Ah, Takashi Miike. The demented & hugely prolific director of Audition, Ichi the Killer, & Bird People in China. He’s nothing if not unpredictable, so whilst he’s best known in the West for creating some of the most twisted, startling & decidedly adult imagery ever to grace the silver screen, it surely follows that his latest film is a big-budget effects-driven kiddie fantasy epic, billed as Japan’s answer to Harry Potter & Lord of the Rings. It’s obvious really, & this is a project that has clearly been close to Miike’s heart for a while – in fact according to IMDB this is the first film where he gets a screenwriting credit. After a rather mixed reception to his last couple of films, it’s great to be able to say that this is one of his most consistently entertaining & pacy films, despite some flaws.
Young Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) has recently moved to a small village with his mother & grandfather, but he misses his sister who still lives in Tokyo. He is always scared, & the victim of bullying. At a village festival, he is chosen as the Kirin Rider, the guardian of peace. As Kirin Rider, he must go up to the Great Goblin Mountain, & retrieve the Great Sword. But what is normally a ceremonial position is going to be rather more for Tadashi, as unbeknownst to mankind the demon Kato (Natsuhiko Kyougoku) has set about waging war on humanity. The Yokai are the spirits from Japanese Folklore, creatures who embody the spirit of every thing that exists. Whilst the Yokai are normally benevolent, Kato & his devoted servant Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama) are using the spirit of Yomotsumono (the resentment of things used & then discarded by humanity) to turn Yokai into huge mechanical monsters – like badass Transformers crossed with Robot Wars. This is the army he is to use to annihilate humanity, & now it’s up to Tadashi and a rag-tag group of peaceful Yokai to try & save mankind.
It really is quite tricky to try to describe just how gloriously bonkers & inventive The Great Yokai War is. Try to imagine a live-action Miyazaki film created with Jim Henson puppets, with a side order of Harryhausen magic, Kaiju havoc, & CG wizardry, & you’ll be halfway to grasping the unique style & flavour of the film. The Yokai themselves are brilliantly designed & marvellously inventive characters, each created with a different style, although the emphasis is firmly on physical effects over CG whenever possible. The effects often don’t try to convince in a photo-real sense (like Lord of the Rings for example), there is a great energy from their unreal style that will need no explanation to fans of stop-motion or classic Kaiju. It’s a heady & gloriously trippy mix of outlandish visuals that will find favour not just among kids, but also those with a head full of intoxicating substances. The budget is rather larger than you typically expect with Miike, & he puts all of it up on the screen, with a great mix of creature effects, cool production design, & vibrant, colourful cinematography.
Whilst this is nominally a kid’s film, Miike’s typical sensibility shines through with some wonderfully weird & dark touches. There are some quite frightening moments in here, such as the The Thing-esque cow-demon-thing that appears early on to provide advance warning of the coming war, or Tadashi’s first ascent of Goblin Mountain, with its fractured editing style. Meanwhile, the cutest & furriest Yokai is also the one that is consistently the recipient of the most violent & cruel beatings. Looking like a wonderfully crap glove puppet, it spends half the film bleeding yellow goo, yet never quite buys the farm. Moments of humour are plentiful, from the Tokyo man noting a great disturbance outside, looks up & notes “It’s only Gamera”, to the policeman who accidentally shoots an innocent whilst aiming at a monster – something surely only Miike would dare do in the name of humour.
The performances throughout are very strong – as Tadashi, Ryunosuke Kamiki copes well with making him a scared & vulnerable child, & his transition into a sword-wielding warrior. Unfortunately, his character is a touch thinly written, & the script relies on his to simply be scared & helpless for most of the film, which does get a touch wearying. Amongst the Yokai, Sadao Abe as Kawataro takes what could easily have been an irritating Jar-Jar type comic sidekick & delivers a funny & sympathetic character. It’s a shame that Mai Takahashi as the River Spirit is given very little to do, except wear a short skirt, have very moist thighs, & look concerned. Easily the most memorable performance though, comes from the consistently brilliant Chiaki Kuriyama as Agi, dressed in super-tight white clothes & sporting a Bride Of Frankenstein-style beehive hairdo out of which she draws a whip, she eats up the screen with lip-licking relish, adding a certain layer of kinky sexuality to the mix.
Although I’m often not entirely convinced by Miike’s ability to pace his films well, I found The Great Yokai War to be consistently entertaining, & the two-hour running time pretty much flew by since even when the plot started to underwhelm (& when you dig into it, the plotting is rather thin) there was always some bizarrely inventive visual treat just around the corner to compensate. Given the huge scale of a full-on war against humanity, the scope of the action scenes are actually relatively small, so that whilst these sequences are fairly exciting & stylish if you’re expecting a full-on action fest you will doubtless be let down.
Whilst The Great Yokai War isn’t quite top-flight Miike – for all its invention it somehow adds up to no more than the sum of its admittedly impressive parts, & doesn’t quite leave the same mark as his best work – it is a hugely entertaining & joyously bonkers ride, ram-packed with delirious invention & wildly subversive humour. Like the best Miike films, it’s an experience not quite like anything else you’ve seen.
The Hong Kong DVD release from Universe is a 2Disc set in R3/NTSC format which comes in a rather funky book-style thick card digipack, which folds out to reveal pictures of all the Yokai. Disc 1 features the film in a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer that is perhaps a touch on the dark side, but nothing a quick adjustment of brightness controls won’t fix. The Japanese dts-es audio is a cracker, & Dolby 5.1 variants are provided in Japanese or Cantonese dub. Subtitles are Chinese (traditional or simplified) or English – though it’s perhaps worth noting that these appear to be translations of the Cantonese dub rather than the Japanese original. This disc also features a trailer.
Moving on to Disc2, & first the good news – there are English subtitles throughout. First is ‘Another Story of Kawataro’, being two very low-budget shorts concerning the comic relief character as he starts a poetry group, then gets arrested by the police. There’s also the ‘Short Drama of Yokai’, a bizarre cod-kids TV pair of skits that are again very low budget & sporadically amusing. After that, there’s around 50minutes of interviews with the cast, featuring some nice on-set footage, a Miike interview (labelled ‘Making of’), a documentary about Ryunosuke Kamiki & more footage from assorted Press conferences than you could possibly want to watch. There’s around 3hours of footage on this disc, although much of it is interesting more in an archival sense than being something you’re going to want to actually sit & watch even once.