less of a whiny little kid” motif that gives Great Yokai War its most effective and surprisingly poignant moment: after the great yokai war has been waged (which is actually a war between a kid, a couple yokai, and a crazy evil guy, with the rest of the yokai just sort of showing up as spectators and revelers), Tadashi has retired his obligations as the Kirin Rider and done some growing up. The fuzzy little yokai who becomes his closest friend (realized via a very crudely animatronic plush toy, which for some reason didn’t bug me as much as the crude CGI) tries desperately to get his attention, but Tadashi is a man now, and with maturity he loses the ability to see the yokai who played such a significant role in his life.

The moment is badly undercut by Miike’s inclusion of a pointless zinger to open the door for a sequel, but I can almost overlook that based on the strength of the scene otherwise. Since the theme of humans discarding the things of their past plays such an important role in propelling the action, it makes the journey from youth to maturity even more effective. In fact, that theme works on a surprising number of levels. On the surface, there’s the simple concept of humans throwing stuff away and polluting the planet, and those things coming back to haunt us. Or eat us.

On a deeper level, there’s the idea that musty old folklore characters like the yokai are being discarded by modern society — both by the simple act of the society in the story moving on and becoming less in tune with natural surroundings and the spirits who inhabit them, as well as in the real world, where kids seeking modern entertainment have no real interest in a bunch of weirdos from a manga series that was popular in the 1960s. And finally, you have the concept of discarding the things you cherished in your past as you enter adulthood. It’s a moment perfectly realized, as corny or weird as it may sound, by a cute little fuzzy critter who looks like a toy trying to get the attention of a young man who once cherished him but has since moved on.

Counterbalancing Tadashi’s journey is a journalist who was saved as a young boy by Kawahime and has spent the rest of his life trying in vain to recapture that moment and relive his past. He’s a particularly interesting idea (though not an especially well realized character, unfortunately) in an era where much of our adulthood is dedicated to recapturing and romanticizing our childhood (romanticizing largely taking the form of pretending like every single thing that ever happened during the 70s or 80s played a significant role in our lives and constitutes a beloved memory, instead of admitting the reality of the situation).

Although I didn’t think his character came of as interesting as he should have been, the journalist does boast the film’s best comedic scene, when in the midst of the great yokai royal rumble and all this talk of Kirin Riders, he is being pushed and battered by ghosts he cannot see, at least until he discovers a crate of Kirin Ichiban beer and begins drinking himself silly, at which time he can see the yokai once more (which, aside from being funny and brilliant use of product placement ties in nicely with the common idea that aside from kids, only senile old folks — like Tadashi’s grandfather — and the town loony can experience the fantasy world, probably because they have been reduced in one way or another to a more accepting and childlike state of mind).

Themes of lost youth and environmental destruction aside, we can evaluate Great Yokai War from a purely action-adventure standpoint. You’d think this would be Miike’s strong point, and that he’d be weak on the bittersweet exploration. In fact, the opposite is true. The action is not especially bad or good. It’s just never compelling. There’s a great battle in the Goblin Cave involving Tadashi, the giant goblin King Tengu (Miike regular Kenichi Endo), Agi, and her army of chainsaw-armed industrial robots, the final showdown between Kato and Tadashi is surprisingly lackluster (though I do like that it’s a happy bean that wins the day), though there is a nice thematic continuity in the finale, as Kato randomly discards Agi in the same way humans discard their possessions. The big throwdown between the vast population of yokai who descend upon Tokyo thinking that a festival of darkness is begin staged is clever (the yokai never even seem to realize they’re actually fighting a war with Kato’s mechanized demons).

There are other clever bits thrown in that show Miike really put a lot of time and effort into writing the script (the first time he gets screenwriting credit, if I’m not mistaken). When Kato’s demonic creation (the entire factory becomes a huge demon, in one of the film’s moments of good CGI) descends upon Tokyo, a man dismisses the confusion outside by casually quipping that, “It’s only Gamera.” In a moment of darker humor, a panicking provincial policeman attempts to shoot a rampaging mecha-beast, but his aim is so poor that he misses the monster entirely and manages to hit the monster’s intended human victim square between the eyes. Less successful is the comic relief courtesy of the kappa (a turtle-like humanoid, played by Japanese comedian Sadao Abe, who also appeared in Higuchinsky’s excellent surrealist horror film, Uzumaki), though he does manage to score a laugh or two, which is more than you can say for most comic relief.

The acting is uniformly good, and each of the players who inhabit the yokai manage to make them human but also bizarrely inhuman. They’re familiar, but you can’t fully relate to them. The yokai are realized primarily through the use of old-fashioned make-up, masks, and puppetry, though a few are rendered or assisted by CGI, such as the woman with the snakelike neck, the paper wall with eyes, and maybe the stone wall that walks and talks (yokai can get pretty far-out). Kawahime is the most complex of the goblins, aside from being the hottest even with her weird amphibian hands. She began life as a discarded effigy and was rescued by Kato, only to spurn his offer to join him in destroying humanity. At the same time, she is torn between her resentment of mankind and her love for those she saves from drowning. As the young hero Tadashi, Ryunosuke Kamiki manages to avoid being annoying for most of the time, though Miike doesn’t seem to have much more for him to do than stumble around and yell a lot. The yelling gets kind of tiresome, even if that’s what a kid would really be likely to do when confronted with a massive host of goblins and chainsaw-wielding cyborgs. Still, when he’s allowed to, he rises to the occasion and makes for a relatively painless pre-teen hero.

Great Yokai War just barely misses being a great film, but there’s really no shame in merely being a very good film. Miike’s pacing is still uneven, and while he succeeds with some character development, he fails at other times, making for some spots that drag. The yokai are never as fully realized characters as they should be, with the exception of Kawahime. It’s nice to see so many old familiar faces — both human and yokai — and as a nostalgia trip (there’s that lost youth thing again), Great Yokai War is a lot of fun. As a kid, I would have loved it. As an adult, struggling to remember youth, I merely liked it a lot. Whatever the case, it’s a triumphant return for Miike, and with a film that was apparently very near and dear to his heart. I my not have liked it quite as much as I’d hoped, and it has it flaws, but all in all, Great Yokai War is a madcap good time at the movies.