I wonder if there are cosmic laws about entropy that extend into movies, keeping certain ones from ever becoming too good. Think of how many movies begin with one wonderful rush of inspiration only to degenerate into another shipment of shrink-wrapped product from the cliché factory. Consider: Brainstorm started with one of the best premises for a science-fiction story, then nosedived into a tired mess about marital strife and nasty meddlesome government agents.
Now consider Sakuya Yokaidan (meaning "Sakuya the Demon Slayer"), which takes a great idea — no, several great ideas — and jams them into a story of such annoying banality that I wanted to shout advice at the screen. Given that I watch most of my movies on my computer, this did nothing except get spittle all over the picture tube, but it sure made me feel better. Directed by Tomoo Haraguchi, who was also responsible for the superior Robokill Beneath Discoclub Layla (a/k/a Mikadroid), it's all flash and filigree without an ounce of substance.
The premise: In medieval Japan, a legendary sword used to hunt demons must be put to use by its most recent designated wielder, Sakuya, a young girl of considerable fighting skill. The problem is that the sword drains the life of the one who uses it — in fact, at the shrine of the girl's clan, there's a candle which conveniently tells you how much life she's got left. She inherited the sword from her father, who with his dying strength destroyed a kappa (sort of a man-turtle from Japanese mythology). Sakuya also adopted the kappa's baby son as her own brother, a move her advisors found questionable, but she saw the baby as being an innocent. (In fact, she goes so far as to fill the kid in on exactly what happened — which winds up being a wiser move than it might first appear.)
Then things get ugly. Mt. Fuji just erupted, and a whole slew of demonic denizens have been loosed upon the land. Guess who gets to clean up the mess? Yep, Sakuya and Taro, her kappa brother, embark on a mission to find the source of the demonic incursion and stop it dead. They do so, in scenes that bring to mind everything from the Godzilla movies to Ghostbusters. Some of the interludes have a degree of cleverness — like a moment involving a madman who turns girls into "living dolls," but it's dealt with in such a farcical and skimpy way that it barely works.
One of the very few things the film has any ambition about is Taro, and there is a rather halfhearted subplot about him being quasi-seduced by this demon queen who wants to adopt her as his son. Said scene, by the way, features one of the most excruciating J-Pop ballads ever captured by modern recording equipment, and made me immensely grateful for the presence of a mute button on my DVD player. Allegedly Taro is forced to make Sacrifices and Hard Choices, but the movie ends without him actually having to pay a real price for anything. It's the same kind of pop moralizing that ruins most Hollywood movies — exactly the sort of thing I came to Japanese films to get away from.
Sakuya and the World's Most Annoying Child Sidekick, who has to choose between his
“sister” and the ultra-hot Spider Queen. (Wow. Hard choice.)
Most Japanese movies, even the biggest-budget ones, have some degree of cheapness to them, and Sakuya is sadly no exception. To be precise, it isn't that the whole movie is cheap-looking: there are some extremely impressive effects in the 2nd half of the film, and the shots of Fuji blowing its top are amazing. But most of the monster hordes that Sakuya fights off look like they stepped off the set of H.R. Pufnstuf; there's a demonic cat in particular that's so bad it's laughable. One side moment involves Taro pausing to watch a bunch of other supernatural beasties frolicking Midsummer Night's Dream style in the forest, and we can't help but notice how much they look like foam-rubber denizens of some Japanese supernatural theme park.
Eventually, everything builds towards a climax involving the Spider Queen, with Taro being forced to choose between her and his "sister." By this time, any real plot (including the whole sword-that-drains-the-life-of-its-wielder thing) has been sidelined, and we're just watching a bunch of people clump around in goofy-looking costumes. That's always the problem with a movie like this — because it's never more than a clever eye-filler and time-waster, it's ultimately about nothing more than what flashy effects they can pull off in front of the camera.
I have spent most of the past year or more looking at some of the most astonishing and inventive movies to come out of Japan: Battle Royale, Gojoe, Hana-bi, Audition, Zipang. Given that almost all of them are readily available in English-language editions, and this film is not, anyone who chooses Sakuya Yokaidan over them needs to have one of those long, sad talks with their therapist about their priorities.