Set amidst the backdrop of a small Japanese town, Tadashi lives the typical life of an outcast little boy. By day, he gets picked on by the kids at his school. When he comes home at night, his family is inattentive and unaware of what is going on in his life. One night, during a traditional town festival, Tadashi is selected to be the Kirin Rider. In fable, the Kirin Rider is the savior of the town and an extremely powerful being. Tadashi doesn't know the bones and pieces of the tale since he has recently moved to this small town.
However, trouble is brewing underneath the seemingly peaceful town. Through flashes to the alternate portions of this world, the lives of the Japanese yokai spirits are in peril. These yokai spirits consist of water nymphs, turtle-human hybrids, dancing umbrellas, and living walls. A world consisting of mysterious, darkly powerful beings rumbles underneath the peaceful surroundings – and a war is on the brink of exploding. These darker forces have devised a way to capture and use to yokai spirits' essence to further their efforts of domination.
Tadashi learns from his bullying friends that he needs to travel up a mountain on his sacred journey to retrieve a mystical weapon. During this trek up the forested mountain towards his destiny, he stumbles upon a smaller yokai spirit as he gets frightened during his journey. Thus sets the wheels in motion for young Tadashi to learn of the yokai's world, the war, and how a young boy labeled the Kirin Rider could possibly help. Tadashi sets out with a group of ethereal friends to claim the pride and power of the yokai back once again.
The Great Yokai War has an inherent essence and grandeur about the story. It embodies similar elements from films like The NeverEnding Story and <The Dark Crystal in regards to the power of a chosen younger individual amidst a harsh, fantasy-bound world. However, the key element that sets this piece apart from others is the director's flair. Takashi Miike, crafter of such quality horror flicks as Ichi the Killer and the intensely potent Audition, has ushered in his directorial style within this formula. Under his eye, Miike can craft some of the most astonishingly beautiful scenes from some of the amazingly unusual elements. He does so once again in The Great Yokai War with grand skill.
Miike has a fantastic capacity to craft phenomenally electric performances from his cast members. From young Tadashi and the yokai spirits to the sinister overlord and his intense subject Agi (played by Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame), Miike has certainly given strong tangibility to the characters. What was extremely impressive was the presence of Kawahime (Mai Takahashi), the river nymph yokai that commands the screen with her intensity. While predominately single layered, these characters serve their purpose well and are a pleasure to watch.
Hands down, the set design and costumes are extremely well executed. The set locales are well contrasted between the simple beauty of the Japanese town and the utterly chaotic land of the fallen yokai. Plus, the costume work for each and every yokai is purely stunning. While unusual in their forms, each of the spirits couldn't have been given more tangibility. At times, it felt like some of the yokai were inserted for no apparent reason, but they are still marvelous to watch. One peculiar thing, however, is the special effects. While interesting, some of the special effects are executed at rather irregular quality levels. Still, the effects possess a certain charm that adds to the feel of the film, even though they are imperfect.
Amidst the grandeur of the costumes, the splendid performances, and dramatically familiar storyline lays the conflict. The Great Yokai War ends up having two key problems: the story in itself doesn't bring much new to the genre, and the tone of the film doesn't feel solid. At times, Yokai felt very dark, sinister, and gruesome. Rampant mechanized beasts with razor-sharp teeth, boiling pools of magic torture acid, and disturbingly shot scenes involving the capture of both yokai and humans all create a conflicting, menacing tension. From such a mind as Takashi Miike, it is completely conceivable and expected. With this style of films, however, the audience can vary form the extremely young to the older, weathered moviegoers.
At times, this reviewer thought the concept of blending this gritty depth and childhood splendor is appealing and that the heightened rating (PG-13) is a very interesting choice. However, at the same time, it wasn't overwhelmingly engaging because the film can't decide what approach to lean towards. The darker elements would be too much for younger viewers to stomach, while the older moviegoer might be put off by the youthful tone of Tadashi's journey. It's this conflict that creates some tension and difficulty staying with the film to its conclusion. From this tension, the film's heart and soul feels unused and buried amidst these other elements. While phenomenal in production and concept, this film ends up concentrating more on dazzling the viewer with the folklore and performances than hammering home the spiritual power of childhood innocence and grandeur.
While The Great Yokai War contains some truly magical elements, it falls a bit short because of the misguided energy away from the whimsy of a youthful fantasy tale. An interesting world is assembled, quality characters are established, and a conflict is ripe for correction. However, what dazzles viewers about these fantasy films is the inherent compassion radiating from the film. With a dizzying conflict amidst tones and a lack of attention to the main character's inner quest, The Great Yokai War materializes into more style over substance. Though there is this apparent imbalance, the message the film relays about humanity's wastefulness and attachment to the past is fairly strong. Even though the grandeur of the film outweighs the soul, the quality of the film and its inherent aura of fantasy are quite unique to behold.
The Great Yokai War comes packaged in a standard keepcase with nice coverart and simple disc art.
Talk about eye candy. The Great Yokai War is a feast for the eyes without question. From the yokai's costumes to the unusual CG-elements of the transformed mechanized monsters, this film radiates a peculiar beauty from start to finish. Through this anamorphic transfer, detail was very distinct. The gleam from the character-specific textures, the twirling of the chaotic alternate realm, and the simple, bright colors of the normal world all poured through very well. While black levels appeared a bit faded at times and grain was apparent in a few select scenes, this film is presented very well. For an exercise on color palette, The Great Yokai War is a grand, beautiful example.
Presented in both Japanese and English 5.1 Dolby, this DVD sounded fairly well. What was noticeable was a fluctuating level in the audio department. Harder-hitting scenes didn't pack a ton of punch. Dialogue was predominately clean for most of the film, while higher-pitched sound effects were very clean. Subtitles are available in Slates and English. Japanese and English Dolby 2.0 tracks are available as well.
The Great Yokai War has a few nifty extras included:
A collection of Yokai Profiles is available that illustrates each of the Japanese spirits and gives small quips about a select few of them.
A decent Stills Gallery stages some choice points throughout the film and during the production.
The Original Trailer for the film is included that, naturally, gives away a bit too much of the core, quality material that makes the film fun to watch.
A series of interesting Tokyo Shock Trailers are available for people who enjoyed the film and inquire about similar flavored films.
The Great Yokai War is an eye-catching exercise in fantasy from a great mind in the strange and unusual, Takashi Miike. While the film is technically fascinating and striking to behold, it's difficult to weave through the shifting tones and find the core heart of the story. In a world of childhood fantasy, the connection with the main character(s) and their cause is important to enjoying the film. However, with such precise and quality execution of fantastic aesthetics and very high quality performances, The Great Yokai War is appealing and unusual enough to give this obscure title a viewing. I'd Recommend this film to see Tadashi's journey through the struggle of the grand war between modern culture, conquest, and the glorious ancient spirits of ages past.