Daiei's second yokai film in 1968, which is most readily found in English under the title Spook Warfare, and with the implication that it came out first (the actual title is much closer to "great yokai war", which would eventually be used in the Western distribution of a different film 37 years later), is a marked improvement of its predecessor, 100 Monsters, in some ways, and a distinctly more slapdash, tossed-off affair in others. Which sounds like it turns out to be a push, but for one key thing: absolutely everything about Spook Warfare makes it considerably more fun than the first movie. It's so much goofier in every respect, and more aware that it's kind of actually a children's movie, and while the stakes are higher, the sense of danger is barely present at all. All of which sounds like I'm describing an absolute piece of shit, so let me back up a little bit.

The first and most obvious thing about Spook Warfare is that unlike all of Daiei's other "samurai movie with monsters" films - 100 Monsters, but also Daimajin and its sequels in 1966 - it's not at all a stock jidaigeki: it's not a tale of villagers fending off a wicked warlord until along come people in a suit to save the day. Which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; Daimajin is a wonderful film after all. But it does shift the way the film functions quite a lot, and I think for the better. In effect, Spook Warfare isn't a film into which yokai arrive; it is a film about a band of yokai fighting... a wicked warlord. But he's a wicked demon warlord, so it still fits. The point being, by focusing from the onset on the spirits and monsters, and letting the humans serve as the side characters for most of the running time, the film acknowledges that we're pretty much all there for the effects, the creepy characters, and not so much the drama. But even setting that aside as a vote in favor of instant gratification and empty spectacle, the streamlined narrative of Spook Warriors and focused deployment of the yokai gives it a storybook feeling that's far stronger than anything in 100 Monsters; it has a direct progression of events that's fare clearer and more engaging, even if it ultimately burns down to "the funny and scary monsters do things".

And having talked about focus and clarity and all, I shall look like a fool for pointing out the other really apparent thing here, which is the film's wildly unconventional opening: I can't name any other Japanese movie that starts off in Mesopotamia. Here, two greedy treasure hunters accidentally unsealing a millennia-old Babylonian demon named Daimon (Hashimoto Chikara). I will assume that "Daimon the demon" doesn't sound so flippant and dumb in Japanese. Daimon is a being of obvious malice, from his rotten green features on down to the way he kills the treasure hunters without a second glance, and he's been pent up for long enough that he can't wait to start doing something evil, which involves him immediately transporting himself to feudal Japan. The reason why feudal Japan is, of course, because Spook Warfare is the second film in a series made in Japan on standing sets from jidaigeki, but in the context of the film it's the most random damn thing. But we have to push through this part to get to the actual movie, so even though the opening sequence is the exact opposite of streamlined narrative cohesion, it has to be dealt with.

The film, anyway, starts to become immediately more delightful in Japan, where Lord Isobe (Kanda Takashi), a local magistrate, and his daughter, Lady Chie (Kawasaki Akane), are fishing. The arrival of the storm which contains Daimon sends the party scurrying, but Isobe stays behind just long enough for the demon to kill him, drink his blood, and possess his body. Because Daimon, you see, isn't just a big scary Babylonian monster: he's the intrusion into the world of Japanese yokai of a specifically European conception of a vampire. And no, Babylon and Europe nearly aren't the same thing (nor is Egypt, where all of the "Babylonian" architecture seems to have come from), but give the number of Western-made films and stories to cram Japan, China, Korea, and certain bits of southeast Asia into one big sack, I elect not to get huffy about it.

The arrival of a Western monster isn't just a conceit, it's the whole plot hook. Daimon, disguised as Isobe, starts to wreak havoc and freak everybody out; the first person to attempt to figure out what's going on is Saheiji (Kimura Gen), Isobe's most trusted adviser. Their struggle is quick and ends with a fragment of Daimon's essence possessing Saheiji as well, but during the fight, in a surprisingly comic bit of business, a projectile falls into the pond in the middle of Isobe's courtyard, falling right on the head of the local kappa (Kuroki Gen) sleeping there. Kappa being the turtle-like river creatures of Japanese folklore, you know. The kappa gets annoyed, and even more annoyed to see that a foreign demon is trying to take over his turf, but Daimon makes immensely short work of the little creature. With nowhere else to turn, the kappa heads to the local haunted ruins, where a whole army of yokai hang around, and though he fails to convince them that a monster unknown in Japan is terrorising the land, he's done enough to lay the groundwork so that when Daimon overplays his hand - gathering up local children to drink their blood, his favorite food - the yokai are at least a little ready to wage war. But it still will take a collaboration with the hopelessly outmatched human contingent fighting Daimon from inside Isobe's palace to stop the interloper.

The film's charms are perhaps shallow, but the are legitimate: we get to watch as a whole gallery of yokai, gross and cute and fanciful creatures from across the range of folklore, plot how to oust a Japanified vampire out, to preserve the honor of Japanese monsterdom. There's no way not to make that kind of narrative scenario sound odd, but it's awfully sweet and fun, anyway. And since Spook Warfare unashamedly announces itself as a trifle for an audience of children, "sweet" and "fun" are far less insulting than they might otherwise sound. It also excuses the remarkably apparent shortcomings of Spook Warfare's production: the seams show all over, whether it's the poorly-hidden cutting to make things appear and disappear, or the fact that the green makeup Kuroki wears on his arms and legs as the kappa keeps rubbing off, or how much none of the yokai look like anything but cloth and rubber. This might, indeed, be part of the point: we get to see all of the marvelous creatures, but they're so obviously artificial that none of it is ever actually scary. Mostly just charming and goofy.

Which isn't to say that it's devoid of any kind of meat on its bones. The climactic battle is impressively serious and elaborate in its action choreography for something targeting a young audience. And while the various yokai are always presented in a way that makes it clear that we have nothing to worry about, it's just pretend (and besides the yokai are generally treated as comic figures by director Koroda Yoshiyuki, focusing on the silliness and bumbling when he can, on top of being protectors, not a menace), there's still that little frisson of enjoyable creepiness when we see things like the lady with the snake neck (Mori Ikuko), grinning with malevolent delight, or the full form of Daimon as a batlike creature with his ribs on the outside. It's uncanny without being dangerous in any way, and that's enough to make it something of a perfect little children's horror movie/bedtime story. Its guileless sense of adventure and bouncy approach to saying "boo!" don't at all mean it's not okay for adults too - as I imagine has long since been clear, I found the film utterly bewitching in its playfulness and haunted house whimsy. But what I think doesn't matter, and that's just fine. It's not for people like me, and I'm just pleased that I got to find it so likable and inviting anyway.

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