Gegege no Kitaro is a poor man’s Great Yokai War, which is my way of saying go see that movie first and only come back to this one if you absolutely have to. Kids will probably like it — young kids. Really young kids who haven’t yet learned about the Studio Ghibli films, which is my way of saying … okay, you get the idea.
Kitaro’s been adapted from the manga by Shigeru Mizuki, he who more or less did for yokai (Japanese spooks ‘n goblins) what Futaro Yamada did for ninja: turn them into a staple of Japanese popular culture. Once that happens, the original work is ripe for being cross-adapted to other media, as was the case with Yamada’s novel Kouga Ninja Scrolls. That book was turned both into an outstanding manga and anime series (Basilisk), and a pitifully bad live-action movie (Shinobi). It wasn’t just that some things worked better as animation than they did as live action. The manga / TV show had strong writing and both stuck close to and diverged from the source material when it was beneficial. The movie mated cheesy-looking CGI with a pointless trashing of the original story, and came up empty.
I haven’t yet read the original Kitaro manga (it’s in English but difficult to find), but I suspect it was simply used as a rough template for the goings-on. Kitaro himself, a one-eyed boy with a perpetually low-hanging lock of gray hair and an arsenal of supernatural implements that would make Astro Boy jealous, serves as a kind of one-man U.N. Peacekeeping Force between the human and yokai worlds. The movie also brings in most of the original cast — the rat-man Nezumi-otoko, the cat-girl Neko-musume — and Kitaro’s dad, a … walking eyeball. (It’s a long story.)
The plot, such as it is, involves this magical stone that’s unleashed from its resting place when a greedy construction company tears up a sacred burial ground to build an amusement park. The park developers draft in Nezumi-otoko (Yo Oizumi, all squirming and bodily functions) to scare off the locals who’re protesting the whole thing, and Kitaro (an unimpressive Eiji Wentz) steps in to stop him. Then a nine-tailed fox demon, also unleashed from the same burial ground, goes gunning for the stone after a down-on-his-luck man pawns it for quick cash. That guy’s son is the one who originally summoned Kitaro to protect his family and neighbors in the first place, and soon Kitaro’s both fighting off other yokai and trying to figure out if he’s attracted to this kid’s cute older sister or not.
The movie works best when it’s just being a travelogue of the yokai world, so to speak — it works best when it’s not a slave to its own plot, which isn’t often. I laughed at the little touches: for instance, the yokai that is nothing but a giant wall, and who plasters his enemies to death. Or the yokai nightclub, where Kitaro drinks sullenly in a corner while the Long-Necked Woman (pop singer You, also of Nobody Knows) tries to patch things up with her former “flame”, the Burning Wheel Monk. The actors also have fun with their roles, like Shido Nakamura as the Great Tengu, even if they’re all almost unrecognizable under pounds of makeup and fabric. (Think of Tim Curry in Legend, wearing more latex than a whole medical supply store and still fun to watch.)
What doesn’t work is, well, everything else. The story’s both simpleminded and needlessly complicated — a difficult move to pull off, but somehow they did it here. The whole business with Kitaro and the human girl (Mao Inoue) adds up to less than nothing — it not only goes where you expect it to go, but comes back without even having souvenirs for the trip. And the last fourth of the movie is unforgivable: the whole business with the stone is tied up with a feeble deus ex machina; characters are resurrected or brushed off with equal disdain for their function in the story; and many other opportunities are just plain wasted.
Despite the movie's flashy visuals, too much of the film
is taken up by lockstep plotting and deus ex machina resolutions.
If nothing else, the movie’s worth looking at for the way it mixes CGI, live actors, makeup appliances and puppetry as a way to bring its cast of supernatural oddities to life. But there’s really not much else to savor here. I liked Great Yokai War better thanks to director Takashi Miike: he backed up the premise with a screenplay that at the very least respected its story elements and at best had real wit and anarchic energy to spare. Compared to that, Kitaro might as well have been spit out of a computer. Come to think of it, a good deal of it was.