The Great Yokai War brought back to mind an on-again-off-again debate I’ve been having with friends for a long time: Are kids today more jaded, cynical and worldly than they were even a generation ago, or is that just me? I ask this because the movie serves as the perfect context for such a debate: a fantasy epic aimed mainly at younger viewers, one which comes on like an overheated Asian version of The NeverEnding Story—but it’s been put together in such a way that only adults might really appreciate it. That said, kids today are a lot more sophisticated than most of us are willing to give them credit for, so maybe this is just further evidence to that end. I know I enjoyed it, but I wondered if even the Pokémon and Naruto set would connect with it. Maybe they will, and I’m simply being cynical.
What really had some people’s heads spinning about Yokai was the director: Takashi Miike. Yes, the same Takashi Miike who gave us the cheerfully lurid madness of Dead or Alive, Ichi the Killer, City of Lost Souls, but also more whimsical stuff like The Happiness of the Katakuris and the genuinely bucolic and understated Sabu. As it turns out, he’s a pretty good fit for the project: Miike’s playful, juvenile sense of humor mates well with the movie’s need for a fun center. Even what could have been preachy moralism (“Those who discard the past have no future”) winds up fitting nicely into the movie’s overall feel.
Since Yokai is at heart a kiddie adventure, it gives us a kid hero, Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki, who played a preteen Yoshitsune in the NHK miniseries), a refugee from Tokyo’s noise and bustle, living in a sleepy country village with his mother and increasingly-senile grandfather. After Tadashi visits a country festival and receives the ceremonial title of “Kirin Rider” (for no reason he can immediately discern), Grandpa drops hints about the supernatural beasties who live in the mountains and can help him fulfill his chosen destiny. Tadashi’s not having any of this until he actually runs into, and saves, one of said beasties: “Sunekosuri”, a Muppet-like creature whose main functions are to rub up against people’s legs, look sad and bleed yellow ooze.
But Tadashi’s heroism will be badly needed to fight against the evil Lord Kato (veteran actor Etsushi Toyokawa), a demon who is tapping into the collective resentment of the discarded objects of the world to create an army of monsters made out of junk. To that end, Tadashi joins up with a small clutch of yokai—the collective name for the aforementioned creatures—to save the day. Among them are Kawataro (Sadao Abe, of Yaji and Kita), the kappa, a turtle-like creature with a goofball attitude; Kawaihime (Mai Takahashi), a river spirit who may know Kato a bit better than she lets on; and Shojo (Masaomi Kondo, of The Pornographers and Horror of a Deformed Man), the red-faced Herald of the Kirin, charged with the task of inspiring Tadashi to do more than run and scream.
The movie’s connections to manga are more than just stylistic: there’s a whole scene involving horror manga master Shigeru Mizuki, who more or less turned yokai stories into a whole genre unto themselves. The monsters in the movie aren’t copies of Mizuki’s characters, though, but an attempt to tap into the same wellspring of the fantastic that inspired them. But much of the imagery is unapologetically manga-esque: Kato, with his slicked-back hair and black suit, looks like a character from one of Suehiro Maruo’s nightmare stories, and his whip-swinging sidekick Agi (none other than Chiaki Kuriyama of Battle Royale), with her beehive platinum hairdo, could have stepped out of one of Gô Nagai’s Cutey Honey stories.
I liked how the film gets a lot of droll, not-always-obvious humor out of the creatures themselves. When their generalissimo demands they band together and fight back against Kato, many of them are nonplussed: “What am I supposed to do? I’m an umbrella.” Another yokai who is, well, a wall, is likewise equally unwilling to help. The only one who does stick around is the bean-washer, who’s equally limited in his ability: “I’ll wash my beans as best I can,” he grins, and ironically enough, his beans turn out to be pivotally important.
The movie also has fun with the kid’s sense of apprehension about the whole adventure he’s been thrown into: at first he’s reluctant as hell (what kid wouldn’t be?), but he soon sticks his neck out and becomes a participant in the action and not just a hapless witness. This is something Hayao Miyazaki always handled well in his own animated fantasies, especially Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service—a sense of empathy for how kids insist on being taken seriously, and how they can use that as a way to survive in many surroundings.
Miike has done some of his most phantasmal-looking work on very small budgets, so it’s nice to see him adapt well to having more money to throw onto the screen. Most of the effects here are stellar: the entire second half of the movie, for instance, is just eye-popping, and there’s a “yokai festival” battle scene that’s some kind of insane masterpiece. Sometimes, however, they’re just plain cheesy—along the lines of the earlier, less technically savvy Godzilla movies. Maybe the point isn’t that they’re “realistic”, which makes twice as much sense in a movie about the suspension of disbelief—although that still doesn’t excuse problems like Sunekosuri looking about as animated as a stuffed doll that the actors toss back and forth between each other.
As much as I enjoyed the film, I had to ask myself: Is this really a “kid’s” story? I don’t know—it seems entirely too gory and disturbing for young children, and older children who wouldn’t be as bothered by it might actually find it fairly dippy. Maybe what Miike has done here is create a kind of fairy tale for grownups—which seems oddly appropriate for an age where some of the best comics and animation are written for people in their thirties. Who else would laugh when Kato’s giant living factory of doom comes flying over the mountains, smashing off the top of the Imperial Palace, only to have a homeless person look up from his tent and grunt “Ah, it’s only Gamera”?