The Great Yokai War

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Great Yokai War
"This isn’t a big showdown in the style of recent superhero movies, but something far more organic and joyously deranged."

A month after its sequel closed the Fantasia International Film Festival, Arrow is bringing Takashi Miike’s original The Great Yokai War to Western audiences. It’s a film which faces significant difficulties in translation when it comes to language, cultural factors and acting style, but it’s also a thrilling child-centred adventure with enough seriously weird things going on to win it a cult following amongst people of all ages.

The child in question is city kid Tadashi, portrayed by then 11-year-old Ryûnosuke Kamiki who, as a survivor of childhood illness, has a delicacy about his features which one can easily imagine making him a target for bullies. Transplanted to the countryside as a result of family breakdown, he struggles to fit in, but nothing makes him quite as nervous as the moment when he is chosen, during an annual ritual, to be the guardian of peace in the village. This ceremonial role, which comes with a special towel and portion of beans, comes with an assortment of symbolic duties. What he does not expect is to be called upon to stop an evil lord who hopes to dominate the world.

Mixing the traditional broad, quirky comedy style popular in Japanese kids’ TV with something of the magic of a classic Spielberg production, Miike carries his young hero through a series of strange encounters in which few allowances are made for his youth, leaving him more battered and bruised than most adult action heroes. Like the demon biker in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona, Miike is particularly cruel to small, furry creatures, including the spirited little yokai Sunekosuri whom Tadashi becomes attached to. Narrowly escaping the mincing machine that does for his friends, this unfortunate creature is assailed at every turn, to the point where horror mingles with comedic absurdity. In other words, a degree of robustness is demanded of the viewer, no matter how young, but children with a taste for the grotesque will be in their element.

The central plot hinges on a villainous plan to abduct yokai and trap their souls in kratt-like robots which are then forced to do the evil lord’s bidding. As a child, Tadashi can see the yokai whom most adults overlook and, partly out of a sense of duty and partly out of affection for Sunekosuri, is persuaded to help them defeat their enemy. There’s a magical sword involved, a dangerous beehive-coiffed woman with a whip, and all manner of inventively styled mechanical monsters with eyes like terminators. Theoretically the boy should have all manner of different yokai on his side, but some of them are not much use in combat and getting useful ones to show up proves to be a challenge.

How you experience this film will depend very much on how familiar you are with yokai to begin with. The term itself is difficult to translate, with a meaning somewhere between the English terms god, spirit and demon. Newcomers will be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of these beings, the unlikely forms that some of them take and their general strangeness. None of the familiar patterns found in folklore around the world apply here. Those who know them well, however, will be delighted by the vast array of jokes pertaining to them in a film whose anarchic energy sees many thrust out of their element.

This isn’t a big showdown in the style of recent superhero movies, but something far more organic and joyously deranged. The pivotal battle does not take the form you’d expect – though Tokyo continues its run of cinematic bad luck – yet it delivers on both action and comedy. Kamiki is a wonderfully engaging lead. The special effects might be shaky in places and most of the yokai have the hastily-assembled look of old Doctor Who monsters, but the costumes and sets present a feast for the imagination. Nods to successful franchises like the Indiana Jones films feel like fun bridge-building (or breaking) rather than lazy rip-offs. Miike is more than capable of making them his own.

Ultimately, it’s that sense of wildness running throughout that makes this so enjoyable. Though some plot elements are played by the book, it often feels as though anything could happen – and probably will. And despite the gratuitous (though never age-inappropriate) suffering on display, this is a film with a great deal of heart.

Reviewed on: 07 Oct 2021
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The Great Yokai War packshot
A young boy is chosen as the defender of good and must team up with Japan's ancient spirits and creatures of lore to attempt to destroy the forces of evil.

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Takashi Miike, Mitsuhiko Sawamura, based on the book by Hiroshi Aramata

Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Chiaki Kuriyama, Bunta Sugawara, Kaho Minami, Riko Narumi

Year: 2005

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: Japan

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Streaming on: Arrow


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