The Great Yokai War Review
Kadokawa Group had a great idea to mark their 60th anniversary in feature films – to remake 1968’s Yokia Hyaku Monogatari for a summer 2005 release. Furthermore, rather than place at its helm a successful children’s feature director they decided to go with a man known for shocking audiences on a yearly basis with his visions of ultra-violence and surrealism. Takashi Miike likely would have been the last person we could have expected to see making a film for kids, but given his recent output it perhaps makes sense for him to take a break and produce something family oriented. After all Miike once said that he never deliberately sets out to make violent films, they just happen. So it’s somewhat refreshing to see a company take a big risk in Miike, especially considering that he’s one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today, in a sense that while his films often carry certain themes his visuals are truly mind bending. But Miike would not simply update a film as we’ve come to expect in the past with the likes of Happiness of the Katakuris; rather he’ll strip it down and piece it back together in his own unique way. Miike in fact wrote the script for this feature – alongside Hiroshi Aramata, who also has a small role in the film - and it’s abundantly obvious on several occasions. That in turn makes The Great Yokai War [or Yokai Daisenso] quite a trip.
The original 1968 feature (which is available on a nice DVD from ADV Films) told the story of some Edo peasents who fight back against a wicked man named Lord Tajimaya, who is set on demolishing a shrine to make way for a brothel. Tajimaya soon holds a story telling ritual and a bunch of monsters turn up. This time the film centres on a young boy named Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who, since his parent’s divorce, is now living in the countryside with his mother (Kaho Minami) and his grandfather (Yakuza film veteran, Bunta Sugawara). Upon attending a local festival, Tadashi is appointed the “Kirin Rider”. This means that he must climb an ancient mountain and retrieve a magical sword which is being guarded by the great Tengu (Kenichi Endo). Now Tadashi can prove himself to be a hero and put an end to the constant teasing that he’s been getting at school. And so he sets out, not knowing what dangers await him. One night he gets on an empty bus and experiences visions of monsters, soon afterward befriending an injured rodent named Sunekosuri (puppet on a stick). Shortly afterwards Tadashi learns that an evil man by the name of Lord Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) is kidnapping and recycling Yokai, turning them into killing machines with the help of his sexy assistant Agi (Kuriyama Chiaki). Tadashi must find his courage and upon venturing into the Yokai’s domain he befriends the community and heads off to Kato’s house with the help of Shojo (Masaomi Kondo), Kawahime (Mai Takahashi) and Kawataro (Sadao Abe). The Yokai gather in force in an attempt to extinguish Kato and restore peace to their homes.
At first glance The Great Yokai War doesn’t appear to take any great leaps; it’s very reflective of the kinds of films that America was putting out in the 80’s, such as The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story, and perhaps this film borrows elements from both and it would be safe to assume that Miike may have a particular fondness for movies such as these. Comparisons could be further made alongside Peter Pan even, as Miike’s film deals greatly with innocence and the loss of youth, or The Wizard of Oz, where dreams dare come true. For all intents it might just be a simple family romp, but whether or not Miike himself would admit it there are some points raised throughout that feel a tad personal. It doesn’t take long to realise, in fact it’s simply pointed out, that The Great Yokai War serves as much as being an anti-war film, and if not certainly an ecological one. That in itself would be enough to ensure that it might get pretentiously dull, but it’s here that we can thank the producers for actually hiring Miike for the job because never does he overplay his hand; he simply has fun. Certainly the simplicity lies in the characters of Lord Kato and Agi, the former of which is built up of Japan’s accumulative lack of desire to appreciate worn items (in Tadashi’s case an old pair of shoes). Miike doesn’t feel the need to draw out his storyline any further by fleshing out his bad guys, they’re bad and bad is simply bad. If anything he shows us just how much hatred we, as humans, have within ourselves and as such Kato represents every one of us. It’s something of a master stroke because how many times have we wanted to know more about a baddie and have yet been refused? Oddly enough he instantly reminds me of Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as being pure and simple evil, despite not carrying with him nearly as terrifying a presence. But even he has a thing for vats of goo, and need I say any more than little red shoe?
