Monday, January 28, 2019

The Great Yokai War (aka: Yôkai Daisensô)

(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

Rating: ***½

“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

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Short Take: Tetsuo: The Iron Man

(1989) Written and directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Starring: Tomorô Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka and Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***

“In my films, technology is terrifying but still convenient. The theme is the conflict between these concepts. We love technology but it will conquer our lives if we don’t pay attention to it.” – Shin'ya Tsukamoto (excerpt from interview with Raffi Asdourian)

When I attempt to process my third viewing of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, I’m reminded of the ubiquitous meme with two of the stars from the American Chopper reality show (For the record, I’ve never watched an episode, so I’m probably missing some context) with two burly guys engaged in a heated argument, and appearing to come close to blows (Inserting any dialectic argument into screenshots of said argument = instant comedy). At any rate, it’s a fair approximation of the dialogue in my brain as I came to terms with Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s landmark film.

Review #1:

What the hell did I just watch?  From start to finish, Tetsuo is a parade of grotesqueries, peppered with spare dialogue. It’s a tedious exercise, full of repetitive music and interminable scenes. I’m not sure how anything that was only 67 minutes could seem so slow, but there you go. If Tsukamoto was looking to disgust, alienate and bore the viewer, then mission accomplished.

Review #2:

Wait a minute, you’re missing the point. Tetsuo is a salient commentary on modern society’s love affair with technology, and the consequences thereof. It’s not the point whether the characters are relatable – they’re meant to represent the human condition, not individuals (The players not given proper names, but labeled as archetypes: The Salaryman, Woman in Glasses, Metal Fetishist, etc…). The Salaryman’s (Tomorô Taguchi) transformation is beyond his control, as he begins to take on the attributes of the individual (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) he accidentally killed with his car, and gradually loses his humanity in the process. With its stark 16 mm black-and-white cinematography and themes of alienation amidst a bleak urban landscape, Tetsuo begs comparison to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). The Salaryman’s weird evolution recalls David Cronenberg’s so-called “body horror” films, especially Videodrome (1983). One comparison, closer to home for Tsukamoto, is Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), in which the main character suffers the torments of Buddhist hell after running over a pedestrian. Another film which Tetsuo parallels is Akira (1988), in which the primary character, Tetsuo, has a similarly disturbing transformation after his motorcycle collides with a genetically altered child.

With Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there’s a perverse joy of low-budget filmmaking and a DIY ethic that’s easy to get behind. It doesn’t ask to be understood or enjoyed. Tsukamoto takes no quarter with his uncompromising, oddly erotic, hellish vision. While I’m not sure I like it, I respect it. Sometimes, when re-watching something I’m on the fence about, the third time is a charm, but I haven’t quite warmed up to it. I probably never will (not entirely at least), and I’m okay with that. I’m glad it exists, and perhaps that’s sufficient. For some, one viewing will be more than adequate to last a lifetime. Others might not be able to get enough. As for me, I think I’ll wait another decade or two.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Castle of Cagliostro

(1979) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki; Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Haruya Yamazaki; Based on the manga series by Monkey Punch; Based on characters by Maurice Leblanc; Starring: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Makio Inoue, Gorô Naya, Sumi Shimamoto and Tarô Ishida; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

The Castle of Cagliostro was like a clearance sale of all I had done on Lupin and during my Toei days. I don’t think I added anything new. I can understand why people who had followed my work were extremely disillusioned. You can’t use a sullied middle-aged guy to create fresh work that will wow viewers.” – Hayao Miyazaki (excerpt from “Miyazaki on His Own Works,” Starting Point: 1979-1996)

The Lupin the Third manga by Monkey Punch (aka: Kazuhiko Katou), about the grandson of elusive gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (based on the classic Maurice Leblanc character), has spawned a venerable anime series (there have been six series to date) and a 1974 live action movie (Lupin the 3rd: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy). After Lupin III’s first animated feature film outing, Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo (1978) was a big success, a follow-up film, depicting the further exploits of the perennially elusive thief (Monkey Punch’s version had more roguish qualities, compared to his more genteel counterpart) was given the green light. After the previous film’s director, Yasuo Ôtsuka, passed on the sequel, Hayao Miyazaki (who had worked on the television series with his longtime collaborator and Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata) was hired to direct and co-write* The Castle of Cagliostro,** his feature film debut. Miyazaki’s version intentionally chose to appeal to a wider audience that was not necessarily familiar with Lupin III, featuring less emphasis on his unquenchable libido, and greater focus on the action sequences and elaborate settings.

* Fun Fact #1: Although Haruya Yamazaki shares co-writing credit, Miyazaki allegedly dispensed with his ideas for the film.

