Movie Review: The Great Yokai War (2005, Japan)

Movie buffs tired of seeing the same old rehashes or sequels really should give a look at what other countries are doing. Sure, you’ll have to deal with subtitles and a lot of little cultural differences, but you don’t have to be Joseph Campbell to realize that certain stories are universal. Priests are always going to be going into battle with the devil over the souls of the departed, romance is romance no matter what language the lovers speak, and young people are always going to go through rites of passage into adulthood.

It’s the way that the cultures approach and interpret these themes that makes things interesting. Take, for example, the common creatures and spirits of folklore. Western cultures have imps, goblins, gremlins, elves, fairies, dwarves, and gnomes among the multitude of beings who live in the shadows just at the edges of reality. In Japan, all these fall under the category of “yokai”. While there are a number of well-defined types (tanuki, kappa, and kitsune, for example), the overall diversity is so great that you can pretty much find – or create – a specific yokai for whatever your tale needs.

Like their Western counterparts, yokai these days are pretty much in the realm of childhood fantasy. At a certain age, you leave the fairy tales of your youth behind. Maybe you see through the fabrications, or perhaps you develop other interests that take up your time. But you may also look back with a nostalgic fondness on those tales, where everything was simple and straightforward; and perhaps you will pass those tales on to the next generation.

Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is entering his teenage years. His awkwardness isn’t helped by being the son of divorced parents. After they split, he went with his mother to live with her father in a small seaside town. His difficulty at fitting in makes him the target of the local bullies, who take every opportunity to taunt him.

It’s clear right off the bat that something wicked is this way coming. Tadashi wakes up from a particularly vivid nightmare featuring the destruction of Tokyo; and elsewhere (presumably in the same town), a farmer’s cow gives birth to a calf with a human head which spouts portents of doom before expiring.

That night happens to be the town’s annual Kirin Festival. Local lore has it that whoever the Kirin bites during the parade becomes the “Kirin Rider”, a sort of honorary defender of the town. Tadashi’s bullies taunt him, saying he’ll never get chosen, since he’s neither strong nor brave enough for the task. So he’s rather surprised when the parade’s Kirin gives him a ceremonial chomp on his hair.

Well, Tadashi needs to know what he’s gotten into. The next day he asks his grandfather to explain the legend. It seems that the Kirin gave the Goblin King a powerful sword for safekeeping. In times of great trouble, the Kirin Rider can “borrow” the sword for use in defense. As it happens, there’s a particularly ominous hill just outside town that’s known as Goblin Mountain. So Tadashi decides he’ll prove those bullies wrong by actually hiking up there and finding that sword.

What he doesn’t know is that all heck is about to break loose in the Yokai realm. Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a sort of evil Yokai-lord. He’s using the pent-up resentment and pain of things discarded before their time to create mechanical yokai, with which he intends to wreak revenge upon the world. Those yokai who haven’t succumbed to his designs are starting to realize that they need to take action. But what can you do when you are a giant umbrella with one eye and a stupidly long tongue, or an old man whose sole function seems to be simply washing and counting beans?

Fortunately for them, Tadashi has pretty much tripped across the border into Yokai-Land. And while he may have thought that being the Kirin Rider was just a silly honorary thing, the yokai really do need a hero….

This is a fun movie. The yokai designs, both regular and mechanical, are wildly inventive. There’s a silly scene involving a game of “Telephone” in the Yokai realm where “Tokyo is under attack” gets turned into “There’s a huge party in Tokyo! Let’s go!” For the older boys, both Kato and Tadashi have female companions. Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama) for the former, wrapped in a form-fitting white dress, sporting a white beehive hairdo, and cracking a mean whip; river princess Kawahime (Mai Takahashi) for the latter, wearing a rather short open-sided tunic.

For the little kids, Tadashi has a sidekick “sunekosuri”, a yokai that looks like a large guinea pig. In the movie, it was generally a puppet or a wind-up toy. I could see a savvy marketing department selling them as a tie-in.

The movie isn’t perfect. The big fight scenes could have been a bit more exciting. And, though it’s entirely likely that I just don’t know enough about Japanese folklore to understand what happened, the reason for Kato’s eventual defeat comes pretty much out of nowhere. At least Tadashi fights like you’d expect a ten-year-old to – wild swings and raw panic. It’s a good thing that the sword has enough magic in it so that essentially all he has to do is not drop it.

There’s an epilog that, although clearly intended to set up a possible sequel, still comes across as very touching. Tadashi is much older now; he’s got a job even though he still lives with his mother (Grandpa has passed on). As he heads off to work one day, that little sunekosuri is still around, chittering after him. But in a neat use of double exposure, it’s only half there, and unable to get Tadashi’s attention.

As we get older, all the things of our youth – the games, the stories, the legends – all get put aside and forgotten. Until we look back on them with fondness to comfort ourselves in old age. And as long as the old keep retelling the tales to the young, the yokai and their kin can never completely fade away.

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