Within ten minutes it’s apparent that The Great Yokai War isn’t going to be an entirely typical family affair. It almost feels as if the director is trying to make a horror film (or at least he can't shake some tendencies) aimed at children rather than something entirely wholesome, and that would be commendable on his part because he refuses to yield to convention. His themes of “humans living in ignorance” and their resentments would ordinarily be something to repel by the end if the desire was to cheer up the viewer; however Miike has no such interest in sugar coating this tale, instead the final minutes drives home a sad reality with sledge hammer force. Throughout the feature he conjures up scenes of turmoil with rapid pacing and bringing to life Kato’s machines is jarring computer technology that sees them giving off a Ray Harryhausen effect (a la Jason and the Argonauts) as their skeletal frames hunt down Tadashi and his friends. In the melding between Yokai and machine Miike then summons recollections of Japan’s Cyberpunk boom, both in anime and film techniques that had been put to stunning use by Shinya Tsukamoto in his Tetsuo features. Further still Miike fetishizes these amalgamations; they look diabolical but they swarm the picture like grotesque bees, with all kinds of junk strapped to them. Miike doesn’t exactly shy away from sexual encounters either, in fact it’s quite freely expressed, being used as a curious necessity between human and Yokai, for example Tadashi getting his faced licked by a sexy, but slinky Asumi Miwa, or the simple touching of Kawahime’s leg – all of which lends itself to Tadashi’s coming of age.
But then Miike’s trademark humour hits us over the head, and this is the director on fine form. So many minute details end up being riotously funny, from a Yokai jar falling over to a police officer (Yu Tokui) missing his target and shooting a citizen in the head, and even several brief but superb exchanges between the Yokai (Rei Yoshii’s Yuke-Onna not being arsed to help because it isn’t her season, being a fine example). Even Kirin Beer has the bizarre distinction of headlining a shameless promotional campaign. Indeed this doesn’t seem like something that Miike would all too often bother with, yet it doesn’t so much feel like standard product placement, but something which actually aids the main storyline. Keeping in theme with Japanese food products Miike’s continual plot strand about the importance of Azuki beans (helped along by the very funny Takashi Okamura) finally pays off with a hilarious song that feels like a public service announcement which worms its way into a key sequence during the final ten minutes, harking back to the director’s time spent on the wonderful Happiness of the Katakuris. For sure the content here is mental, but let that not just rest on visual aids alone. Headlining the feature is an ensemble made up of some of Japan’s finest acting and comedic talent, not to mention one or two up and coming stars.
This inevitably brings us to the Yokai themselves. Masaomi Kondo leads the pack as the red-skinned Shojo (or Orang-utan), and fine form he’s in too, looking incredibly energetic and enthusiastic over the material he’s given. Assisting him is comedian Sadao Abe, fresh from his hilarious performance in Mayonaka no Yaji-san Kita-san as inspector Kin-Kin, this time in full guise as Kappa Kawatarou. Beneath those layers of make-up Sadao does exceedingly well in providing comic relief, and although it’s far from the outrageous actions seen in the aforementioned “Mayonaka” he proves to be one of the most unstoppable forces throughout the picture. The great Tengu is brought to life by a somewhat underused, but Miike regular Kenichi Endo, who leaves our screens far too early; however he bestows a great amount of presence, even considering he’s been blown up to about thirty feet in size. Mai Takahashi as Kawahime provides a nicely understated performance as the mentally scarred Kawahime, while my personal favourite actor Naoto Takenaka (another Miike fave, who usually puts in brief cameo appearences) raises more than a few smiles as the blue-headed Abura Sumashi. To be perfectly honest though there are just too many Yokai scattered throughout to be able to point out every familiar face, but it’s all part of the fun in singling them out.
Of course let’s not forget the three key players whose faces go relatively unscathed. Etsushi Toyokawa as Lord Kato gets perhaps the least amount of screen time for what is essentially a major role, and he plays it fairly straight, while the rest of the film might not take itself so seriously Toyokawa does what he can to present a cold figure who has the utmost distain for a society that created him; he’s far from the outlandish villainy that Miike occasionally places into his works, coming across as being very sedated. Kuriyama Chiaki on the other hand settles back into the action saddle quite comfortably, after wowing viewers as Go-Go Yubari. Sleekly dolled up in white and sporting a hair-do that would make Marge Simpson envious,
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Kuriyama not only impresses with her athletic ability (whose ball and chain has been replaced with a whip – another nice little masochistic touch from the director) but she also has to extend her talents to ultimately present a tragic figure who has been strung along by the person she loves. Incidentally this turn by Kato may be a little contradictory as he’s simply throwing away something that he no longer needs, and in hindsight that really makes him no better than the humans.|
While it takes more than make-up to bring these creations to life, clearly a lot of effort has been put into realising them; based upon comic artist Shigeru Mizuki’s (who gets a just mention in the film) interpretations of the mythical figures. The creatures on display here range from simple rubber suits to puppets on sticks and slightly more ambitious CGI; some are cutesy, while others are almost too disturbing for all their simplicity, yet Miike keeps the majority of their screen time to minimal, most being simple background fillers. The world of the Yokai is indeed vast, filled with a rich, visual splendour that at times feels like a Ghibli film come to life – the giant whale-like aircraft whose inorganic appearance is remarkably apt in comparison to say Nausicaä , Tonari no Totoro or even Hauru no Ugoku Shiro. So it could quite easily be said that The Great Yokai War is another comic book/cartoon brought to life; if anything though it’s one of Japan’s better recent efforts, far surpassing the frustrating experience that was Casshern, of which the special effects did nothing to enhance the overall experience. There’s a charm to The Great Yokai War’s aesthetics, the kind of charm I haven’t seen since the early 80’s when Monkey! hit screens, or any number of crazy Kaiju cinema that the country so often loves to churn out, and of course the aforementioned Hollywood efforts of the 1980s. Miike captures the essence of these creatures and their habitat perfectly, while broadening it that little bit further, thus leaving his assured mark and proving once again that he can just about turn anything into gold.
Universe Laser & Video Co., LTD have pulled out all the stops for this special 2-disc Hong Kong edition. The packaging itself, despite being quite busy on the slip case is very well put together. Inside is an ultra-thick and sturdy digi-pack that comes with a painted wood effect. Opening it up reveals the two discs and lots of tiny photos of the Yokai.
The Great Yokai War is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image holds up very well; it’s almost entirely made up of night shots, of which black levels and contrast appear satisfying. Colour levels appear natural and there’s a wide spectrum being used here, which is free from bleeding etc. However the image is prone to bouts of instability and during some of the more action packed moments there’s noticeable macro-blocking. In addition we have Edge Enhancement, a spot of aliasing and interlacing. If not for the macro-blocking and interlacing I’d feel inclined to give this a marking of 7 or 8, but considering we’re talking DVD authoring standards I’m afraid I have to put this down a point. On a regular TV there really is little to complain about, but for those with far greater set-ups this will likely disappoint in several areas.
Universe make up for this somewhat with a thundering 5.1 DTS-ES Japanese track. To begin with things are fairly light until the first, surreal moment when the soundtrack begins to turn things up a notch. Koji Endo, who has been a Miike regular for the past ten years, provides a great score that just knows when to hit its mark, and we’re never quite sure what to expect next. The DVD puts the score to superb use, placing solid emphasis on it during several climactic moments, and makes good use of the Yokai's main theme, with its interesting percussion. The impressive sound effects are well mixed and when coupled with the subwoofer they’re almost devastating; there’s a lot of smashing and crashing, which is nicely reared, so try not to upset your neighbours. Dialogue remains consistently clear throughout and never does anything to become drowned out amidst all the chaos. This is solid reference material. Also accompanying the disc are Cantonese Dolby EX and Japanese Dolby EX.
Optional English subtitles are included, as are traditional and simplified Chinese ones. The English subs are fine for the part, but for longer sentences they’re slightly off to the left which just cuts out a portion, but enough to distract. There are also one or two grammatical errors which are simple enough to understand and usually just have a certain letter omitted.
You can be sure that you will get value for money here, as every extra comes with optional English subtitles. Granted there are plenty of grammatical errors, but nothing that should prove to be diffucult in getting around.
Disc one features the theatrical trailer, along with star profiles for Takashi Miike, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Chiaki Kuriyama, Naoto Takenaka and Etsushi Toyokawa.
Disc two houses all the beefy extras.
Another Story of Kawataro (16.12)
Sadao Abe stars as Kawataro in this short side story that sees Kappa talking to his friends 100 Eyes and Fat Meat, having invited them to his poet society meeting. The second part sees him get arrested and then interrogated by the police, who then proceed to question him about Azuki beans and probable drug trafficking. Abe is on fine form, doing as much here as he did in the main feature. There’s a very different air here when compared to the film; this is shot on digital I presume and as such carried a TV broadcast quality, but it looks fairly decent and is certainly a surreal little addition.
