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DVD SAVANT

The Great Yokai War
Yôkai daisensô
Double-Disc Special Edition


The Great Yokai War
Media Blasters Tokyo Shock
2005 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 124 min. / Yôkai daisensô / Street Date September 12, 2006 / 29.95
Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Bunta Sugawara, Masaomi Kondô, Mai Takahashi, Etushi Toyokawa, Chiaki Kuriyama
Cinematography Hideo Yamamoto
Production Design Hisashi Sasaki
Film Editor Yasushi Shimamura
Original Music Kôji Endô
Written by Takashi Miike, Mitshuiko Sawamura, Takehiko Itakura from a novel by Hiroshi Aramata
Produced by Fumio Inoue, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa
Directed by Takashi Miike

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Best known for grisly, intriguing horror epics and ultra-violent crime pix, Japanese director Takashi Miike has lately been making high-budget fantasies aimed at the family market. Not unlike American directors obsessed with earlier genres and styles, Miike turned to 70's superhero worship for his 2004 film Zebraman, about a middle-aged comic fan that 'revives' the hero of a cancelled TV show from the past.

The Great Yokai War is a titular remake of a 1968 fantasy about Yokai: Traditional Japanese spirit creatures that can resemble people, monsters and even inanimate objects. Yokai can be scary or cute, but they're basically good. Normally invisible, the Yokai correlate roughly to our poltergeists, except they're not ghosts and they don't want to haunt anybody. When Yokai get together, their main intention seems to be to have a good time. The successful Anime feature Spirited Away is packed with dozens of Yokai characters.

Miike's film is too intense for small children -- it has some very disturbing imagery. But it's a highly entertaining, thick slice of Japanese pop traditions, bursting with fantastic visuals and amusing characters.

Synopsis:

The parents of young Tokyo kid Tadashi Ino (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are divorced. He lives with relatives, including a dotty grandfather (Bunta Sugawara of Battles Without Honor and Humanity) in a rural town where the kids make fun of him. But Tadashi is chosen as the "Kirin Rider" in a folk festival, and gets the idea that he must hike to a nearby mountain to claim a special sword. Tadashi's courage is tested on the way by dozens of frightening but harmless Yokai. He picks up a furry, cute little Yokai helper called a Sunekosuri and meets a score of bizarre Yokai friends, including a spirited turtle sprite called Kawataro (Sadao Abe); Shojo, the Kirin Herald (Masaomi Kondô); and Kawahime, a rather sensual river princess (Mai Takahashi). The shy Tadashi finds the sword and must quickly learn its proper use. The demon master Lord Kato Yasunori (Etushi Toyokawa) has summoned the malicious wraith Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill Vol. 1) to help him channel two huge repositories of Evil: The collective resentment of discarded objects and the negative energy of the industrialized city. They fuel a hellish, immense flying factory monster called Yomotsumono. Kato and Agi throw helpless Yokai into a furnace that converts them into robotic monsters. Tadashi's new friends tutor him as a proper Kirin Rider, to oppose Kato and inspire the millions of Yokai to rise up against Kato's reign of terror.

The Great Yokai War packs a great deal of excitement into its two hours, all of it expertly orchestrated by Takashi Miike and an army of effects people: Dynamic sword battles, gigantic monsters, magical transformations. The setup is the old NeverEnding Story tale of a young boy elected to defend the world against Evil, with young Tadashi serving as our guide into unfamiliar territory. Western audiences unfamiliar with Japanese traditions will be happy to hear the explanations of folk details offered by various Yokai creatures. Miike also drops in references to Shigeru Mizuki, an author responsible for popularizing the Yokai tradition.

Miike and his screenwriters Mitshuiko Sawamura and Takehiko Itakura wisely begin their story with small steps. Weird creatures confront Tadashi, like the Rokurokubi, a woman who can extend her neck to an absurd length, and the Karakasa, an umbrella with arms and a single eye. The Snow Maiden called Yuki Onna also appears; anyone who has seen the horror classic Kwaidan will recognize her immediately. Our hero befriends the odd little Sunekosuri, sort of a combo otter and mouse, but with weird eyes. Tadashi meets a middle-aged reporter who remembers being saved from drowning by a strange Yokai water princess; Tadashi is subsequently rescued by the same beautiful sprite. Some of the Yokai are argumentative individuals. Kawataro angrily lectures Tadahashi to not judge people or spirits by outside appearances.

