The Great Yokai War

Yokai Daisenso
2005 / 124m - Japan
Fantasy, Action
The Great Yokai War poster

Not an actual quote, but I'm pretty sure Miike's life's motto is "You've got to try everything at least once". So right in between the launch of his arthouse crossovers Izo and 46 Okunen No Koi Miike directed The Great Yokai War [Yokai Daisenso], a film that would open the way to more kid-oriented films (Yattaman and Nintama Rantaro). And much to anyone's surprise, Miike handled the source material remarkably well.

screen capture of Yokai Daisenso

Takashi Miike is without a doubt one of the biggest forces in modern-day Japanese cinema, directing everything from game adaptations (Ace Attorney) to manga adaptations (Ai To Makoto, Crows Zero 2, Crows Zero), big budget affairs (Zebraman 2), general weird stuff (Gozu, Visitor Q), revenge flicks (Sun Scarred) and jsut about everything in between. Pick a genre and I'm sure Miike has a film that relates to it. If not he will surely have a swing at it in the next 10 years or so.

The Great Yokai War marks the first time Miike attempted to make something that resembles a children's film. Surely it's the Japanese kind of children's film and there is still plenty of fun to be had for older audiences, but with a kid in the main seat and much of Miike's weirdness directed away from the sick and perverted stuff he loved to flaunt before, this is definitely a milder Miike flick that would suit at least a handpicked group of kids.

Miike's film is a loose remake of Kuroda's Yokai Daisenso (1968). I can't really compare the two as I haven't seen the original yet, but I think it's safe to say that both films don't share too much material apart from the general outline of the story. The film sees the young Tadashi transforming into the legendary Kirin Rider, fighting alongside an army of yokai (Japanese demons) to ward off an even bigger threat. Nothing too serious, but a simple story with an enormous potential for tons of fun.

screen capture of Yokai Daisenso

Visually The Great Yokai War has aged a bit, but for an 8-year old CG-heavy film that was to be expected. Like many of Miike's films the CG is mostly functional though, meaning that beyond its aesthetic value there's usually a good and understandable reason why Miike opted for CG. Character design is pretty cool too and the costumes show a healthy level of craftsmanship. Somewhat surprisingly Miike alternates between CG and stop-motion in certain scenes, a weird combination but ultimately it's these kind of decisions that make a film vintage Miike.

The soundtrack is less interesting (as with most Miike films). Some decent tracks here that do pull some attention towards them, but for the bigger part of the film Miike plays it scene by scene and there isn't really an overarching theme to the score. Surely it's not a bad selection of songs, it's never in the way and at times it does add some value to the film, but it's just not very coherent or memorable.

As for the cast, there is plenty to like here. Sadly the main character is somewhat plain and falls victim to overacting. Directing kids is never easy, but Kamiki just isn't as likable as he should be. The secondary actors are great though, with Kuriyama playing one of her more memorable roles and Sadao Abe shining as the kappa (the green dude). Other notable names are Naoto Takenaka, Ken'ichi Endo and Renji Ishibashi, though some (if not most) may be hard to recognize when fully dressed up as yokai, appearing underneath layers of make-up or just lending their voice to their characters.

screen capture of Yokai Daisenso

The film takes a rather slow start, spending a bit too much time explaining the entire saga. The Great Yokai War is at its best when there's plenty of yokai around and the first hour or so they are largely absent. Miike makes up for that in the second hour though, with a broad range of yokai and some truly grand spectacles. The final 30 minutes are a true delight and a straight succession of amazing scenes.

The Great Yokai War was Miike's first venture into big budget cinema aimed at a younger audience. Still, there is plenty to enjoy for older audiences, Miike's weirdness is still very much present (though not in a perverted way) and the film is pleasantly goofy with enough surprises to keep your thoroughly entertained throughout.