Kappa. Tengu. Yuki Onna, Kawa Hime. Chochin Obake. Kasa Obake. Japan's fantasy monsters, called Yokai in Japanese, are an unending list of bizarre creativity, from a culture that spawns goblins for almost every situation. Something of a national obsession, there are books and comics and movies dedicated to packing as many of them as possible.
Takashi Miike's "The Great Yokai War" ("Yokai Daisenso") is the latest flick to gather all the yokai together, sending all the kids of Japan running for their copies of Shigeru Mizuki's yokai encyclopedias to see if they can name that obscure creature that popped on the screen for a few seconds. While Miike is best known in the US for his controversial hard horror films like "Audition" and "Visitor Q", this is not his first jaunt into light-hearted kid's films, having previously made the superhero film "Zebraman." "The Great Yokai War" is a remake of a 1968 film of the same name, that was released as "Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare" in the US.
All in all, it is lots of fun. The story is pretty typical of children's fantasy, with the young boy Tadashi Ino being a nobody at school, the target for bullies and abuse. Tadashi is one day chosen at a local festival to be the Kirin Rider, for which he receives a small flag and a special lunch. Although Tadashi doesn't think this actually means anything, he finds himself drawn in a yokai war, acting as the chosen human champion to help fight the evil Kato, who is merging yokai spirits into machine technology in order to create an army to take over the world. Tadashi gets some help along the way, with his fighting companions being a kappa, the red-faced Kirin Herald, and the childlike but seductive River Princess. Of course he has a magic sword.
The yokai are the real stars, and Miike has used modern special effects to create them in a realistic but amusing fashion. Some of them are scary, some are ridiculous, but they are all actual creatures from Japanese folklore. It is pretty cool seeing them all on the screen and moving around, especially the bizarre Kasa Obake, a haunted umbrella with a long wagging tongue. Along with his digital monsters, Miike has pulled in some of Japan's great modern actors too, including the ubiquitous Takenaka Naoto ("Shall we dance?" "Waterboys") and Kuriyama Chiaki ("Battle Royale," "Kill Bill 1"). It is really great seeing veteran actor Sugawara Bunta ("Battles without honor or humanity") playing Tadashi's grandfather.
Lots of comparisons can be drawn between "The Great Yokai War" and other children's fantasy films like "Neverending Story," and the similarities are obvious. However, "Neverending Story" is a great flick, and what works there works here too. Tadashi is a believable child-hero, and the yokai are as charming and funny as any of Bastian's companions.