Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Once Over Twice: Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô)

(1968) Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda; Written by Tetsurô Yoshida; Starring: Yoshihiko Aoyama, Hideki Hanamura, Chikara Hashimoto; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that originally appeared in 2011.

“Learn about Yokai and you will understand a critical piece of the puzzle that Japanese culture often presents to outsiders.” (from Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt)

 My first major introduction to the strange and wonderful world of yokai was a few years back, thanks to Big Monster War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô), or Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare as it’s known in the States.  Whatever you choose to call it, Big Monster War is a fun lesson in Japanese spirits.  According to Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt’s indispensable reference, Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, yokai are the stuff of folklore: things that go bump in the night, spectral manifestations of forces of nature, and the unexplainable.  Hundreds of different types populate the land, in urban and rural settings.

* While Big Monster War was first in a series of three Yokai Monsters DVDs, it was actually the second film in a trilogy, following 100 Monsters (aka: Yôkai Hyaku Monogatari) and preceding  Along with Ghosts (aka: Tôkaidô Obake Dôchû) (Traditional Monster Imagery in Manga, Anime and Japanese Cinema, Zilia Papp)

The story begins in a Middle Eastern archaeological site, where the malevolent Babylonian creature Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto) is unearthed and awakened from his multi-millennia beauty slumber.  Daimon travels to feudal Japan, kills local magistrate Hyogo Isobe (Takashi Kanda), and assumes his identity.  He creates a private army by drinking the blood of officials of Izu Magisterial Palace and converting them into mindless slaves that carry out his bidding.  Palace denizens Lady Chie (Akane Kawasaki) and samurai Shinhachiro (Yoshihiko Aoyama) see through Daimon’s disguise, as the once kindly magistrate has become power hungry and cruel.  With a title like Big Monster War, however, it’s a safe bet the human characters are not the main attraction.

Daimon is opposed by an eclectic bunch of spirits.  Some are comical in appearance, such as the Kara-kasa (my personal favorite), which appears as an enchanted umbrella, while others are disturbing, exemplified by Rokuro Kubi (Ikuko Môri), a woman with an impossibly long, twisty neck.  The group’s nominal leader, the manic water sprite Kappa (Gen Kuroki), resembles a cross between a human, turtle and duck.  Another yokai, Ungaikyo, sports a huge, distended belly that displays images like a TV (the original Teletubby?). 

While some yokai are fearsome and some are deadly, most of the spirits present in the film are relatively benign.  Nevertheless, when they decide to band together, they comprise a formidable opposition to the evil outsider Daimon. Beings that normally lurk in the fog-shrouded corners, step out to face their common enemy. As suggested by Zilia Papp (cited previously), the film takes on nationalistic overtones as the spirits conspire to    rid the land of the foreign demon.  The yokai, as presented here, are the champions of Japanese society, and by extension, Japan. 

Although it’s hard to dismiss the author’s assertion, Big Monster War is more than a Japan-centric diatribe masked in historical fantasy.  It provides a delightful glimpse into Japan’s colorful past, where myth and history commingle in one tasty confection.  The yokai represent a link to Japan’s illustrious heritage through storytelling.  Even if they never existed, except in the collective imagination, you’ll wish they did.  Several decades later, Japanese filmmakers continue to incorporate these beloved and feared spirits into new tales.  Takashi Miike successfully adapted the story for his modern-day remake, The Great Yokai War.  The original film is the perfect family flick, if you’re tired of the usual suspects from Disney and Dreamworks.  A little creepy, a little silly, but always captivating, it’s become a family favorite, at least in my household.

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