Directed by Takashi Miike, 2005, 124 minutes, starring Chiaki Kuriyama, Ryonosuke Kamiki, Mai Takahashi, Masaomi Kondo and Sadao Abe.
Has Takashi Miike gone soft in his middle age? While still clearly a king of the weird, a lot of his recent output has been a) less prodigious b) a hell of a lot less bloody. Perhaps the trend started with 2003's Gozu, which gave us a good gawp at the Miikeverse but unmistakably lacked anything like the signature gore of 2001's über-Miike movie Ichi The Killer. Since then, in terms of major releases, we've had a historical drama in the reputedly awful Izo, One Missed Call, Miike's attempt at / parody of mainstream horror, and now what is ostensibly a kids' movie, The Great Yokai War (or, alternatively, The Great Spook War, or Yôkai daisensô). OK, so it's a kids' movie that you wouldn't necessarily take a kid to, but it's a kids' movie all the same.
Let's get the headlines over and done with first. HUGE monsters. CGI. Stop-motion animation. Chiaki Kuriyama. Definite nods to monster movies, Indiana Jones, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Kill Bill, any Japanese hero movie you care to mention, Monkey, and Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. All that in a somewhat over-long two hours that doesn't know when or if to take itself seriously. Or not. Confused?
Tadashi is roughly ten years old and living with his mum and granddad in the sticks. He's lonely, bullied and desperately missing his sister who stayed with his dad in Tokyo . To cap it all, granddad is slowly losing his mind and can only remember Tadashi's name one day in three. At a local festival, a fake dragon "bites" him on the head – he is now the ceremonial Kirin Rider, destined to ride this dragon, this Kirin , and be the Guardian of Peace, the Friend of Justice of the locale. It's also his job to climb some local mountain, the Great Goblin Mountain , to quest for the Great Goblin Sword, the symbol of peace in the locality given to the goblin by the first Kirin Rider in return for the goblin's renunciation of evil. And children-eating.
OK, so typical kiddie-questing fare so far, you might think. Obviously somewhere there's got to be an arch-baddie, and lo and behold one appears in the form of Lord Kato Yasunori, who swears vengeance on the world via his weird breed of mechanical monster robot hybrids (which we'll dub monsterbots, mostly 'cos it sounds cooler) and his not-like-Go-Go-Yubari-at-all girlfriend Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama). The one trick in his armoury is some weird machine called the Yomotsumono, which swallows up motorcycles and traditional Japanese spirits called yokai in one bite and creates those giant monsterbots. Agi is the one charged with marshalling the yokai, flagellating them, teasing them and choosing the ones to get dumped in the purple goo of the Yomotsumono. And it's here that Chiaki vamps it up majorly, changing outfits seemingly every thirty seconds and getting to show her sadistic side more often than not. Cartoon, for sure, but she's vastly entertaining whenever she's on screen.
After an abortive trip up the mountain (read - freaked out), Tadashi stumbles across an injured hamster-cat hybrid which is bleeding liquid marmalade. Taking it home, he realises it's a Sunekosuri, a yokai sprite. He nurses it back to health, taking it with him, riding on his head, on his second trip up the mountain. Here things take a decidedly surreal turn as he's grabbed by a water spirit, dragged into the water, only to escape into a dilapidated house with a tired geisha in it... whose neck suddenly extends fifty feet and wraps itself around a startled Tadashi.
Suddenly, we are plunged into the world of the yokai. Accompanied by three of them – the red Kirin spirit, Kawataro, a kappa water yokai, and Kawahime, a river princess – Tadashi moves to the cave of the goblin via a number of tests (such as a rotten rope bridge, and a giant rolling boulder) which echo the early sequences of Indiana Jones more than anything, with the rather tiresome comic antics of Kawataro very reminiscent of early-80s TV series Monkey. Just as the goblin is about to hand over The Legendary Sword, Agi and her monsterbot mates pop through the roof and attack, slicing the sword in two and kidnapping (hamsternapping?) Sunekosuri before being recalled by Kato.
Knocked unconscious by the roof fall caused by the retreating bad guys, Tadashi wakes up in a room full of yokai. The decision is made to reforge the sword using the skills of One-Leg The Smith – currently incarcerated by Agi and in impending danger of being monsterbotted. Rescue? Well, all but one yokai, a particularly dim specimen called Azuki-Washer, whose only task is just that, are unwilling to help our four heroes. Nevertheless off they set to Tokyo , which is where Kato is also heading in a giant monsterbot, ready to take his terrible revenge on humanity...
