Written by Kris Tonerud

Japan, 2005. 124 min. Kadokawa Eiga K.K./ Nippon Television Network Corp. Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Bunta Sugawara, Chiaki Kuriyama, Hiroyuki Etsushi Tokoyawa; Music: Koji Endo; Cinematography: Hideo Yamamoto; Produced by: Fumio Inoue; Written by: Hiroshi Aramata and Takeshi Miike; Directed by: Takeshi Miike

One can only imagine the discussions that must have taken place in the boardroom of Daei, the venerable Japanese Studio that has for decades played Paramount to Toho’s MGM, concerning the proposed revival of the beloved Children’s Cultural Phenomenon known as the Yokai Monsters; a series of Manga, TV Series, and feature films based on Shinto and secular folk tales, hugely popular in Japan throughout the sixties. A studio flack, with more inspiration than brains, says “I think we should offer it to Takashi Miike.” A stunned silence falls over the room. Miike? The most over-the-top, outrageous, and controversial member of the new Japanese New Wave? The subversive provocateur who has delighted in repeatedly pushing his audience over the edges of good taste and sanity with the likes of Audition, the icy thriller which, for two-thirds of its length, lulls the audience into believing it is watching a somber, if somewhat quirky family drama, only to end in a furious outburst of vengeful violence that has no equal in western cinema? The same Miike whose off-the-rails Dead or Alive Trilogy starts as a hallucinatory copflick, ends as an apocalyptic Sci-Fi Epic, and contains the now-notorious scene in which a murdered prostitute dies the most horrifyingly disgusting death in movie history, with a drugged, demented smile on her face? Certainly not the auteur-creator of the cheerfully non-PC rumination on family Visitor Q, the lunatic musical Happiness of the Katakuris, or the iconic, ultra violent (even for Miike) punk saga Ichi The Killer? Somehow, however, the nutty exec gets his way, and The Great Yokai War is, against all probability, directed by Miike. Somewhere that exec is smiling. He was right.

For the uninitiated, The ‘Yokai Monsters’ are a race of spirits, often silly, whimsical and loopy, sometimes quite unsettling and disturbing, but essentially benevolent, taking the form of animals, distorted humans and everyday objects, that have coexisted with us unseen (except by children) for eons, reappearing periodically to rescue mankind from evil. In The Great Yokai War, bullied youngster Tadashi is chosen by the Yokai as the next Kirin Rider, a saviour figure who must protect the world from the onslaught of evil. Just in time, too, as resurrected demon Katou, powered by the collective resentment of all the discarded household objects of human history (those beloved old sneakers your wife finally threw out apparently have feelings too) is using a horrific fiery broth to transform the lovable Yokai into skeletal robotic machines to serve at his command. Aided by Agi, a former Yokai, enslaved by her love for Katou, the demon intends to harness the anger and pain of humanity (starting, of course, with Tokyo) to bring about the usual apocalyptic world-ending catastrophe. Tadashi must prove his worth to the Yokai, and, with his tiny sidekick Sunekosuri (a cross between an Ewok and a gerbil) must obtain a magic sword from Goblin Mountain, and, well, save humanity.

In re-thinking the Yokai, those scary-cute earth spirits originally created by Mizuki Shigeru in his seminal Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro Manga series, Takashi Miike happily has made of The Great Yokai Wars one of the best fantasy adventures in years; wildly imaginative, gorgeously produced, and emotionally satisfying, but it should not necessarily come as such a surprise that enfant terrible Miike was the right man for the job. First of all, the original film version to which this is a loving homage, Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s Spook Warfare, had an impish nasty streak of its own amidst the fairytale sweetness. Spook Warfare is told (when the parade of preposterous monsters is not center stage) in a series of artfully staged, beautifully acted dramatic scenes that play like an Asian Hammer Film, culminating in technicolor spatter straight out of Horror of Dracula. Still more unsettling for the kiddies must have been its ‘demon possesses your family and neighbors’ plot, with a beloved father (in a scene directly lifted from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) now vampirized, returning home to the snarling of his devoted dog, to terrorize his pious family with outrageous, evil demands. The fact that the day is finally saved by a talking umbrella and his fantastical cohorts does not detract from the fact that traditionally, Japan’s children’s stories do not shy away from the darker side of things, and when Miike has cuddly Sunekosuri imprisoned by the villains in a Microwave(!), or shows young hero Tadashi sobbing over the gooey, lifeless body of his furry pal, whom he has inadvertantly killed, he isn’t ‘Miike being Miike’, he’s being true to the original.

Second, as Miike’s fans already know, the power of his films springs from his grounding of even his most excessive moments with an emotional truth that makes them all the more wrenching, yet ultimately satisfying. There are no gratuitous moments in a Miike film; everything, in his twisted but strangely rational world, is there for a reason, and there is a curious sort of optimism in much of his work that betrays, underneath the relentless horror, the heart of a secret romantic. This romanticism is given full reign in Great Yokai War, but true to form, Miike earns his happy ending. Tadashi does not become a true super hero until the last reel, spending most of the film as a very real, very terrified child, caught up in a desperate situation, and the fact that he always manages to do the right thing at the last moment is made all the more powerful by the fact that it is never easy for him to do so. And though this classic Quest story has its obligatory moral, (we discard the content of our past at our peril, as everything and everyone are necessary and useful) it is introduced and sustained in a gradual and unforced way through some thoughtful dialogue and the initially hidden worthiness of many of the Yokai (one Yokai’s seeming obsession with collecting azuki beans ends up saving the day).

In breathing new life into the Yokai saga, Miike is aided by the largest budget of his indie career, and by the considerable advances in effects technology since 1969. Miike’s combination of ingenious makeup, CGI and Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion are never used to show off, or to mask the lack of a story, rather giving this new Yokai saga a depth and resonance its predecessor could not have achieved. As heartwarming and rich as were the acting, photography and settings of Kuroda’s original, the monsters (with the notable exception of the non-puppet Long-Neck Woman and the Wraith Girl, whose hair-masked face eerily presages the ghost child now so common in post-modern Japanese horror) were Sid and Marty Krofft-style motionless masks, dependent on the (often eloquent) voicing and physical expressiveness of the actors who inhabited them. Though the Yokai in The Great Yokai War are still not ‘realistic’ (that would betray the spirit of the original) the masks and make up available to Miike are flexible and believable, allowing this batch of Yokai to express a far greater range of emotion than in Spook Wars (only the fondly remembered Umbrella Man retains his original campy silliness, in a tribute to the spirit of the original). Art Director Hisashi Sasaki’s rich, detailed dreamscapes create an environment that becomes a character in itself, successfully melding the fairytale world of the Yokai with the gloomy, urban cityscape of a doom-threatened Tokyo. The Great Yokai War also benefits from a superb cast; Etsushi Tokoyawa underplays demon Katou with just the right touch of tormented menace, Agi is played by jailbait temptress Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill) with hissing relish, veteran Yakuza Film heavy Bunto Sugawara is delightfully cast against type as Tadashi’s senile but prescient Grampa, and Ryunosuke Kamiki is simply terrific as Tadashi, making an unsentimental and completely believable arc from traumatized youngster to capable, courageous young man.

In creating an exciting, loving celebration of the Yokai Monsters’ 40th anniversary, maverick Takashi Miike has also proven to his critics that he is a modern master in the making, capable of all sorts of surprising leaps of genre and substance, and his sure-handed direction (particularly in the quiet, graceful depiction of Tadashi’s home life that leads up to the supernatural explosion to follow) provides a tantalizing glimpse of wonders, both mainstream and non, yet to come.

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