Seven hundred years ago, Babylonian excavators unearth an evil demon called Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto) that causes havoc with its magic staff. Escaping to Japan, the green giant adopts the guise of a murdered magistrate so it can feast on the blood of peasant families. Faithful servant Shinpachiro (Yoshihiko Aoyama) and the magistrate's kindly daughter, Lady Chie (Akane Kawasaki) suspect something is amiss when the once-benevolent lord badmouths Buddha and trashes the family shrine, to say nothing of slaying the family dog, but only Kappa the duckbilled water imp (Gen Kuroki) knows what is really going on. After losing one battle against Daimon, Kappa alerts a whole posse of forest-dwelling spirit beings that include Nebula Monster (Hideki Hanamura), the Long-Necked Woman (Ikuko Mori), the One-Eyed Umbrella Monster, the Two-Faced Girl (Keiko Yukimoto), and a wolfman with a big belly that doubles as a TV screen (!). Together these mighty monsters decide to drive out the evil interloper.
Daiei studios, home of Gamera the flying, fire-breathing turtle, launched a series of fun family films drawn from traditional tales about friendly monsters, beginning with One Hundred Monsters (1968). Yoshiyuki Kuroda served as special effects supervisor on that hit and was duly promoted to director for this sequel which is commonly thought of as Daiei's answer to Toho's all-star monster rally: Destroy All Monsters (1968). Arguably the most beloved entry in the trilogy, which also includes the lacklustre Along with Ghosts (1969), Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare a.k.a. Big Ghost War or Ghosts on Parade captured the imagination of a generation of young fantasy fans who later revived the genre in the Noughties: c.f. Tomoo Haraguchi's Sakuya, Slayer of Demons (2000), Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War (2005), and most successfully Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar winning anime Spirited Away (2001). Of course all those revivals were equally influenced by the anime movie series Spooky Kitaro that began around the same time and whose creator, Shigeru Mizuki, was essentially the godfather of the ghost genre.
Spook Warfare may pale in comparison to Mizuki's ingenious, ambitious work but remains an enduring, endearingly lively effort aimed at monster mad youngsters. There is plenty of humour and monster fun, but the horrific elements are remarkably potent for a family film, with gory violence, chills and suspense. Also included is a slim layer of social commentary, as the monsters protect a little girl and her hefty big brother against a band of conscienceless samurai carrying out Daimon's orders. "Do you understand how those kids you were after felt now?" Long-Necked Woman asks the terrified swordsmen.
There is an element of nationalist allegory in the local ghosts banding together to drive out the foreign devil, including one amusing, if vaguely xenophobic gag wherein the good monsters alarmed that Daimon is not listed on the "Apparition Social Register." As in The Exorcist (1973), the demon hails from the Middle East and quickly identifies its enemy in the local religion, in this case Buddhism. Sanpachiro consults his uncle, a wise Buddhist priest, but his efforts are overwhelmed. It isn't prayer that defeats Daimon and rescues the captive children but a gang of rowdy, butt-kicking monsters. In fact, religion proves something of a hindrance since the good ghosts wind up trapped inside a sacred urn (classic line: "You suck, Buddha!") and need Lady Chie's help to escape. It ends with hundreds of wild and wacky monsters joining the fight against the giant Daimon, in a finale that Takashi Miike effectively restaged for Great Yokai War.
Kuroda's charmingly eccentric creature effects employ puppetry and monster costumes alongside quite ingenious lighting, optical and sound effects, whilst cinematographer Hiroshi Imai produces scope visuals worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille epic.