A boy and his monsters
36 years after Daiei Film wrapped up its loose trilogy of yokai-themed spooky-but-not-quite-horror films for children, Kadokawa Pictures elected to resurrected the franchise - Kadokawa being the place where the disintegrating remains of Daiei ended up around the beginning of the 2000s. And naturally enough, given the desire to whip up a new children's movie, the studio turned to director Miike Takashi, well-known for his hyper-violent, imaginatively grotesque thrillers and horror films, like that family favorite Audition. And bless him, but Miike (with co-writers Sawamura Mitsuhiko & Itakura Takehiko) found the best possible way to split the difference in making a movie for a children without sacrificing any of his personality as a director - the results are bizarre as hell and frequently grotesque in totally unpredictable ways, but it's captivating even when it's at its most incoherent, and there's definitely not much else like it.
The film was 2005's The Great Yokai War, taking the title of the most popular and well-known of the '60s trilogy - Spook Warfare is its common name in English markets, but the 2005 translation is far more accurate - but almost none of of its narrative. My understanding is that it actually functions as a kind of spin-off of Aramata Hiroshi's enormously beloved and influential multivolume fantasy novel from 1985-'87, Teito Monogatari, about which I know very little. There are echoes of the 1968 film in Miike's story, but so vague that you could just as easily trace the same echoes in the Studio Ghibli cartoon Pom Poko, from 1994: a population of traditional figures from Japanese folklore, untouched by the progression of time, are forced to contend with an outsider. Indeed, The Great Yokai War ends up even closer to Pom Poko than to its namesake, since in both of the later films, the interloper is explicitly tied up with industrialisation and the destruction of the old ways of life. But the monsters involved are a varied bunch that largely overlap with the cast of Spook Warfare, and The Great Yokai War also looks back to the old Daiei production Along with Ghosts in having a child protagonist to go along with the yokai madness.
Mostly, though, it's exactly the one thing that should not even possibly be able to exist: a kid-friendly Miike film. And "kid-friendly" in this case, needs to be taken under considerable advisement: there's a lot of warped imagery (one of the first yokai we see is something like a stillborn fetus crawling around a barn; and within the first couple of scenes, we've been introduced to a fleshy, bloody organic machine that devours charming little rodent yokai with its enormous, vagina dentata teeth), and death, and cruelty, and all the other things that kids really adore and almost never get because of boring adults trying to suck all the vivacity out of children's entertainment. Less-extreme Miike is still pretty damn extreme, as it turns out, and while I would be proud the freak the ever-loving shit out of my 9-year-old by showing them this film,* I also wouldn't necessarily go around to church groups with a copy of the DVD, saying "boy, have I ever got a great kids' movie for you..."
All that being said, The Great Yokai War is still, at heart, a really satisfying Chosen One adventure on a model that was hardly any fresher in 2005 than it is today, but can still be appealing when it's done right. The basic idea - the complicated idea is much too chaotic to bother synopsising - is that a young, friendless boy named Tadashi (Kamiki Ryunosuke) is unexpectedly selected to be the "Kirin Rider" at a local folk festival in the town he's stuck in following his parents' divorce. The timing is awful: a spirit of vengeance, born out of the discarded objects of humankind, Yomotsumono, has just manifested itself, and it is taken in hand by the angry human-looking demon Kato Yasunori (Toyokawa Etsushi). The duties of being the Kirin Rider involve hiking up to the local mountain of spirits to get a magical sword and help the local yokai fight against Kato and his lackey, the turncoat yokai Agi (Kuriyama Chiaki), a woman all in pale colors who uses a whip to catch other yokai. Tadashi's own sidekicks are mostly of a bumbling comic sort, especially the little guinea pig-looking sunekosuri, a cute little bugger who comes in for a whole lot of abuse throughout, because that's very much where Miike's head lives.
The film consists of a lot of set-up followed by a lot of action, and I will freely confess that in the second half of the longish movie (just over two hours, which is stiff for a kid-driven action-adventure), a lot of what happened ceased making any real kind of linear narrative sense to me; it quickly tips into the level of kinetic action for its own sake, executed with a level of rampant cartoon energy that keeps it from lagging even when the links between moments don't inherently make a lot of sense.
Storytelling is clearly not a first-order priority, though. The film's chief aim, initially, is to create a chain of effectively creepy and disorienting moments, with the horror-specialist director using his considerable skill set to craft a great series of nifty scary moments, particularly in the early passages, with Tadashi in the woods at night and having no clue what's with all the creatures around him; then, having successfully done this, it shifts over to staging a mix of slapstick fight scenes and impressively high-impact action given the need to keep things scaled back for the children. Miike proves happily adept at this tone-handling, creating a movie that's always thrillingly indulgent in its sensory impact and creatively gross in its monster design, even when the story struggles to keep itself present above the din, or when it's mired in the kind of clichés that would make you wish it was losing sight of it own narrative.
The whole thing is, overall, undoubtedly bloated, and it's too shallow and under-performed (Kuriyama's Agi is probably the best bit of acting, but almost every character, human or yokai, seems to have been given a slip with their one character trait and told not to ever deviate from it) to work as a drama. But as a spectacle, a fanciful dramatisation of children's scary fantasies in impressive puppetry and adequate CGI, it's captivating. It lacks the warmth of the 1960s trilogy in the their best moments, perhaps, but Miike provides a dizzying, weird and funny personality all his own, and his The Great Yokai War has as wholly unique and unrelenting a vision of friendly madness as any children's movie of the 21st Century.