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The Great Yokai War (Mark's Take)

01/09/2006. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Great Yokai War in the USA - or Buy The Great Yokai War in the UK

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A war is fought in one night with an evil lord and his robotic minions against humans and the monstrous spirits of Japanese folklore, finds Mark. Some of the scale of this film rivals that of The Lord Of The Rings. This is a wild adventure that is not always easy to follow, but it is a font of comedy and macabre imagination with a wonderful Japanese flavour.

Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

If I have an enthusiasm for world literature I owe it in large part to one Bernhardt J. Hurwood and his book MONSTERS GALORE. This compendium of monster lore took a kid who was really into horror pictures and introduced him to Hieronymus Bosch, Sawney Beane, Lafcadio Hearn, the "Caprices" of Goya, Elizabeth Bathory, and Japanese folk horror stories. The Japanese stories included vampire cats, and women ghosts in the snow. I now know these to be stories about monstrous spirits called Yokai.

Lafcadio Hearn told such stories in his collection KWAIDAN. Now Takashi Miike has made a film that pits futuristic robots (read "Terminators") against humans and Yokai. Yokai are apparitions scary to humans--not actually malicious, but they are supernatural and danger sometimes surrounds them. Yokai take on a whole tutti- frutti assortment of forms. There are women with necks longer than a fire hose and others with heads like cats.

There are people who are half-turtle (unless you are the psychological type who sees them as turtles who are half-human). There are beautiful snow ghosts and ugly ogres with ram horns. They are perhaps what we in the West might call hobgoblins. We see a few such demons in films like KWAIDAN, but never on a scale like we see here.

Takashi Miike, one of Japan's more bizarre directors, brings us a story of the Yokai being defenders of humanity against an evil genius. Like "Harry Potter" films, this is really a kids' film that is good enough for adults. The story has a calf born with a human head who warns that evil is coming. And come it does. The plot, which is not abundantly explained, has evil Lord Kato wanting vengeance on all of mankind. He is going to seize power with an army of robots, at least some of which are forged from Yokai whom he has dropped into his pit of molten metal. He is opposed, naturally enough--or supernaturally enough--by the Yokai.

Ryunosuke Kamiki plays young Tadashi Ino whose parents are separated. He comes with his mother to a new town. As with that of the girl in SPIRITED AWAY, it is not a transition he is making well, but still he is chosen to be the Kirin Rider at an annual festival. A Kirin is a dragon-like mythical beast with a single horn is uses to punish wrongdoers. (There is a picture of it on the beer of the same name.) Tadashi little realizes--nor does everyone else--that his acceptance of this responsibility will make him the key in the battle between the Yokai and the robots.

The Kirin Rider, it seems, is the only person who can obtain a magic sword from Goblin Mountain where the Goblin King guards it. Well, you can see where all this is leading. Some of the imagery in this film looks like it could have come form a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Not all the effects created are completely believable, but that is true of THE WIZARD OF OZ also.

It is good to see a film use the imps and demons that I have liked since I was a kid. As yet I am not seeing this film being released in the United States to more than a few small art houses. That would be a real loss. I rate this film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Parents should be warned that though the main character is a child, there are some scenes that are fairly horrific. On the other hand the American concept of horror is someone with a sharp instrument chasing young people around a room while Miike's concept here is more like showing a blank wall and then seeing two eyes open up in it.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2006 Mark R. Leeper

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