** Fun Fact #2: According to Reed Nelson’s commentary, the film was completed in seven months, an astonishing feat, considering the level of artistry involved.
In the opening, set in the late ‘60s, Lupin III (voiced by Yasuo Yamada), following in his grandfather’s footsteps, makes a killing at a Monte Carlo casino. Once again, he’s on the run from the indefatigable Inspector Zenigata (Gorô Naya), but the ill-gained cash turns out to be the top-quality product of a counterfeiter. Lupin III and Zenigata trace the fake currency to the sovereign nation of Cagliostro, and by proxy, its shadowy leader, Count Cagliostro (Tarô Ishida).* Lupin III finds Cagliostro’s operation an irresistible target, but in the process finds something he didn’t anticipate – falling for innocent Lady Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto). Clarisse is destined to be wed to the unscrupulous count in order to preserve the purity of the bloodline (It’s best not dwell on this – suffice it to say they’re distant relatives). With relentless inspector Zenigata one step behind, he’s forced to make a brief, uneasy alliance if they wish to defeat the Count.

* Fun Fact #3: Yes, there really was a Count Cagliostro, Alessandro Cagliostro, an infamous 18th century occultist, con-artist and counterfeiter. You can learn more about him here.

Compared to his previous cinematic outing, the character of Lupin III might seem a bit tame, but Miyazaki didn’t eliminate the more unsavory aspects of the title character or his partners in crime, Fujiko, Jigen and Goemon. Instead he chose to emphasize other properties, including their teamwork. The film was criticized by Monkey Punch, who expected a more “mature” version of Lupin III, feeling the end results didn’t quite reflect his creation. I opine that the spirit of the characters is still there to see. The fact that Miyazaki toned down the sex and wanton violence for his story doesn’t detract from other versions; it only makes Lupin III a more three-dimensional character. It’s clear Lupin III hasn’t changed his old ways, but has become more self-aware, with an enhanced sense of honor. What we see is a more thoughtful version of the character, not exactly mellowed with age, but no longer a slave to his baser instincts and the rashness of youth. Looking at the character from a long view, The Castle of Cagliostro could be viewed as a chapter in Lupin III’s moral development. We know who he is, as do his cohorts, who treat his intentions toward Clarisse with skepticism. Based on his past indiscretions, especially regarding his former lover and sometimes ally Fujiko (Eiko Masuyama), their attitude is probably warranted.

The Castle of Cagliostro represents an early work from an artist who continued to stretch boundaries, working within the parameters of established characters. The character designs owe a debt to Monkey Punch, however, there are many signature touches that only Miyazaki could bring to the film. The movie features several key dialogue-free moments, which enable to viewer to catch his or her virtual breath, pause, and reflect before the next action piece (such as an extended shot of a character with wind blowing through his hair). Miyazaki referred to these moments as “ma,” an intentional emptiness (Source: On paper, it may seem extraneous but it’s all about pacing – a moment of calm before the storm. There are other Miyazaki moments peppered throughout the film, including Lupin III hiding in a lion’s head fountain. Through the stone lion’s mouth, we see his distorted face and squiggly eyes, which would be mirrored many years later in in Ponyo. Similarly, we see his love for depictions of flying and machinery. The Count’s gyrocopter and the castle’s clock tower are not simply props, but integral parts in the story. His action scenes have a wonderful, kinetic quality. In one spectacular scene, Lupin III scales the rooftop of Cagliostro’s castle, to infiltrate the inaccessible (to most sane individuals) tower where Clarisse is being held captive. Miyazaki and his team of animators masterfully convey the vertiginous heights, creating a genuinely frightening, exhilarating experience. I could feel my palms sweating, as Lupin III bounded among the rooftops, and hung precipitously by his fingertips, narrowly avoiding his doom.

Miyazaki was reportedly dissatisfied with the results, as he bowed to pressure from the studio, dashing his hopes for an extra month to finish The Castle of Cagliostro. If one were to pass judgment on the movie based on Miyazaki’s self-deprecating quote above, The Castle of Cagliostro would seem a failure for the filmmaker and the Lupin III franchise. With all due respect to Mr. Miyazaki, his self-assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, he set a new high for feature film animation and a dress rehearsal for his ambitious 1984 follow-up, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Working within the confines of the Lupin III universe, he added depth and likability for the Lupin character, allowing us to see the character in a new light. For many, including myself, this was an introduction to the world of Lupin III. Even if The Castle of Cagliostro wasn’t the final word on the character, it provided a gateway to his other incarnations, including Leblanc’s source material. Any way you slice it, it’s a unique chapter for the character, and a damn fine stand-alone film.