Judge Adam Arseneau always eats his azuki beans.
Azuki beans are good for you.
A remake of a 1968 film of the same name, The Great Yokai War may be the oddest film of Miike's excessively odd film career, if only for its entirely wholesome and family-friendly subject matter. Gore fans will find no satisfaction here, but the application of Japan's most rebellious director into a fantasy film will take the appreciative into uncharted places.
Facts of the Case
Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki, Howl's Moving Castle) is a young Japanese boy without any noticeable strong qualities—he gets picked on a lot by bullies at school and his grandfather is somewhat senile. But during a festival, he is appointed as the Kirin Rider, an honorary title bestowed upon a citizen to protect the town from the forces of evil…much to the chagrin of his classmates. Tadashi as the hero? Get serious.
Legend has it that upon the local mountaintop, a magical sword awaits the Kirin Rider. Tadashi dismisses this as superstition, until all manner of odd things begin happening to him, including running into a small furry creature named Sunekosuri. When Tadashi's grandfather heads up to the mountain and vanishes, Tadashi heads out looking for him, but ends up lost, wandering through the dark woods alone.
On the mountain, Tadashi meets all manner of yokai (rough English translation: hobgoblin) spirits, some good, some bad. A River Princess spirit named Kawahime becomes Tadashi's unofficial guide through the world of strange and magical creatures from Japanese folklore. As the Kirin Rider, he is presented with the magical sword and tasked with protecting them from danger.
The yokai will need all the protection they can get. With the help of his twisted apprentice Agi the Bird-Catching Sprite (Chiaki Kuriyama, Kill Bill: Volume 1), the evil Lord Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa, Boiling Point) has found a way to convert yokai into mechanical killing machines. Lord Kato begins systematically eradicating the spirits, launching an all-out assault on the real world, invading downtown Tokyo!
Oh, those wacky Japanese. Only they could think a children's film directed by Takashi Miike would actually translate into something viewable by any child in North America. Within the first five minutes of The Great Yokai War, every kid under the age of ten is guaranteed all kinds of crazy nightmares from watching it. Between the scantily-clad women, the fire-toting villains, and bizarre slimy fetus-like creatures that bleed black tar from their eyes, ki…Hey, Jimmy, where are you going? Hey! Don't cry! Come back! Wait!
As a children's film, The Great Yokai War is probably wholly inappropriate for anyone under the age of a pre-teen or teenager, but depending on your levels of maturity, Yokai War can easily qualify as an extremely dark children's tale in the vein of Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal. I mean, think about it. Sure, it had Muppets, but Labyrinth was…kind of creepy. There was a lot of downright disturbing stuff going on in that film. David Bowie's tight pants alone were statistically proven to have institutionalized many young children.
Takashi Miike fans going into The Great Yokai War looking for the director's standard offerings of excessive violence, sexual dysfunction, gritty yakuza drama, and over-the-top content will only find the latter at play here. As such, many will find Yokai far too tame for their tastes; but bear in mind, it is a film targeted towards a fundamentally different demographic than Miike's accepted body of work, and should be appreciated as such. It may seem strange on paper to have such a controversial and genre-breaking director like Miike on board for a children's fantasy, but anyone who caught his remake of Zebraman could see this movie coming a mile away.
With an immense cast of folklore spirits, supernatural entities, mythical Japanese creatures and assorted deities, no doubt Japanese children will enjoy identifying each face that pops up on screen, but us North American folk will have to revel in the simple wonder and absurdity of it all. From flying fireballs to frog-like river spirits, gigantic fuzzy raccoon men and women with absurdly snake-like stretching necks, talking umbrellas, and pieces of brick wall, the supernatural has been brought to life in a unique and entertaining fashion through a slick combination of puppetry, exceptional make-up, and CGI. Even more hilariously, the actors stuck in all manner of rubber suits are clearly having a fantastic time hamming it up, and it shows. Everything is outrageously tongue-in-cheek, including the well-placed subtitles popping up reminding kids not to try riding the back of a 747 jet at home. It is, after all, a dangerous activity.