This is all really silly stuff of course. Though firmly rooted in Japanese mythology – check the links at the bottom of the page for evidence – there's little pretence in The Great Yokai War that anyone's taking this particularly seriously. There's even a short on-screen caption, when Tadashi's group are hitch-hiking on a plane wing to get to Tokyo extra-quick, which warns kids not to try this at home. Yet this is no ham-it-up, Tokyo 10+01 style cheesefest. The only ham in the entire movie is the cameo character of Mizuki Shingeru, a well-known manga artist specialising in yokai and playing himself, who proves once and for all why acting should be left to actors.
So what's left? Well, for a start, at its very core The Great Yokai War is still a Miike movie. There's still a few gross-out moments as you'd expect, just somewhat watered down – for example, a severed forearm slowly dripping blood, or some weird baby/devil hybrid covered in goo. There's a surprising amount of jump scenes too – watch the movie with headphones on and you'll understand that this is a terrifically noisy film to boot. The monsterbots are clearly stop-motion animated, which is reminiscent of not just Miike's own Happiness of the Katakuris but also Ray Harryhausen's puppets in movies like Clash of the Titans. And it's not massively surprising given the subject matter that the scenes between the yokai and Tadashi have the same innocent wonderment that much of Miyazaki 's Spirited Away had.
Given that child actors can be enormously tiresome and wince-inducing much of the time, Ryonosuke Kamiki's Tadashi remains fresh and innocent enough not to annoy an adult audience. Clearly though he's not there for the grown-ups, but nevertheless his comic incapability when presented with the Goblin Sword – and the fact that it leads him, rather than the other way around – somehow seems refreshing rather than clichéd. Chiaki Kuriyama, as noted above, vamps it up massively and looks like she's having a great time playing much the same sort of masochistic role she took in Kill Bill. It's to her credit that her substantial amount of screen time, much of it spent pouting, doesn't seem like overkill. But really all of the characters in the movie are cartoons, barely rounded, and the performances certainly reflect that.
Criticisms? Well, at a touch over two hours the movie is definitely too long – while the film develops a cracking pace up to the point Tadashi receives the Legendary Sword, after that it meanders towards its denouement which, when it comes, obviously is never going to be a massive surprise. However, this is tempered somewhat by the fact that with its $10 million budget, the movie certainly looks the part – there's just enough there to let Miike's imagination run riot and while I have no doubt many of the yokai are based on tradition, there's a clear Miike twist running through the design of many of them. Even the potentially over-cute Sunekosuri is treated eventually with a marvellous sadistic disdain.
With its tongue firmly in its cheek, The Great Yokai War manages that rare thing, a kids' movie that's as much for grown-ups as it is for children. With a kitsch edge that is never in danger of overtaking the plot, Miike seems to have struck the perfect middle ground of a mainstream movie that is weird and slightly scary but which still is thoroughly accessible. Sure, it's not perfect by any means, and the pacing of the film should have been looked at carefully in pre-production, but for couple of hours' distraction, or even as a gentle introduction into the Miikeverse, it's hard to deny it's fluffy fun for all the family. Just don't let your hamster watch.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Violence: epic/10 (but remember this is a kids' movie)
Sex: Chiaki/10. Make of that what you will
Hamsters: really don't deserve to be put in microwaves, do they?
Miike: mellowing a bit
Films in a similar style: Spirited Away, Happiness of the Katakuris, any monster movie you care to mention, Monkey
*** No masterpiece, but great fun ***
The Great Yokai War Wallpapers
please note: the actual papers do not have the Snowblood Apple logo on them.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://yokai-movie.com/index.html - Official site, Japanese only.
http://www.obakemono.com/ - all the Yokai, arranged alphabetically
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yokai - Wikipedia on yokai
http://www.kaijushakedown.com/2005/09/the_great_yokai.html - review, possibly from a Variety writer
http://www.sfist.com/archives/2006/02/14/sf_indiefest_yokai_daisenso.php - long, in-depth review
http://search.japantimes.co.jp/print/features/film2005/ff20050831a3.htm - review from The Japan Times
http://altjapan.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/02/yokaiagogo.html - an extra writes about his experience