Interview with Main Cast (50.12)
This lengthy feature has interviews with Masaomi Kondo, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Sadao Abe, Mai Takahashi, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takashi Okamura, Bunta Sugawara and Kuriyama Chiaki. Each of the cast members talk about similar things, from working with Miike and discussing the set environment, to being in (for most of them) their first large scale, CG film and expressing their opinions on Yokai and the possibility of real demons existing. So it’s likely each participant was pressed with similar questions. Kondo and Sugawara are interesting, mainly because both talk about not knowing anything about modern special effects features, which made their job a little difficult but obviously rewarding. Finishing up this piece is a look at Kiyoshiro Imawano undergoing make-up procedures and exhausting wire work. He is not interviewed. Along with these interviews we have some fun and emotional behind the scenes footage.
World Yokai Conference (13.04)
Filmed at the Nakana Sun Plaza in July 2005, this short conference is hosted by World Demon Association member Natsuhiko Kyogoku. Joining him is script supervisor Hiroshi Aramata, demon researcher Yoshiki Tada (who tries and fails at making some jokes), Takashi Miike, Miss Mayabe (producer and Tadashi’s teacher in the film, who also makes some rubbish jokes), chairman of the World Demon Association and artist Shigeru Mizuki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mai Takahashi and finally a bunch of Yokai. Miike discusses a little about working on the large fair scene and throws in a few little quips, but there is nothing in-depth here, everybody appears a little lost from time to time and it wraps up very quickly. It may well be a heavily edited piece, or it was simply just a brief post production gathering for a satisfied crowd.
Visual Records of Promotion (17.30)
This starts with a end of shooting press conference, headed by Kadokawa chairman Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, who explains that he wanted to make a film in the same vein as Harry Potter to celebrate 60 years of Kadokawa entertainment. Joining him is Miike, who had spent a year on production, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Masaomi Kondo, Mai Takahashi, Kuriyama Chiaki and Etsushi Toyokawa. Following this is the premier night footage, with more stage interviews and curiously last is the start of production press conference from 2004.
Short Drama of Yokai (13.41)
Using the tags “Demon Playlet, Battle at the Demon Gate” these two short tales about Yokai going home after a big feast are painfully unfunny. Although they’re listed as dramas they’re clearly absurd and are being played for laughs, and while Yokai fighting over buns should be funny it just isn’t. This is an irritating thirteen minutes for sure.
Documentary of Ryunosuke Kamiki (27.11)
Beginning in Summer 2004 with prayers for a successful shoot, this little feature follows Ryunosuke as he takes up the biggest challenge of his career. Interviews and behind the scenes footage show the young actor mature as he learns to face and overcome his fears (heights, water, wire work), while experiencing new things along the way. We quickly journey through his six month shoot and see him attend press conferences and finally the Venice Film Festival, with director Miike.
Making of Yokai Movie (41.21)
Takashi Miike kicks off this making of feature with a 12 minute interview. He’s a great speaker and makes it clear that no matter how good or bad his film might be he’ll always be fond of it for the memories it gave him; it’s a nice philosophy that he has and the smile on his face is certainly sincere. He seems humbled by the praise that the film has received. He goes on to praise Ryunosuke’s performance and talks a little about his methods when film making. After this producer Fumio Inoue talks about the Yokai designs and subsequent changes implemented, whilst still making sure to retain their basic form. Designer Hyakutake, the film’s stylist, production designer Hisashi Sasaki and several CG artists discuss some of the complexities in bringing the film to life.
The Introduction of Yokai
This is a visual guide of every Yokai who appears in the film. Accompanying their picture is a snippet of text briefly detailing their special abilites and place within Japanese folklore.
Miike’s The Great Yokai War proves to be a highly entertaining film, and is perhaps his most mainstream and ambitious film to date, filled with a visual splendour that echoes the likes of Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, George Lucas, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Hayao Miyazaki and Shinya Tsukamoto, not only in terms of imagination and spectacle but also horror and dark narrative. In light of this I would recommend to any parent that they watch this first before deciding whether or not to sit their children down to it. It does have some moments that I guarantee will upset some youngsters, or hit weak nerves; bloody stabbings, super-tight mini skirts, hundreds of bizarre creatures and provocative scenes may be too much for some parents to expose their children to, while in Japan this is far more tolerable. But make no mistake, there is so much fun to be had and I suspect that this is one film we can expect to see hit our shores in the near future.