The Great Yokai War
2005Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Chiaki Kuriyami
f you aren’t familiar with Takashi Miike, famed for disturbing torture scenes where nipples are chopped off et cetera, then know that last year’s Hostel was filmed as a tribute to the director’s unrelenting style. Takashi Miike has made a children’s movie, complete with chainsaw-wielding robots. This information should be enough to send hordes flocking to the theaters. When I heard of The Great Yokai War, I simply had to investigate. Had I seen this movie as a child, I would bear the scars to this very day. As a jaded adult who giggles when ferocious monsters destroy families with impeccable comic timing, I merely had to cover my eyes.
Hailing from Tokyo, the young Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) finds it difficult to adjust to bucolic life. His elderly grandfather only calls him by his real name every third day (otherwise choosing to refer to the boy by the name of his dead ancestor); his schoolmates mock him for not understanding the folklore of the village. Nevertheless, the legends begin to bleed into reality with the arrival of a monstrous fetus moaning about destruction (yay, Miike!) and a cute cat (played by an occasionally animated stuffed animal that looks like a mouse). These creatures precede a host of benevolent monsters known as yokai—demigods of Japanese culture. Apparently, the seductive white-haired Agi (Chiaki Kuriyami, famed for her role as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill) has an evil plan to turn the yokai into destructive robots. A badass man in a suit is involved. Tadashi, obviously, must save the day with the help of a magical sword. The plot doesn’t really make sense?
Anyway, Takashi Miike’s trademark spontaneity is on full display here. More entertaining than people-watching at that Star Wars cantina, the endless parade of yokai should boggle the mind of any hapless kid who stumbles into the theater. Whether flashing a short poem about beans onto the screen or indulging in a cheesy musical number (also about beans), the director keeps his audience in a permanent state of confusion. Standard fantasy conventions (aforementioned magical sword, shy child, white witch) merely compound the madness, creating a blend of cliché and hallucination. The Great Yokai War feels like watching Labyrinth for the first time. Rather than David Bowie brandishing his crotch over bad/brilliant special effects, however, a webbed river-goddess reveals an awful lot of wet thigh while clutching a fake dead Furby.
I may sound over-enthusiastic. Granted, The Great Yokai War is delightfully random, perhaps even imaginative. Sadly, the movie is also very long and pointless, and an annoying turtle who sounds suspiciously like Jar Jar Binks tends to wear on the old nerves. I’m all for haphazard stoner movies, but I also appreciate a coherent mythology. Some of the yokai are standard animal spirits, but some of them are pieces of trash that derive their power from the shame of abandonment? This conceit only serves to complete an extremely awkward plot point, which I found mildly irritating. I tire myself with petty gripings, which are typical of adults and smug teenagers. Honestly, The Great Yokai War is harmless fun that is far too scary and sexual for the average American child. So please, freak a kid out. Buy them this movie.
The Great Yokai War is currently screening in select cities, and will be released on DVD September 12.