Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Takashi Miike has made films in a wide range of genres ranging from psychological horror and ultra-violent yakuza films to absurdist comedy, wistful fantasy (The Bird People in China), and even a musical. But Miike doing a big-budget children's movie might seem too far a stretch, at least without Miike suppressing his individuality altogether. But in The Great Yokai War (Yohkai Daisensoh), which I saw last week at the Chicago International Film Festival, Miike has pulled it off. Despite a few reservations, it's a first-class film overall, and reveals an unsuspected side of Miike.

The story itself is not that original: it's the trope familiar from much classic children's literature and film (and also anime) of an ordinary child suddenly thrust into a key role as a fighter for good. Tadashi, a boy who has moved to a village in the country after his parents' divorce is chosen at a village festival to be the "Kirin Rider," protector of peace and justice. It soon turns out that he is expected to be a protector of peace and justice for real, as a friendly yokai (spirit or goblin) recruits him to fight a villain who intends to plunge humanity into a world of darkness with the help of an army of robots created from junk. At first, Tadashi is terrified. But after a while, he rises to the occasion, and, with an enchanted sword and the aid of a small band of yokai, goes forth to battle the villain.

First and foremost, the movie is a visual feast. I don't know how big the budget was, but it must have been much bigger than any of Miike's previous films, and Miike put it to good use. We see dozens of yokai, all different from one another and all completely lifelike. (These yokai seem to be drawn from traditional Japanese folklore, as reflected through the works of Shigeru Mizuki, a revered -- though as yet untranslated into English -- manga creator. And the umbrella and wall yokai briefly depicted in Azumanga Daioh play small roles here.) The special effects, too, are impeccable, from Tadashi's sword-battles with the robots, full of aerial leaps, to a scene in which Tadashi and his allies hitch a ride clinging to the wings of an airplane, and you can almost feel the cold and wind buffeting them. Then there are the sets: the enormous junkyard where we first see the villain, the villain's henchwoman's steampunk lair, and the field of smokestacks on the back of a Gamera-type flying monster. Visually, the film reminded me above all of Terry Gilliam. (I want to say "it's as if Gilliam had made a children's movie," but of course he did; but from my recollection of Time Bandits, which I saw a long time ago, The Great Yokai War is more elaborate.)

The movie's main weakness is "heart." While the story is fast-moving and ingenious, by and large we don't feel an emotional connection with the characters, and hence we don't have any investment in their success. I'm not sure whether this is primarily the fault of the actors or of the script, which doesn't give the actors much to work with: Tadashi in particular is supposed to be motivated largely by a desire to protect certain specific characters; but his relationships with these characters are only sketchily developed. There are a few exceptions to this. The River Princess, one of Tadashi's yokai companions, is a touching character. Two minor characters -- a bean-washing yokai, and a human reporter who loves yokai since he was rescued by the River Princess as a child even though he's never seen any yokai since then -- also make an impression. But the "character" that steals every scene in which it appears is Tadashi's cute (but non-talking) little furry yokai mascot, whose name I forget. While undoubtedly created with toy sales in mind, it's "acted" well enough to make you forget this.

Like most children's films, the movie has a moral, though it's lightly laid on, and a rather odd one. The force the villain harnesses to create his robot army is "Yomotsumono," the resentment of man-made artifacts at being discarded. The idea that one has a moral obligation to an old shoe or a broken microwave oven is a strange one to Westerners. But it may be more natural in Japan, with its Shinto tradition of gods residing in natural objects: in an anime I saw a few days ago, a character asks a god how many gods there are, and the answer is "As many as there are created things in the universe." (But the word "yomotsumono" seems to have been an invention of the scriptwriters; at any rate, it's not in my Japanese dictionary, and Googling it (in English) turned up only references to The Great Yokai War itself.) In any case, when the River Princess tells Tadashi "those who discard the past have no future," you sense that she's not just talking about objects.

Despite my reservations, the film is well worth watching -- preferably on the big screen -- whether or not you're a Miike fan. It's probably not suitable for younger children, though: while it obviously lacks the excessive gore for which Miike is notorious, some of the scenes are intense, and if a child is too young for Spirited Away, I'd say they're too young for this.

[Edited to add the Japanese title.]

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