The Great Yokai War (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 12/16/06

I caught a trailer for this movie when I was at the Red Vic this summer and it utterly piqued my interest.  It was the most strange and over-the-top series of visuals that I’d caught in a trailer in years, reminding me of the first glimpse I had of Tsui Hark films.  Raging action, with a combination of costume and make-up and lots of strange CGI characters, it is a kids action film fantasy with creatures galore and a sexy, bee-hive wearing villainess.  It’s camp, cartoon, and bizarreness.

And when the credit sequence rolled, and I saw that it was directed by Takashi Miike, that kind of pushed it to the top.  Miike is a nut.  He’s prolific to the extreme, insanely graphic and creative, low-brow with the occasional twitch to the high-brow, and the most manic and surprising directors currently active.  He’s like Tsui Hark mixed with Sam Fuller, Roger Corman, and yet utterly unlike anyone really.  But it has to be said, that most of his films hit points that are so violent and bizarre, they would never be considered for children.

The Great Yokai War is essentially a children’s film.  Older children, for sure, since there is still some graphic violence and it’s highly bizarre.  The yokai are spirits, which I guess originated visually in the comics of a Japanese artist many years ago, based on some traditional folk stories and mythologies.  I have read many references comparing the yokai to the spirits featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant Spirited Away (2001).  Of course, it’s a lot more on the kooky side.

A boy is selected in a provincial festival as the “kirin rider”, who is responsible for keeping the evil spirits at bay, which are defined in this film as all the discarded things of the world, though not by any explicit means implying any environmental address.  This is the kids’ angle.  The whole experience is through his eyes and while it’s totally insane and lurid, it’s kinda cool.  I think that this movie might have really hit home with me when I was 12 or so.

All the visuals are crazy and ambitious, but created on a budget that can’t deliver consistently.  Some scenes and characters broadly vary in the quality of their rendering, particularly the possum-like creature that is supposed to be “cute”.  Actually, what is psychotic in the film is the violence done to this “cute” little furball.  It’s crushed and spews yellow goop and is ultimately thrown into a fiery pit of hate and molded into a violent machine.

That is the sort of psychosis that Miike brings, a twisted, explicit visual attack on logic and sensibilities.  The film has a subversive edge to it in those ways, reaching into the kiddie market and going full-bore with wild imaginings.

But like much of Miike’s work (since there is so much of it) it’s a mixed bag of quality and enjoyment.  The story is pretty straight-forward, and while the visuals are wild and brilliantly imagined, they vary so much in quality that it detracts from what could be so much more.  That said, this mixed quality earns its own aesthetic in some ways.  It’s a jumble and while there is a lot to see, it’s not overly satisfying.  Still, as an experiment, it’s pretty interesting and I do honestly believe that its target audience, if not expecting the quality of high-priced Hollywood FX, would eat this up.