Looking for Halloween costume ideas? Have I got a movie for you. I recall heaping praises upon the massive gallery of imaginative monsters brought to life in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Well, leave it to Japan's most prolific and unpredictable director to outdo Hollywood at every turn. "The Great Yokai War" is Takashi Miike's bizarre-yet-endearing homage to the creatures of Japanese fantasy folklore and the fantasy film genre in general. Nearly 100 different kinds of them make an appearance in the film. Some you may recognize, most you will not, but all are insane. This movie is just a flat-out wild ride full of kooky humor, filming techniques new and old, and lots and lots of crazy costumes. Join me, yeah?
The story follows a young boy chosen at a festival to be the village's Kirin Rider, a legendary hero said to be the rightful owner of a powerful sword kept by the Great Tengu in the mountains. Everyone assumes this title to be a fun little yearly tradition, but this year is different. There's evil afoot in the form of a couple of villains who are imprisoning yokai and transforming them into killer robots by throwing them into a big pot. Yeah, I know, but work with me. The young boy begins seeing monsters and then meets a cute little fuzzy hand puppet monster who becomes his friend. Soon, he's introduced to many more yokai; some terrifying, some hot, some both, some friendly, and at least one who is just plain obnoxious. That would be the ubiquitous Kappa. Not sold? Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill/Azumi 2) in a white beehive hairdo. Oboard now? Good.
The story is nonsense, the humor is inappropriate, the special effects are uneven, and the tone is childish. And yet you must see this movie. Why? Well the uneven special effects are because Miike uses every filming technique in the book. There is some outstanding CG, tons of costumes as I mentioned, and best of all.....stop-motion animated robots, baby! You know you love it. Fans of both old-time fantasy and more recent works like the anime films of Hayao Miyazaki will love the many homages to the classics new and old. Spotting the different kinds of monsters is a blast. Be on the lookout for the lovely Yuki-onna -which was featured in Japanese horror classic Kwaidan- as well as any other classic Japanese beasties you can conjure from memory. I could swear I even saw the crab villain from Miike's Zebraman in the mix. And believe it or not, there is some damn creepy stuff here among all the childish glee. A few scenes had me feeling downright uneasy. Bravo.
Okay, the humor. Any fan of Miike knows that inappropriate comedy is a trademark of his, but he really tries to hit it out of the park this time. As if seeing our heroes hanging onto a plane's wing in flight wasn't silly enough, the picture freezes and a "kids, don't try this at home" caption appears. Also: I'd never seen urine successfully used as a weapon before; now I can no longer say that. As an awesome-looking flying beast so massive that looks like it could swallow Godzilla whole flies over Tokyo, one spectator simply dismisses it by saying that it's only Gamera. And don't get me started about the climax. Some people may well be turned off by these off-the-wall and out-of-the-blue bits of lighthearted fun at the viewers' expense, but that's the stuff that kept me smiling long after the credits rolled on this one.
Okay, so you've got nearly 100 costumed critters and a sword-wielding little kid battling Terminator-meets-Transformers stop-motion animated robots, Kuriyama-chan in her best role in years, lots of goofy humor, fantasy homages by the ton, and even a sexy water nymph. What's not to like, really? The adult in me loves Miike's use of practical effects and old-school filming techniques along with some very effective CG as well as the flippant humor. [morphs to child] But the kid in me loves the crazy costumes, sweet killer robots, nutty characters, and hot chicks. Sorry, morphed back into a grown-up on that last one. If you're in the mood for a light-hearted fantasy romp the likes of which you haven't seen since the 80's then "The Great Yokai War" is for you. The disc features a gallery of all the yokai featured on the film. It's quite lengthy, but a great feature for anybody looking to research the folklore behind the critters featured in the flick. Remember to eat your azuki beans!