Wednesday 30 July 2008

The Great Yokai War (2005)

I'm getting used to the screens full of warnings when watching films in the Sundance Channel's Extreme Asia series. Here's one directed by Takashi Miike, so it ought to have about as many warnings as there are warnings. However it only has one: violence. I thought it was a science fiction epic but it's more of a fantasy film, even though it begins with a nightmare about a devastated Tokyo. Maybe young Tadashi has just been watching too many Godzilla movies.

He's a young boy from a broken marriage. After his parents divorce, he moves to a small town with his mother and grandfather, which seems pretty peaceful except that this is a Takashi Miike movie, so you know it's not going to stay that way for long. Soon Granddad finds some bizarre half man half animal in the cattle shed, predicting a great forthcoming war before dying. Then in the spirit world, Lord Kato Yasunori, someone who could only be described as a Japanese Christopher Walken, stands on top of a silo and raises all the spirits that mankind has discarded. Finally young Tadashi gets bitten by a dragon in a ceremonial village festival dance, so becomes the Kirin Rider, the so called guardian of peace and friend of justice.

Little does he realise that this is not something to be taken lightly, however much all he wins to fight with is some beans and rice and a towel. Then again it worked for Arthur Dent, right? Anyway up on Great Tengu Mountain is a great Tengu sword, for the Kirin Rider to collect from the great goblin demon who has pledged allegiance to him. Off goes Tadashi to pick it up, but gets quickly scared away again, only to get thrust right into the middle of a surreal fantasy world at war, with a whole compliment of bizarre characters from Japanese folklore, including a yokai called a sunekosuri, who only he can see and who becomes his friend and companion and who looks like a kung fu hamster.

There are elements of a lot of a lot of films in here, all mixed in together. Just as we begin to see the film as The Neverending Story, we suddenly get thrown Terminator bits and Predator bits and Power Rangers bits and Raiders of the Lost Ark bits and Spirited Away bits and Lord of the Rings bits and Beetlejuice bits and who knows what else. There's even a hamster in a microwave. Tadashi also acquires a few travelling companions to keep his life even more interesting. Kawahime, the river princess, is kind; Kawataro the kappa, or water sprite, is a complete moron and the red guy, whoever he is, is halfway between.

Every time we blink there are more of them, making this a fascinating surreal dream. Imagine Salvador Dali making a film with a screenplay by Luis Bunuel based on a story by Terry Gilliam with character designs by Guillermo del Toro and stop motion animation by Jan Svankmeyer, you might come close. It's that far out there, for sure, but you have to add in Takashi Miike's quirky sense of humour and a huge dose of Oriental mysticism. Apparently humanity's habit of discarding things creates Yomotsumono, which becomes a karmic retribution. No review could come to close to describing everything we see here, not even just the characters, or even all the ones that are made out of stop motion animated junkyard trash. I don't even know what half of these creatures are, but I'd love to find out.

I could say that it's Lord Kato and Yomotsumono and the bizarrely stylised young lady called Agi against the Kirin Rider and the vast hordes of yokai, but that's just one facet of this film. It becomes sheer inspired lunacy to the degree that can't blink for fear of missing something. What it all means is another question, but there's a lot of commentary going on behind the insanity, about friendship and discrimination and sacrifice, about waste and rage and peace, about a whole host of things that escape me because this is hardly a traditional approach to teach us about recycling old shoes, how alcohol gives us vision and azuki beans are protection from evil.

Beyond Miike, who becomes more and more fascinating as time goes by, there are names here that I don't know yet but should. Agi is Chiaki Kuriyama, who was one of the schoolgirls in Battle Royale, the leading lady in the original Japanese version of The Grudge and a character in Kill Bill. Her credits look fascinating, as do those of Etsushi Toyokawa (Lord Kato), Mai Takashi (Kawahime) and Sadao Abe (Kawataro). Then again, the more modern Asian films I see, the more I realise that nobody else seems to know what inspiration is any more. What in the west can even come close to this film, Spirited Away, Survive Style 5+ or Save the Green Planet? I need to revisit The Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe I'm ready now.

1 comment:

1minutefilmreview said...

Hey pal, it's one of our favorites from Miike too. Great review.