As might be expected, the bad guys seek a dictatorship of iron and steel monsters, and flatten much of Tokyo by landing their Yomotsumono right in the middle of town. The monster's back is a giant factory with ugly black towers. As the battle rages, millions of Yokai materialize and converge on Kato's headquarters. Even though the fate of the world is at stake, the massed Yokai arrive as if attending a giant party.

Unlike some American juvenile fantasies, The Great Yokai War has few goals beyond fantastic fun. When our confused reporter character drinks from a locker of Kirin beer (a blatant product placement) he finds he can see the Yokai too! Miike interrupts the craziness with odd disclaimers: The heroes hitch a ride by holding onto the wing of a jet plane, and a message pops up reading "Kids! Don't try this at home!"

The movie has a faintly erotic attitude toward its female characters. The evil Agi tortures captive Yokai and turns Sunekosuri into a robotic warrior, while prancing about in strange party outfits and a beehive hairdo. Using a deadly whip to shatter Tadashi's sword, she does Kato's evil bidding because he's promised to make her his eternal consort. Kato wears a dark western business suit, so we know he can't be trusted.

Miike takes the plunge into adolescent sexual yearnings by focusing on Tadashi's relationship with Kawahime, a river princess in an abbreviated Peter Pan outfit. Actually, Tadashi's relationship seems to be with Kwahime's inner thighs, as his attention frequently focuses on them. We see giant close-ups of Tadashi's hand resting on her leg, and watch as a drop of water drips teasingly into unknown regions. Otherwise Kawahime is concerned but asexual; her green hands and feet, pointy ears and shiny body remind us that she's possibly a relative of a salamander.

Amid the noisy battles and violent action are a few disturbing touches. In one scary early scene, a newborn mutant calf with a human head warns of an impending war ... showing this to small children is unthinkable. Everything else is on the level of good-natured Anime mayhem, with little if any bloodshed.

The live-action characters and rubber-makeup monsters (and there must be hundreds of these) interact in evocative sets or are composited into elaborate CGI environments. The effects are cartoonish but appropriate, with excellent design work. Naturalistic realism has no place in a story that visualizes a million different Yokai on the march to save Tokyo.

The 10 year-old playing Tadashi grounds us in reality with his concern for his separated parents and his shyness issues. In a clever touch that attests to the light-hearted spirit of The Great Yokai War, the day is won not by combat but by the power of the goodness of Azuki Beans. One of the charming Yokai is a pleasant little fellow called Azuki-arai (The Azuki-bean washer, played by Takashi Okamura). He patiently retrieves spilled beans one by one as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. As it turns out, Azuki-arai's faithful efforts make the crucial difference between victory and defeat!


Media Blasters' Tokyo Shock DVD of The Great Yokai War is an attractive enhanced transfer (1:85) of this exciting picture. Most of the film is a digital effect and it all looks fine. Kôji Endô's eccentric score sounds good in English or Japanese 2.0 or 5.1 . A second disc contains a fat selection of extras. The menu choices include videotape news bites of announcements and premieres, and cast and filmmaker appearances at film festivals. Another puzzling extra is a 'my vacation' video of star Ryunosuke Kamiki's trips to a shrine, and the Venice Film Festival.

Much more satisfying is a long-form making-of interview docu with director Miike and his designers and effects people, all illustrated with excellent behind-the-scenes video. We get a much bigger appreciation of the exacting make-ups, hundreds of masks and body suits constructed for the film. In terms of creative achievement, Miike's enormous production is much more rewarding than, say, the last three Star Wars films.

The leading players get individual face time in their own interview section. The actors that work in makeup are interviewed in character, and inter-cut with BTS footage. We see make-up being applied, and stage work with blue screens and wire harnesses.

Other extras are a videotaped stage one-act with some Yokai characters and an amateurish but spirited Yokai skit about a coveted bread bun.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Great Yokai War rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The Making of ..., Short Drama of Yokai (clowning), Interviews with BTS and Makeup detail, Another Story of Kawataro, Docu of film creators at World Yokai conference 2005, Video newsreels of finish of filming and premiere (with rubber suited Yokai in attendance), promo-oriented 'docu' on young star Kamiki, Kamiki's 'summer adventure' -- trip to the Venice film festival, visiting a shrine, etc.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 10, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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