Great Yokai War, TheReviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 10/16/05 16:55:48
(SCREENED AT THE 41ST CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL) I should point out first that I’ve never seen any of Takashi Miike’s films, not even the notorious “Audition.” I have been told by many that his latest film, “The Great Yokai War,” represents a major departure from the kind of films he normally makes. I’m sure there will be many fans who will tell me that this is not a good enough introduction to his work. Perhaps not, but that’s not going to stop me from saying I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It’s fun, insane and deliriously inventive. I’ll let the rest of you figure out where it belongs on the All-time Best Takashi Miike Films List.The Great Yokai War has the classic formula typical for the Quest genre. It centers on a timid eight-year-old boy, Tadashi (a well-cast Ryunosuke Kamiki), who gets picked on at school and has divorced parents. He lives with his mother and grandfather in a small Japanese town where every so often they have a ritual as to who will be the next Kirin Rider, or he who will have to battle against the notorious Great Goblin. Naturally, Tadashi gets picked and must head off into the mountains to do his duty. This entire exposition never hints at the notion of this being a fantasy film. It’s very natural and feels oddly contemporary.
But then the insanity kicks in. The first creature Tadashi comes across can almost be described as an overgrown hamster cross-bred with Gizmo from Gremlins. Only Tadashi can see this creature and quickly adopts it has his pet. On a bus ride through the forests, Tadashi and his pet get treated to a hallucinogenic freakshow outside that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Soon, Tadashi enlists a strange crew of Yokai to help out with his quest to save the rest of the world from Shinno, the Demon Prince (Natsuhiko Kyougoku) and his sexy right-hand woman (Chiaki Kuriyama, who played Go-Go in Kill Bill, Vol. 1).
The Yokai refer to spiritual monsters and oddities that exist in Japanese folklore. The Demon Prince plans on turning all Yokai into havoc-wreaking machines. Only Tadashi, the chosen one who wields the mighty sword (that gets cut in half) can truly stop him. He gets joined by a sexy River Princess (Mai Takahashi), a red-skinned shape-shifter and a sarcastic know-it-all who knows many of the Quest genre clichés and is not shy about pointing them out. Soon, they meet up with other Yokai, such as an umbrella that hops on its only foot, a walking, talking depressed wall and various other creatures that would fit right at home in the Cantina bar in Star Wars.
Miike has a wicked, unpredictable, scatological sense of humor lurking throughout his film. The conventions of the Quest genre get played with and almost parodied while it miraculously makes up rules of its own. It’s not unusual, for instance, to have the action suddenly freeze-frame for a caption urging the children in the audience “not to try this at home.” The movie also shuns convention by taking the smallest, cutest, most adorable creature and beating the snot out of it for the full two hours as it bleeds yellow goo, yet it somehow manages to stay alive no matter what.
The movie also has a refreshingly old-school feel to it. It reminds me of The Never-Ending Story as well as the first Star Wars trilogy, in that many of the Yokai appear to be real actors in elegant, beautifully rendered costumes rather than being created through CGI. While it’s certainly a demented movie and probably not one that I would fully understand if I had seen it as a child, it somehow feels like a movie I grew up with. It winks about the genre to which it belongs, but it also embraces it. The list of movie references that can be name-dropped seems endless, but ultimately I prefer to describe it as sort of a live-action Hayao Miyazaki film (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle).But that also makes it sound indescribable, which it is. “The Great Yokai War” is a weird, wondrous and beautiful piece of work. Many complain that the movie runs a bit too long, but I didn’t check my watch once. It made me laugh out loud, it appealed to the kid in me and was without question the most fun I’ve had at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival (along with the Project: Greenlight bloodbath “Feast”). There’s always the chance I’ll have a slightly different take on it after I see more of Miike’s films, but at the end of the day, how relevant is that? One can either nitpick a film such as this, or sit back and bask in the endless absurdity of it all.
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