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Great Yokai War, The
NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is an import from Hong Kong and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. [Recommended Region Free Players] It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki, best known for some of the voice work he's done on a couple of Studio Ghibli films) is sad little kid. His parents are divorced and he lives out in the country with his mother and strange old grandfather who doesn't give him nearly the amount of attention or love a child his age really needs. As such, he's a pretty lonely kid and more than a little sad. His luck looks to be turning up one summer as he's chosen to be the 'Kirin Rider' (a mythical hero who can supposedly steal back a magic sword from some sinister goblins) at an annual parade but the other children tease him and try to scare him into thinking that he's really going to be sent off to the hills to fight monsters.
Tadashi dismisses their teasing until shortly after his grandfather winds up missing. Where does he think the old man went? Up into the same hills the other children told him were full of monsters. Tadashi, with some trepidation, heads up into the forest to find his grandfather but instead makes the acquaintance of a little squirrel-like creature named Sunoskuri who befriends him and guides him through the dark woods to meet some of his friends, a group known as the Yokai, a gang of good monsters who fight against the evil witch Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill and Battle Royale in an eerily sexy role -watch out for that whip… yowza!) and her army of robot-Yokai hybrids that live in the area who hope to make Tadashi the real like Kirin Rider he was chosen to be. Agi works for a higher power, however, and there's an evil Yokai named Kato who has some very sinister plans for Tadashi and his new friends.
While The Great Yokai War was, in its native Japan, made for a children's audience and marketed as a family film, it's going to seem awfully weird to North American audiences who won't necessarily understand the cultural implications of a lot of what goes on in the film. In order to 'get it' it helps to have at least a rough understanding of what the Yokai are in the first place - in a nutshell, they're oddball spirit creatures that can take on many different forms that have long been a mainstay of Japanese folk lore and the source of much inspiration for movies, stories, manga and anime. Even knowing what they are going into the film, younger viewers may still be taken aback by the sexuality, violence and darkness that Takashi Miike (who has helmed everything from the completely gratuitous Ichi The Killer to the much friendlier Happiness Of The Katikuris) packs into the film. It's not that the more adult content goes too far, but there's far more inferred and even shown here than you'd ever expect to see in a North American kid's film.
That being said, The Great Yokai War is obviously not a North American kids film and judging it on that level is completely unfair to the fantastic and completely fun movie that Takashi Miike has given us. Choke full of more monsters of more different kinds than you could ever hope for or imagine, this one brings back memories of everything from the earlier Yokai monster movies from Yoshiyuki Kuroda (like Spook Warfare and Along With Ghosts to Ridley Scott's Legend to the cantina scene from the original Star Wars. Creatures of all shapes and sizes come at you from all over the place as he movie plays out, some created completely by computer graphics, some obviously men in costumes, while others still are puppets. Some of the creatures look almost human, others more animal, while some are in the middle and one resembles more of a wall than anything else – you can certainly 'get your monster on' with this one.
The movie isn't perfect – there are a few spots where the CGI is painfully obvious and those spots lack a little bit of soul but for the most part the effects come through really well. Ryunosuke Kamiki does do very well in the lead and it's fun to see seventies Yakuza bad ass extraordinaire Bunta Sugawara show up in a supporting role, particularly in the last fifteen minutes or so and in the opening scene where he has a horrible dream about the future of mankind. The film tries to have a message and that part of the script plays out a little on the heavy handed side to the point where there are a couple of spots that feel just a bit too preachy. These are minor quibbles, however. For the most part The Great Yokai War is a really enjoyable blend of science fiction, fantasy, horror, drama, comedy and adventure that blends Miike's completely off the wall sense of the odd with some very cool traditional folk stories from Japanese history. It's a very unique film, very original, and a whole lot of fun.
The 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen for this release is impressive and very good, but not quite perfect. In the darker areas of the image you might pick up on some mild compression artifacts and pixelation and there is a bit of aliasing present in a few scenes as well. Other than that, the image looks great, with fantastic color reproduction, strong black levels, and plenty of both foreground and background detail present in the image from start to finish. The reds and the greens in particular look really impressive here and very distinct without any bleeding or messiness. Some mild film grain shows up in a few spots but it's not a big deal and unless you're looking for it, you're probably not going to notice it in the first place. All in all, the image is pretty impressive.
Universe supplies three audio tracks for this release – in the original Japanese language there are options in both Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound format and DTS-ES 5.1 Surround Sound, and in Cantonese there is a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound track. Optional subtitles are provided in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and in English.
How does the audio fare? In short, it's pretty much perfect. All three mixes are very active and very aggressive with plenty of distinct channel separation and ample opportunity for sound effects and musical cues to swell up and around the viewing area. If you've got the hardware to accommodate it, the Japanese DTS option is the way to go as it does sound slightly stronger but both 5.1 tracks bring plenty of boom with tight bass response and a very clean, very clear high end as well. The only flaw worth mentioning is that there are a few noticeable typographical errors in the English subtitles here and there. Thankfully they're not such a big deal as you're still able to follow things easily enough even with the flubs, but they are there and they might prove annoying to some people.
The Great Yokai War comes to DVD in a very impressive two disc set and the extras are spread out across the set as follows:
Well, with a two hour feature and three audio options, there's not much room left on the first disc for supplements but we do get some keen animated menus, chapter selection, and audio setup options in addition to the theatrical trailer and some biographies for a few of the cast members. For the bulk of the 'real' extra features, pop in…
First up is Another Story Of Kawataro, and it is a nice side story that revolves around the turtle like Yokai from the film. Basically, in this quickie, he heads on out to the first Yokai Poetry Club meeting only to run into trouble with the local police. It's a strange and very funny little sixteen minute short, created digitally, and if you enjoyed the character in the feature you'll get a kick out of this as he gets to go even more over the top.
The Cast Interviews section has a combined running time of just over fifty minutes in length and as such it provides quite a bit of insight into the making of the movie through those who were there and experienced it for themselves. Masaomi Kondo, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Sadao Abe, Mai Takahashi, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takashi Okamura, Bunta Sugawara and finally, Kuriyama Chiaki are all on hand to share their experiences with us, though they all more or less touch on the same things – working with Miike, their take on the source material, the folk legends that a lot of this material is based on, and working with all of the effects used pretty much constantly throughout the film. It's interesting enough to sit through this once but by the time the last few participants get their chance on camera, it gets a little bit redundant. What makes this worthwhile, more so than the interviews themselves which feel fairly promotional in nature, is the behind the scenes footage and make up/FX footage that we get to see play out underneath the interview audio.
Visual Records Of Promotion is a seventeen minute featurette that contains some different press conference footage wherein the producers talk about the kind of film that they had hoped to make with this project and from there the cast is introduced. After that we get some footage from the film's premiere and then for some strange reason we get in a time machine and go back to 2004 for the press conference where this project was officially announced. Some of this material is rather interesting but it is bizarre to see it presented in reverse order.
Up next is The Great Yokai Conference, which is basically Miike and the films producers at a press conference with some members of the World Demon Association as well as a few cast and crew members. They ramble on for thirteen minutes about some specific aspects of the film but it's a fairly disjointed discussion and most of the attempts at humor from the participants don't work so well.
The A Short Drama Of Yokai section contains two shorts, neither of which are all that good. They revolve around two child-Yokai who head out to a giant banquet and get into some goofy trouble on the way home. They're played straight but they feel rushed and while they might appeal to kids, they're probably not going to appeal to anyone over the age of six.
The Documentary On Ryunosuke Kamiki is a genuinely interesting twenty-four minute piece that follows the child actor's involvement in the production from beginning to end. While he'd had experience in movies and voicing anime before, this was a huge step for him at such a young age and as such, the pressure was definitely on for him. We see him come on board the project, get familiar with how some of the stunt work will take place, how the CG will be integrated, and get familiar with some of his fellow performers as the shoot goes on and it is a pretty neat little portrait of how he grew as a person and as an actor over the months that it took for this movie to be finished.
The Making Of The Great Yokai War is the best of the supplements on the disc as for the first twelve minutes of its forty plus minute running time we get to hear Miike speak about the project and his take on things. He seems to have genuinely enjoyed working on the project as he's quite enthusiastic about it here, talking about how much fun he had with it, which is nice to see. From there we get to hear from one of the producers who speaks for quite a bit about the various monster designs used in the film, how they evolved, and how there was definitely a strong desire within the development team to keep some of the creatures as close to their folklore counterparts as possible. After that we chat with two of the technicians who brought the creations to life, one who was responsible for some of the design work and another who was responsible for a large portion of the CG animation. It's interesting to see and hear how creatures came to be and this proves to be the best of the supplements in the set, hands down.
Finishing off the extra features is a very cool Introduction Of The Yokai option which serves as an interactive way of learning the specifics of each creature from the film – a very handy resource and a good way to familiarize yourself with some of the legends and stories that influenced this movie. Both discs are housed inside a very attractive and sturdy digipak which looks great sitting on the shelf and which also does a good job of keeping the discs safely intact.
The Great Yokai war is a whole lot of fun and is a completely entertaining experience from start to finish. Is it Miike's best film? Not by a long shot but as pure pop art, it's great. The two disc set from Universe looks great and sounds even better and with the added bonus of English subtitles on all of the plentiful extra features, this one comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.