October at Antagony & Ecstasy means weekends dedicated to classic horror films. This year, rather than tackle a franchise, I've decided to have two little series running in tandem, one on Saturdays and one on Sundays. The Saturday series I've picked is thanks entirely to the fun I've had in the past year reviewing a whole crapload of daikaiju eiga, and after this month is over, I promise we're done with '60s and '70s Japanese genre films for a while.

In 1968, Daiei Film released a quickly-made trilogy of tokusatsu horror films, connected only that they featured broadly the same kind of creatures (the same model that they'd employed two years earlier, in their Daimajin daikaiju eiga). And I do mean broadly. For these films - usually referred to in English markets as the Yokai Monsters trilogy - aren't about one specific monster, like Daimajin the statue or Gamera the flying turtle, and they aren't even about one basic class of monster. They are about yokai, a type of being for which we don't have a word in English, or even really a concept - the word, as I understand it, is an umbrella term for all supernatural beings that aren't gods or demons, everything from trickster spirits living in the woods to hideous perversions of human beings. I'm not even entirely sure if the strictest use of the word yokai would demand that the beings in question are either malevolent or scary, though Daiei's first film in its trilogy (though marketed on DVD as the second) is predicated on that being more or less the case.

The film is known in America, at least, as 100 Monsters, which is almost, but crucially not quite, a fair translation of the original title, which is something like 100 Yokai Stories. And it's not just because "monsters" is a pretty crude attempt to render "yokai" in English. The thing is, 100 Monsters is in fact a horror movie about telling scary stories, one whose adoption of a certain distanced relationship from its own content very neatly reflects the way that spooky bedtime tales feel comfortably dissociated from our own present reality, either because they take place in some distant place or time, or because they are sketched out in only as much detail as it takes to move the plot from point to point (nobody ever wondered what kind of car the madman's hook was hanging from, after all). 100 Monsters certainly gets the distance and detachment right: it takes place somewhere centuries back into the past, and it's so unconcerned about filling in the details that I didn't really notice till over halfway through that I hadn't caught more than one or two character names. It's a film that exists strictly at the level of folktale: once upon a time, a village was attacked by an army of ghosts.

That doesn't actually happen till the end, though. First, we're introduced to the tradition of hyakumonogatari kaidankai, the telling of one-hundred stories of the supernatural. As each story was completed, a single candle would be extinguished, until the final story was told by the light of only one flame. Custom demands that the final story be followed by a cleansing ritual to prevent the yokai which had just been described and summoned by the stories from manifesting in the lives of the storytellers. We see one such event wrap up one night in a town suffering under the cruelty of its wealthiest inhabitant, the landowner Tajimaya (Kanda Takashi), who has been steadily strengthening his grip on the community, and makes his most bastardly move yet on the morning when he announces his intentions to seize and demolish an old temple. In order to do this, he needs the approval of the even more bastardly Lord Uzen (Gomi Ryutaro), a corrupt and repellent petty dictator.

On the night that Uzen arrives in town to railroad through his decision, Tajimaya endeavors to stage a hyakumonogatari kaidankai game just for his benefactor, which plays out as well as one could hope for. But Uzen, a bully with no patience for superstition, cuts the night off after the 100th story but before the benediction to banish the yokai, and this sure enough means that over the next couple of day, a whole host of of bizarre creature star to show up with the intention of causing all possible inconvenience and misery for the men who called them up. Which makes things a lot easier for Yasutaro (Fujimaki Jun), a stranger staying in town and expressing a rather focused fascination with the bad guys' plotting, and who now has the luxury of sitting back while the yokai take care of whatever corruption he'd been trying to ferret out.

That doesn't sound like enough to fill up even the modest 80 minutes to which 100 Monsters runs, and it's not hard to argue that it's a film with more than its share of padding. Like the first Daimajin, with which it shares director Yasuda Kimiyoshi and screenwriter Yoshida Tetsuro, the film is first and foremost a period drama, a jidaigeki, about the torments suffered by poor villagers at the hands of an unscrupulous and cruel warlord, into which some fantasy film elements insert themselves near the climax; unlike Daimajin, 100 Monsters isn't a tremendously good version of that. Yasuda, his cinematographer Takemura Yasukazu, and his art directors Kato Shigeru and Nishioka Yoshinobu do a fine enough job of crafting an Edo period setting that looks believable as a physical place, but not fussily realistic, and in particular, Yasuda pulls out some really interesting, almost startling unexpected camera angles (mostly from surprisingly high angles) to to lift us from the setting and keep alive the feeling that we're watching a storybook fable, not a dramatic narrative. Even in the depressingly faded print that made its way to DVD, 100 Monsters is a handsome looking movie.

But it is also a lumpy movie with no clear sense of how it wants its story to play out - it is very difficult to imagine how it would have continued developing if the yokai hadn't shown up, making it awfully convenient for the characters that they did. It's much too short to be boring, but it does feel like it's repeating itself without purpose, leaving the human story in the middle part of the film awfully sluggish. The film does have the decency to know this, and to hand out yokai scenes with unanticipated frequency: the opening (in the form of a story being told), and right about the one-third mark (another story, and most unnervingly creeepy part of the film, a little gut punch of obvious but effective paranormal nastiness, with one particular yokai effect that I found most impossibly successful, and I will not look to spoil it now) are both ghostly setpieces; a bit later, the film introduces its most famous yokai, the one-legged, two-armed, one-eyed moving umbrella called karakasa, in a scene that's just the most damn delightful thing I can imagine. Herein, Tajimaya's childlike son (Shinichi Rookie) paints karakasa on a blank canvas, only to find his drawing come alive in a really terrific animated effect, and then to suddenly burst into three dimensions in the form of an implausible but still deeply enjoyable puppet.

All really solid moments, and they help considerably in propping up 100 Monsters at exactly the points it threatens to sag. Which helps us get to the excellent final sequence, in which the yokai attack Lord Uzen in dreamy slow-motion, and later file out of the town in a gauzy, semi-translucent parade that's uncanny and beautiful equally. There's a real strain of visual poetry going on here, surprisingly so given the film's cheapness and generic requirements (and yet, not at all surprising in the light of the tremendously good final sequence of Daimajin, which was also poetic but in a different way); and even more surprisingly, it augments the otherworldliness an horrifying quality of the scenes, rather than robbing them of their spooky effect by making them beautiful instead.

The parts of 100 Monsters that work are absolutely terrific; they also stand out badly in the context of the parts that are... just fine. I would love a more consistent 100 Monsters: if not more consistently full of yokai (on the contrary, I think they are judiciously and craftily used), at least more consistently clear and purposeful. There can be a vagueness and overly simplified sense of narrative conflict in a some places within the movie, and yet it also feels overstuffed: the clear mark of a film that would naturally be a clever little ghost story anecdote around 45 minutes, if 45 minutes was a running time that people knew what to do with. 80 minutes starts to feel bloated.

But forget my criticisms: it's a lovely movie, with some terrific haunting setpieces, and a real sense of not knowing what's happening or what to expect (which may very well just be the result of U.S. parochialism, but the film's inalienable weirdness is absolutely its most salient characteristic to an American viewer, and I couldn't possible fail to mention it). When it clicks, and it frequently clicks, it's a captivating tale of straightforward, winningly simple ghost story impulses. If I am disappointed in its sagginess and wandering screenplay, it's only because I like the good parts so much that I wish the whole movie could be at that level.

Reviews in this series
100 Monsters (Yasuda, 1968)
Spook Warfare (Kuroda, 1968)
Along with Ghosts (Yasuda & Kuroda, 1969)