I believe it's a tenet of Buddhism that we mortals are reincarnated to correct past mistakes and hopefully climb the ladder of evolution until we reach Nirvana. Kitaro, which has plot points galore derived from Japanese folklore and religion, may be the ultimate proof of that contention, as I couldn't help but think throughout the patent strangeness I was watching that none other than Ed Wood had returned to our planet to film (finally) a big budget, live action anime. And I mean that in only the nicest way possible.
Kitaro, as is usually the case in these adaptations, started life as a manga almost 50 years ago, believe it or not, and has been variously adapted many times, including as a traditional anime, in the intervening decades. The storyline draws heavily on Japanese folklore, specifically the Yōkai, variously translated as "demon," "monster," or "spirit." Kitaro is full of such creatures, and they vary from such proto-human types as Kitaro himself, to his deceased father who has returned in the form of a single eyeball melded to a miniature human body, to animal spirits like Kitaro's friend Cat-Girl or the bad guys, the Fox Spirits, to other, stranger offerings that can look like everything from mutant football team mascots to overgrown Hamburglars from a lost McDonald's commercial.
Kitaro himself is a boy-spirit who fights for peace between humans and the Yōkai, something that is at the heart of this particular film. When Kitaro's bumbling comic foil Ratman ends up stealing a magical underworld stone, it sets off a chain of events where Kitaro is forced to defend young human boy Kenta, who ends up with the stone after his father steals it from a pawn shop. Kenta happens to have a comely older sister named Mika, who develops a relationship with Kitaro. It's all completely looney, with an over-the-top visual style that is somehow simultaneously impressive while at times redolent of low budget fare like (dare I say it?) Plan 9 From Outer Space.
This is an incredibly fun film if taken in the right spirit (no pun intended). With relatively few CGI effects (at least compared to what we would have been offered in a lavish Hollywood spectacular), we're instead treated to "old school" special effects, including really old school effects like people in oversized costumes (I didn't notice any zippers on my first time around, but they may be there, Ed Wood-style and all). It lends a patently surreal and comic aspect to the proceedings. This is, after all, a comic book sprung to life, and this actually has the "gee-whiz" feel of that genre down more pat than some of the immensely budgeted U.S. franchises that frequent the multiplexes during the summer months. There are some outright ridiculous comedic effects here, such as a Benny Hill-esque journey into sped-up motion when Ratman is attacked by the Fox Spirits. But there are also some very nice, more technically ambitious work here, including a very neat human head that's part of a serpentine multi-limbed Yōkai creature, or the martial Yenga birdlike creatures that come to arrest Kitaro after he's mistakenly accused of having stolen the evil stone, or even Kitaro's "flying cotton," a sort of Aladdin-like flying carpet (albeit a wispy one with a cartoon face and the ability to speak) on which Kitaro, Kenta and Mika get to escape at one point.
The overall production design is one of inspired lunacy. At times I was reminded of some of the Ray Harryhausen epics, especially when one of the Yōkai, a samurai head in a flaming wagon wheel, reproduces himself to become the wheels of a train to the afterlife. There's simply a childlike wonder to a lot of the effects here, suitable since Kenta is the emotional center of the film. If some of the Yōkai seem patently absurd at times, it may be as much of a cultural difference as anything (though when you watch one of the extras, wherein a huge, purple Yōkai covered with eyes walks the streets of Tokyo, you get the feeling the filmmakers are very much in on their own little joke).
From a performance standpoint, things are surprisingly low-key, at least for this kind of anime-inspired enterprise. While some of the bad guys are suitably hiss-worthy, with completely hyperbolic performances, Eiji Wentz as Kitaro, Mao Inoue as Mika and the very young and adorable Ruka Uchida as Kenta do relatively understated work, helping to at least at times ground the film in some semblance of reality. There are also some delightful supporting characters and performances in Kitaro, my favorite being the hilariously named Sand Witch (do puns like that translate into Japanese?), who makes finger food made of, well, sand.
Tonally Kitaro lurches around a bit and that unevenness may make it less palatable for the kids for whom I imagine it was made. There's a passing early reference to a construction company that's deforesting Japan, a plot point that is then quickly left by the wayside. There's also the death of an important character that may be disturbing for younger viewers, especially since it's never fully explained and yet which is simultaneously a major plot point, at least in terms of motivations for two other major characters. Some of the sight gags will delight younger kids, but a lot of Kitaro is just so outright silly that adolescents and older, more "sophisticated" teens may be yawning in boredom after the first few minutes.
All of this said, Kitaro is certainly one of the most unique visions to make it to film in recent memory. While some practicioners of anime have been moving ever closer to "real life" with motion capture CGI (see my recent review of Vexille for a perfect example), Kitaro takes the opposite tack and attempts to make real life an anime. If the results are decidedly more uneven, they're no less astounding at times. It may help to wear an angora sweater while you watch.
I was a little disappointed in Kitaro's 1080p 1.85:1 image, some of which may be attributed to the film's weird yellow look throughout, something that blanches the real environments and also gives flesh tones a tilt toward the pinkish realms. Even putting aside the color issues, however, this is a pretty soft looking transfer, with little of the crispness and clarity one would hope for from a Blu-ray release. This is one of the most "standard def" looking Blu-rays I've seen recently, unfortunately, especially considering how visually over the top the film itself is. Quite a disappointment.
Luckily both the DD HD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Japanese mixes, as well as the English DD 5.1 mix, provide an extremely immersive experience, with good ambient effects and some excellent, if brief, use of LFE when various mayhem ensues. The dubbing job in English is pretty poor, be forewarned--there appears to have been little effort made to match the English with the original Japanese lip movements. Strangely, there seems to be extra reverb on the English dub for some reason--some of the voices sound like they're bouncing around inside a football stadium. That said, all dialogue is perfectly audible, even in the at times busy sound effects mix. English subtitles are available.
The best extra is the patently strange "Yokai in the City," which seems to have been culled from the Japanese version of YouTube, and which has the aforementioned large purple multi-eyed Yokai traipsing through various Tokyo locales. For even greater meta-weirdness, there's a "Making of 'Yokai in the City'" featurette. Rounding out the extras are trailers and tv spots.
Kitaro is unusual, to say the least. Some purists will probably say it could never have worked as a live action feature, and there's probably ample evidence of that in this film. However, if you take a step back and simply accept this version on its own terms, it's delightfully wacky and wonderful, with an outre sensibility that is always fun to watch. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet