(2005) Directed by Takashi Miike; Written by Takashi Miike, Mitsuhiko Sawamura and Takehiko Itakura; Based on the novel Teito Monogatari by Hiroshi Aramata, and the works of Shigeru Mizuki; Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Chiaki Kuriyama, Bunta Sugawara and Kaho Minami; Available on Blu-ray (Region 2) and DVD
“If this film turned out to be boring, I would’ve wasted a year of my life. But I was having lots of fun during that time. I thought I made a film that was close to what I was thinking, so that was good. I’m satisfied, but is everyone okay with this?” – Takashi Miike (from documentary, The Making of The Great Yokai War)
Takashi Miike is infamous for films that test your intestinal fortitude, such as Audition, Visitor Q, and Ichi the Killer, but those titles are only the tip of his extensive filmographic iceberg. Miike proves he has a softer side with his (gasp) family friendly supernatural adventure The Great Yokai War. It’s a remake, of sorts, of 1968’s Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô), which pitted a vengeful Babylonian demon against Japanese spirits, commonly known as yokai. Miike’s version (based loosely on the source material for the 1968 film, as well as the novel Teito Monogatari by Hiroshi Aramata) keeps the action in the modern era, but the stakes are just as high, in a battle between yokai clans. The joint production between Kadokawa Pictures (celebrating its 60th anniversary) and Nippon Television Network underwent an extensive pre-production phase to bring the myriad yokai to life, thanks to fanciful designs by Junya Inoue and Tomo Hyakutake, makeup by Yuichi Matsui, and CGI effects by Kaori Otagaki.
After his parents’ divorce, 10-year-old Tadashi (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) moves from the big city to the country, to live with his mother and semi-senile grandfather (who experiences intermittent moments of lucidity). In the small fishing village, old traditions are alive and well. He attends a festival, enduring the jeers of his fellow schoolmates, who mock his ignorance of local customs. The festival features a Kirin Dance, where he’s chosen as the “Kirin Rider,” the “Guardian of peace, friend of justice.” “Kirin Rider” proves to be more than just an honorary title, as he lands in the middle of a looming battle between yokai factions which threatens the end of human civilization. Soon, Tadashi becomes immersed in the strange parallel world of yokai, starting with a cute little forest sprite that resembles a cross between a cat and a ferret, Sunekosori, which only he can see. He embarks on a quest to the Great Tengu Mountain, to obtain a sword that will help him vanquish the enemies of peace. He’s aided by a trio of yokai: Shoujou (Masaomi Kondo), the leader of the Kirin Dance, Kawataro (Sadao Abe), an excitable amphibious half-human/half-turtle known as a kappa, and Kawahime (Mai Takahashi), a river princess. They attempt to recruit other yokai in the impending war, although they face formidable opposition by the evil yokai Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama) and malevolent spirit Lord Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa).
The Great Yokai War is a who’s who of spirits from classic Japanese folklore. One of the pleasures of watching the film is identifying the various yokai, of every conceivable size, shape and description. It’s a terrific introduction for the uninitiated to the strange and wonderful world of yokai, as well as a treat for yokai enthusiasts to see their favorite spirits in action. The film is stuffed with old and new favorites. An exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this review, but some highlights are the aforementioned kappa, the faceless Nopperabo, an animated umbrella, Kara-kasa, Rokura Kubi, a long-necked woman, Yuki-Onna, a snow woman (she declines to participate in the battle, because it’s not her season).
Miike wanted a departure from traditional designs. He succeeded, but not to distraction – the results on-screen are easily recognizable, yet with a stylistic twist. The filmmakers employed a combination of CGI* and practical effects to bring the yokai to life. Don’t expect Hollywood levels of computer-generated wizardry, but photorealistic imagery isn’t the goal. The Great Yokai War boasts some imaginative makeup. According to yokai designer Tomo Hyakutaka, the filmmakers originally planned to render Ippon Datara, a red-furred sword-making yokai with one giant foot, with CGI. They wisely chose to create a suit instead.
* Fun Fact: According to CGI director Kaori Otagaki, 20 million yokai appear in final crowd scenes, compared to 1.2 million, cited in some reports.
If you come away from The Great Yokai War with the impression it’s nothing but a bunch of silly creatures running around, you’ve missed the point. Amidst all the mayhem, Miike and company have integrated some mature themes about growing up and environmental responsibility. Although Tadashi seems to follow the reluctant hero trope,* it doesn’t take long for him to come around. As Tadashi accepts his role as the Kirin Rider, we see his right of passage from a child to the man he will eventually become. One of the film’s conceits is that adults don’t see yokai, implying they have lost the tenuous connection with nature and their childhood. Most adults refuse to see the extraordinary, favoring the practical and mundane instead. One notable exception is Sata (Hiroyuki Miyasako), a yokai-obsessed journalist who briefly catches a glimpse of Kawahime, who saved him from drowning as a child. The other prevalent theme, humanity’s wanton destruction of nature, results in life out of balance. The erratic, wary behavior of the yokai suggest there’s a delicate link between yokai and the natural world. We’re left with the sobering realization that we brought the calamity upon ourselves with our greed and carelessness. Shoujou describes Yomotsumono, a massive, city-sized yokai that threatens Tokyo, as “the accumulated wrath of resentful things humanity had used and thrown away.” Yokai, as depicted in the film, are long-lived, but not eternal. We’re in danger of losing them forever, literally or metaphorically, through environmental strife, or folklore failing to pass down from one generation to the next. If the yokai go, we could be next. As Princess Kawahime states, “Those who discard their past have no future.”
* On a side note, I’m always annoyed by movies that take too long for the protagonist to accept his/her fate. It’s a contrivance that only serves to stall the plot.
At times, spectacle threatens to overwhelm the story in the effects-laden climax. It feels as if the filmmakers loved the subject so much, endeavoring to bring as many yokai to the screen as possible, that they couldn’t bear to part with anything. While the onscreen action seems bloated at times, the film never loses its heart. There are some heavy themes peppered throughout, but it doesn’t compromise its sense of fun. The Great Yokai War understands its audience, giving us a little more in the bargain. Amidst the eye candy, Miike has included some challenging elements for those who wish to explore them. It’s a tantalizing mixture that rewards on multiple viewings.
- Sci-Fi Japan article, “A look at the incredible fantasy adventure Yôkai Daisensô from Takashi Miike and Kadokawa Pictures,” by Keith Aiken.
- Short documentary, The Making of The Great Yokai War
- Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt