Great Yokai War, TheReviewed By Matt Seaver
Posted 07/26/06 11:48:40
(Worth A Look)
Takashi Miike has a distinctive track record. Previous to this, I’ve seen “The Happiness of the Katakuris” and sections of “Ichi the Killer,” while repeatedly dodging my brother’s attempts to get me to watch “Audition.” Miike is one messed-up guy, and if you want weirdo, freaked-out horror, he is certainly the guy to go to. So it’s only natural that his latest work is a kid’s movie.Well… MOSTLY a kid’s movie. There are sections here and there that I predict would sufficiently freak out preteens in the US. Part of why that happens is that Miike, in all his freakiness, is somehow able to bounce between cute and cuddly and mildly disturbing at the drop of a hat. Seeing a major character – and one of the few traditionally cuddly creatures – get dropped into a vat of boiling goo and reemerging as a killing machine might rub some kids the wrong way, but that’s how The Great Yokai War works: Miike sends his young hero into a nightmare’s nightmare, and forces him to fight his way out.
Tadashi Ino (Ryunosuke Kamiki) recently moved with his mother and grandfather out to the country after his parents got divorced, leaving his father and sister in the city. Tadashi is a small kid, and not at all used to country life, so he gets picked on somewhat viciously by the other boys in his new school. During a traditional parade and ceremony in the village he is “bitten” by the Kirin, making him the new Kirin Rider. The traditional duties of the Rider involve heading up the nearby mountain to retrieve a sword from the Great Goblin that guards it. He gets freaked out on his way up the mountain, and hitches a ride to go home. Suddenly, the bus is “attacked” by a whole plethora of freaky creatures and things. He comes to learn these are the yokai, peaceful creatures from Japanese mythology who are being threatened by an evil demon (Natsuhiko Kyougoku) and his accomplice (Chiaki Kuriyama). They plan to turn the yokai into evil killing machines, and use them to take over Japan (and presumably the world). The Kirin Rider, now Tadashi, has always been the one to maintain this balance, and he is prophesized to come to the yokai's rescue again.
The most striking thing about the film is the creature design. There’s some CG here, but the vast majority of the yokai are guys in crazy suits. Miike’s strength lies in his ability to sufficiently alarm the audience upon the initial appearance of these creatures, right in line with Tadashi’s reaction (but maybe without the screaming). Many of them are creepy and disturbing to look at – one who has an infinitely-expandable neck reminded me immediately of something out of Ju-On – but he’s somehow able to transform them into completely sympathetic characters. It’s a fun concept to play with; visually, these are the things that would haunt dreams, but they are harmless – the human-resembling demon and the minions he creates (from spare parts cast aside by humans) are what really need to be feared. A nightmare creature’s nightmare, if you will.
The presentation is all over the place. Miike’s sense of humor is completely intact, and completely out of left field by western standards. And his horror sensibilities come in handy, as well – Miike has no issue with abusing the yokai with absolute cruelty, and making a joke about it after the fact. This creates a slightly more mature feel than the visual design and plot dictates, so take that as you will before you bring little Jimmy. His tongue is also planed firmly in cheek, with some characters always on the brink of being aware that they are in a movie and poking fun at that fact as well. It’s those moments that bring this back into the realm of kids movie, as it makes sure the audience is following along and absorbed, but not TOO much. His line between reality and folklore is pretty well-delineated, though blurred when he needs some emotional kick.
Kamiiki is as good as he needs to be as the hero, though I admit I didn’t pay an awful lot of attention to him after the creatures started popping up. They’re just so much fun to watch. This is probably one of the more original ideas I’ve seen lately (and not out of Hollywood… surprise!), and by far the most imaginative design.This was Miike’s most expensive project to date, and a pretty significant departure from his usual twisted horror. With all that, he pulled off something really cool, though maybe a little too heavy for US kids – I know this probably would have freaked me out when I was 10. I’d be interested to see what he could do with a Hollywood studio budget… except that they would never let him do half the stuff he’s really good at; remember, this is the same guy whose “Masters of Horror” episode “Imprint” got pulled for being too intense for Showtime. So for now, we’ll have to deal with imports, and if he can keep pumping out stuff with the versatility he’s shown so far, I say bring it on. “The Great Yokai War” keeps with his style of genre-bending, and he gives quite the fun ride. Certainly beats most kids’ movies we see on this side of the Pacific.
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