Directed by Takashi Miike, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (a.k.a. “Yokai Daisenso”) is an attempt to revive the spirit monsters that starred in three 1960s fantasy films (one of which was also titled YOKAI DAISENSO, although the new one is not a direct remake). The new version has a great trailer that makes the film look absolutely wonderful (including a great CGI shot of the snake-necked woman), and the material seems perfect for a modern version using up-to-date special effects. Sad to say, the result is almost a complete botch, and most of the fault lies with cult auteur Miike. Although he has created interesting genre work (”Box” from THREE…EXTREMES and ONE MISSED CALL, for example), he is perhaps too quirky and idiosyncratic a talent to pull off a children’s fantasy film with conviction. Or to put it another way: no matter what genre he works in, he always delivers a Takashi Miike film that will appeal primarily to his fans; those who come to enjoy the traditional genre elements may be in trouble.
Miike adopts a somewhat campy attitude here, as if he considers himself above the material. The plot is long-winded and, frankly, boring, with no forward momentum. It frequently stops so that he can show off special effects or some gratuitous gross-out (like the human-faced calf that prophesies the coming yokai war — and is promptly forgotten, with no impact on the narrative).
The lead character, a young boy chosen as “Kirin Rider” at an annual village festival, is a one-note character, always cringing and screaming at each new monster, and the act grows repetitive in the first reel — then continues for the rest of the movie, almost without variation! Meanwhile, the CGI work is frequently cartoony and unconvincing (which is perhaps acceptable in a kids film), and the Yokai actually have little to do with the movie, which mostly features the evil villain’s mechanical robots.
Miike’s penchant for camp is most pronounced with the villains, but even they barely register, and after a couple of scenes, their act becomes as repetitive as the little boy’s bug-eyed screaming. The Yokai themselves are pushed to the margins of the story. There are a handful who team up with our hero, but they do little of interest and indulge in some embarrassingly bad comedy relief. As for the rest, they appear briefly halfway through: in a scene reminiscent of Gary Cooper’s search for help in HIGH NOON, they all offer lame excuse (in the form of lame jokes) for why they cannot help: “It’s really not my season,” says the Snow Woman, and the Snake-necked lady offers, “I’ve already stuck my neck out for you.” Not exactly lines that will have you rolling in the aisles.
The Yokai War, when it finally comes, is pretty near an unmitigated disaster, filled with silly special effects and sillier action, like a montage of the boy dressing up for battle that is meant to be an over-the-top amusement but elicits more groans than guffaws. The Yokai themselves do not even realize they are in a war; they just think it’s a drunken brawl at a festival, which (like much of the movie) is supposed to be funny, but isn’t. Miike at least pulls off one nasty moment of dark humor, when a police officer tries to shoot a monster dangling a man by his leg – and the bullet hits the innocent victim instead. It’s the one time when the director’s movie-movie approach pays off: we laugh because it’s so absurd that we don’t really believe it, which makes the death funny instead of tragic.
By far the worst thing about the film is its contempt for the unsuspecting audience who comes to watch a Yokai film (rather than a Miike film). After a cute little Yokai befriends our hero early on, Miike can’t resist abusing and torturing tiny creature throughout the movie — it’s a big “fuck you!” to the general audience, much to the delight of his fans, who chortle at each new atrocity. The appeal of this kind of black humor is not hard to fathom; after all, we have all been bombarded at one time or another with characters so sickly sweet that it’s easy to vent our wrath upon them. Unfortunately, Miike fails to take the cute factor past the level of critical mass where we would enjoy the torment; the abused Yokai (which somewhat resembles a guinea pig) is actually the best thing in this overwrought movie. Its appearances provide some life in what is otherwise an empty exercise in special effects and directorial ego, so beating up on it simply robs the film of its best entertainment value.
Undermining expectations and twisting overused genre conventions are worthy goals, but they do not work here, for one big reason: when you set yourself above a genre, you had better be able to prove that you are better than the genre you disdain. Miike fails that test here, big time. THE GREAT YOKAI WAR is not half as good as the films it pillories. It is not a good parody of bad children’s films; it is simply a bad film, period.
THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (a.k.a. “Yokai Daisenso,” 2005). Directed by Takashi Miike. Written by Takashi Miike & Mitshuiko Sawamura, from the novel by Hiroshi Aramata. Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Chiaki Kuriyama, Bunta Sugawara, Kaho Minami, Riko Marumi, Etsushi Toyokawa, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Mai Takahashi.