Maverick Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has finally found a genre suited to his love of gross-out humour and ultra-violence… kids’ movies! Following his superhero spoof Zebraman (2004), Miike revived the “yokai” genre of spooky movies drawn from traditional Japanese folk tales and aimed at monster-loving youngsters.
All over Japan, children begin to disappear and terrifying mechanical monsters start attacking people. Gawky young Tadashi Ino (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is chosen to be the next Kirin Rider, guardian of peace and defender of justice. Spirited away to Goblin Mountain, he joins a wacky band of friendly yokai to recover the mystical goblin sword and stop legendary sorcerer Yasunori Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) and his chic retro-Sixties styled ghost girl sidekick Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama) from wiping out all humanity.
Yokai movies had their heyday in the Sixties when Daiei studios produced the trilogy of 100 Monsters (1968), Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968) and Along with Ghosts (1969). Although Sakuya, Slayer of Demons (2000) beat Miike to the punch in reviving this much-loved genre, his big-budget effort has an ace in hole: story input and creature designs by anime/manga legend Shigeru Mizuki. Mizuki is more or less the godfather of the yokai genre having created Spooky Kitaro (1968), the ghost-busting boy hero and star of dozens of anime feature films and TV shows over the past five decades and a pair of live action movies in 2007. Here, Tadashi actually visits the Shigeru Mizuki manga museum to learn all about yokai, while a cowardly ghost is berated for not being as brave as he is “in all those Kitaro comics!” Mizuki himself cameos as a ghostly big giant head and delivers an impassioned anti-war speech. In addition to his yokai stories, the artist is famed for his harrowing tales about the Second World War.
Nobody draws yokai quite like Mizuki and the cast of quality character actors clearly have a ball inhabiting his eccentric creations. Stand-up comedian Sadao Abe is off-the-wall as Kawataro the Kappa (water sprite), Renji Ishibashi essays the sagely red goblin Kubi and the beautiful Mai Takahashi gives an impassioned performance as Kawahime the river princess, who becomes Tadashi’s first love but holds conflicted feelings towards her onetime rescuer, Kato.
Miike stays true to his anarchic sensibilities by including mischievous jokes about beer enabling people to see invisible yokai, a scene where a frantic cop shoots the civilian he’s trying to save, and costuming gorgeous Kill Bill (2003) and Battle Royale (2000) starlet Chiaki Kuriyama (who besides sex-appeal delivers a memorably sardonic performance) in a towering white beehive and backless micro miniskirt (God bless you, Takashi!). But the film is far subtler and contemplative than you might expect. Two themes are intertwined: Tadashi’s rite of passage towards adulthood and Kato’s resentment towards humanity for cruelly casting aside all the “useful things” from Japan’s past. “Those who discard their past have no future”, says Kawahime. According to Shinto beliefs, everything including inanimate objects has a spirit. The film argues even the most useless seeming things, including traditional yokai like the Umbrella Ghost, the Wall Spirit and the Azuki Bean Washer (Takashi Okamura) - literally, a guy who sits washing beans all day - can be useful.
Ryûnosuke Kamiki makes an endearingly vulnerable lead and proves quite a skilled comedian but curiously, Miike is less enamoured with his child hero than he is with ruthless villain Yasunori Kato. Every heroic effort by Tadashi falters before Kato’s nonchalant cool and he ultimately has very little to do with the final outcome which features a gag reference to an old nursery rhyme about eating your Azuki beans. A cynical coda shows Tadashi grow up to be a stressed-out salaryman, no longer able to see the friendly yokai who call to him. The silly “evil lives on” coda spoils the message unless Miike is planning a sequel that extols the virtues of middle age.
In spite of these few flaws, The Great Yokai War is often marvellously evocative: creepy sexy and cool. How many children’s movies can say that? The special effects are outstanding and, typical of Japanese cinema, ingeniously mix latex costumes with puppetry and surreal computer graphics. Miike throws out witty, turbo-charged set-pieces including a haunted school-bus ride through Goblin Mountain where the yokai test Tadashi’s mettle by scaring the bejeezus out of him; a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) riff with everyone outrunning a rolling boulder; the ghost gang riding on the wing of a jumbo jet (Miike adds the sarcastic caption: “Don’t try this at home, kids!”); the enormous smog-belching robot that turns Tokyo into an apocalyptic nightmare (wherein a drunken tramp looks at the sky and says: “Relax, it’s just Gamera”); and an amazing climax where literally thousands of outlandish, party-loving yokai turn the city into one giant mosh pit.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.