Opposing the yokai spirits are the mechanical army of the evil Lord Kato, horrific metal machinations of skulls and circular saws that lurch about like stop-motion creations from a Tim Burton film or Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The evil opposing army generates most of the film's disturbing images, featuring Terminator-esque towering skull-faced mechanical wielding gigantic blades. Not much of the film is fleshed out in terms of back story—we don't really know why Lord Kato is doing what he is doing, only that he is a bad mother, and is very, very good at starting trouble.
On this note, the film's weakest element is its rather straightforward, pedantic plot. It is the standard "unsuspecting boy turns out to be savior of the world, learns vital social and leadership skills, including how to wield a magical sword" fairy-tale arc. It's been done to death, and not much gets added to the genre here. Luckily, it is a fairly moot point overall. A lot of charm and affection has gone into this film, and though it may be wrapped around a fairly predictable storyline, The Great Yokai War still comes out enjoyable and unique, party due to its utterly absurd outcome that could only be described as "Miike-esque." The dude is a mad genius. Azuki beans are good for you, indeed.
The underlining theory of "yomotsumono"—the accumulated wrath of things humanity has used and thrown away—behind the plot of Yokai War is a fascinating one that almost makes The Great Yokai War a two-hour fantastic advertisement for the tenets of modern-day recycling. Okay, not really. In actuality, much of the plot bears some resemblances to Miyazaki's masterful anime Princess Mononoke in themes of natural order gone awry. The anger and resentment of humanity and the carelessness with which humanity discards our belongings is manifested as the root cause of the yokai being transformed into mechanical monstrosities. This ethos really could have used some fleshing out in Yokai War—it is only touched upon briefly, and quickly forgotten.
Unlike many Miike films shot on low-budget film stock or cheap digital, The Great Yokai War had some money behind it, and it pays off in the presentation. The transfer is sharp, detailed, and handsome, with solid black levels and no noticeable print damage. Heavily saturated reds give the film a hallucinogenic quality, with little graininess even in low-light sequences.
For audio, we get the full gambit of 2.0 and 5.1 options for both English and Japanese. Both 5.1 tracks are lively and full, with fantastic rear channels that leap into action at a moments notice, solid low end, and impressive clarity. Dialogue can be tricky to balance against the cacophony, and you may find yourself playing the volume-adjusting game more often than not. The English-language dub is a bit on the cheesy side and, to my ears, pretty much unusable, but I appreciate its inclusion in taking into consideration those who prefer to view their films free from subtitles. The 2.0 tracks in both languages are fair representations of the 5.1 surround, but lack the definition and excellent ambient effects.
Sadly, extras are somewhat thin. Aside from the requisite still galleries and trailers, the only noticeable feature is a "Yokai Character Profile" extra which puts names and occasional biographical info to the numerous bizarre faces present in the film. A cute extra, but it isn't much to hang your hat upon.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With an estimated budget of over $10 million, The Great Yokai War is a fairly sizable blockbuster in the overseas market, but on North American shores, that kind of money simply doesn't buy a film of this magnitude and creativity, unless you add an extra zero to the end of that figure. Truth be told, we've been spoiled like that.
The end result of this spoilage is the realization that Yokai War is far too ambitious for its financial budget to support. The ideas produced herein required massive Hollywood technology and hundred-million dollar budgets to fully realize in an efficient and effective fashion. Miike goes all-out with the puppetry, costumes, and CGI he has at his disposal, but more often than not, sequences appear primitive, artificial, and cheap compared to Hollywood fare. It can be distracting at the best of times, utterly laughable at the worst.
It is possible we may be seeing the emergence of a new film genre, a hybrid of fantasy/science fiction and children's fables transcending the boundaries between children's thematic devices and adult subject matter. Recent films like Pan's Labyrinth and Tideland indicate a market for these kinds of crossover films, and their critical acclaim is encouraging. While The Great Yokai War may not be quite up to such lofty cinematic standards, it is a film created and presented in great fun.
It may not be a true children's film by North American standards, but The Great Yokai War is still a fantastical romp through the mind of one of the most creative directors in Japan today. Charming and quirky, it is one of Miike's most mainstream and easily accessible films, perfect for young adults.
Well, not the easily scared ones. Just the cool ones.
Takashi Miike has successfully served his public service sentence with the thanks of this court, and may return to making @#$%ed-up films at his leisure.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Yokai Character Profiles
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