There’s a little folklore everywhere you look, especially in Japan, and Takashi Miike, in his charming, slightly left of centre way, has perhaps never looked so closely nor with such relatively gentle nostalgia, at this traditional source of fear.
The Great Youkai War is of course a children’s film, so gentle is a more appropriate term to use than you might have expected from this director, although he does get in a few subtle hair raisers. Mainly, it’s a standard coming of age tale, where a young boy from a slightly estranged (though still basically normal) family becomes the saviour of the world. Despite the well-worn narrative, and despite the fact that it is still in the end a kid’s film, there’s a great deal to love about it. In fact, there’s so much to love it’s a little hard to know where to start.
For monster movie fans, it’s a wealth of old school special effects – makeup, costume, blue-screening and stop motion. It’s got that love-not-budget look to it that reminds you just how intangible all those flashy, flawless wholly computer generated effects really are and ultimately how difficult they are to truly love. There’s nothing personal about a 3D monster, but in Great Youkai War, you get the sense, despite the cinematic bag of tricks Miike pulls out, that if you wanted to you could run up and hug just about anyone and get hugged right back.
Not that that would be advisable. The other thing Miike’s film does is pull out all the stops on Japanese mythology, and there is an enormous range of recognisable characters, from the amazing, cranky kappa to talking walls and creepy little bean counters. The things you meet on dark roads at night in mythical Japan are not the sort of things that you want to involuntarily mess with, but most anime and gaming fans will recognise almost all the cast from one place or another. The Azuki Washer is an old ghost story featured in one of the early episodes of Requiem from the Darkness and the wall guest stars as the guardian of treasure bonuses in Capcom’s delightful Okami. During the monster party, which comes about in typically kooky youkai fashion towards the climax of the story, someone mentions the Lantern Parade, a demonic tradition featured in detail, artistic license not withstanding, in a chapter of Clamp’s xxxHolic (publishing in English through Del Ray). Great Youkai War is a veritable monster spotter’s paradise, a rich, chaotic conglomeration of creepy, crazy cross-referenced trivia.
Likely the attention to detail here is a product of the talent on board; a combination of Miike’s inherent love of thrills and weirdness and the inarguably expert advice of manga author Shigeru Mizuki, whose work has featured youkai drawn from native mythology since the early 1960’s. Based on the novel Teito Monogatari (Tale of the Capital, which was incidentally made into the anime Doomed Megalopolis) by Hiroshi Aramata, Great Youkai War also sports a fairly fine cast. Chiaki Kuriyama is fun and just shy of over-the-top as the sexy villainess, and Etsushi Toyokawa can seemingly turn any role, even one where he merely stands around looking menacing, into gold. Ryuunosuke Kamiki, on whose young shoulders the believability of the whole story rides, is an amazingly capable young actor, sweet, comical and affecting, and the support actors under the makeup of dozens of denizens are delightful and even sometimes familiar (Naoto Takenaka as Lamp Oil was also in Waterboys and Azumi).
But would you let your kids or your younger sister or brother watch this film, that’s the question. Well, maybe if you were there to pop your hands over their eyes every once in a while, this is actually so tame for a Miike film it almost isn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t be but for some of that distinctive Miike humour and his natural disinclination towards Hollywood endings. As fairy tales go, it might give a few little ones nightmares, but then again, isn’t that the point? A healthy respect for the unknown, the dangerous, is certainly something in this urban day and age that we shouldn’t lose sight of, and while giant flying fortresses with great big teeth are perhaps not likely to land on Tokyo City Hall anytime soon, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can’t learn about life from looking, for a while, through the eyes of a child.