The Great Yokai War (Japan 2005)

Rating: **
Review Date: 3/5/21
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Chiaki Kuriyama

A young boy named Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is chosen to be the Kirin Rider, or "defender of the peace" at a local festival. This conveniently coincides with the evil Lord Kato summoning a demon to take revenge on humanity for discarding things they no longer use. In order to combat this threat, Tadashi must fetch a sacred sword from the Tengu cave in the mountains with the help of several yokai (spirits). As Kato's machine army converges on Tokyo and levels it to the ground, countless ghosts, goblins, spirits, gods, and demigods show up for the "End Of The World Party" and inadvertently defeat Kato before being blown back into oblivion.

This family-oriented fantasy film is definitely an oddity, as director Takashi Miike is best known for his hyper-violent and often controversial horror and crime films. You certainly can't fault Miike for his vision and imaginative art direction, but unfortunately the film is an incomprehensible mess. However, it's also quite possible that it's just culturally impenetrable to Western audiences. The film's biggest draw is obviously the yokai, but that's also the source of great disappointment. It's fascinating to see so many classic creatures and there are TONS of them throughout the movie, but none of them (apart from the annoying Kappa) have any personality or backstory. They're basically just a confused bunch of simple-minded pranksters that lack free will or any earthly desires, which makes them very difficult to understand and relate to. They're not particularly scary (although Tadashi is constantly terrified) and most of them mean no harm, which makes you question their behavior and motives. It seems like they exist in a perpetual state of limbo and are doomed to play tricks on humans forever with no real purpose. Even though the film is full of bizarre and intriguing monsters, I wanted it to make some sort of sense.

Ryunosuke Kamiki gives a heartfelt performance as Tadashi, whose parents recently divorced. He lives alone with his mother and grandfather in the country, while his father and sister live in the big city. Tadashi is a small and timid boy who gets bullied at school and is treated like an outsider, and he's also burdened with caring for his senile grandfather while his mom is at work (or out drinking). This, along with his kind and pure heart, makes for excellent hero material. Interestingly, it's the family drama that really stands out in the film, which raises several questions about the yokai angle. Was the Great Yokai War simply a dream, or an imaginative coping mechanism for Tadashi's childhood trauma? Does he really save the world and does Tokyo actually get destroyed, or is that symbolic of something else? The film also points out that only children (and drunk adults) can see yokai, so does that symbolize a coming of age and loss of innocence? During the film's epilogue, the yokai still exist, but the grown up Tadashi can longer see or interact with them, which ends the film on a sad note of melancholy. Was there a point to it all? Or was it just a wild fantasy of cognitive dissociation?

Visually, the film is a mixed bag. The lighting, cinematography, and makeup look great, but the CGI is regrettably awful and resembles early 90's technology. While the main villain is dull and uninteresting (and possibly symbolic of Tadashi's father?), his assistant Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama) is utterly delightful. She's a sexy yokai who has turned against her kind in exchange for Kato's favor and/or love, and her sinister sensual energy lights up the screen with savage intensity. Sadly, the tone of the film is inconsistent and all over the place, which creates a lot of emotional confusion. Its attempts to blend humor, horror, and drama into a family-friendly package result in a baffling and non-sensical film that maybe only kids can connect with. Just like the yokai. And maybe that's the whole point.