(Midnight Madness) Japan, 124 minutes
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Takashi Miike, Mitsushiko Sawamura
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Chiaki Kuriyama, Bunta Sugawara
First up, a definition from the exclamation-mark-heavy press kit: "Yokai are creatures and supernatural beings from Japanese folklore who play tricks on unsuspecting humans, who cannot see them, but can feel their presence. " "Great" and "war"--pretty much self-explanatory. So that's about all the plot setup you'll need...
Okay, so there's a bit more (this is a Takashi Miike film, after all, where nothing is ever as it seems):
A calf born with a human head deck warns that "evil is coming!" to Japan, but in fact, it's already arrived: Children are disappearing and giant mechanical monsters are attacking cities. 10 year old Tadashi (Kamiki), a shy boy from a troubled home (his father suffers from dementia), is chosen by his village to become the "Kirin Rider", a mythic warrior who must first locate a powerful blade hidden on Goblin Mountain and guarded by... the Great Goblin. The mountain proves to be the domain of the "Yokai" as well--benign elementals (who are invisible to all humans except Tadashi) who are deadly when provoked. The disappearances are the work of overlord Kato (Toyokawa), who is assisted by lethal Agi (Kuriyama) and is gathering the dark energies of the dead in his plan for nothing less than world conquest. Claiming the sword, Tadashi joins forces with many of his bizarre bretheren--"The Snake-Necked Woman", "The Great Head", "The Umbrella Monster", "The Cat Sprite"--to bring peace between the supernatural and natural worlds.
Marketed on its home shores as the Japanese "Harry Potter" or "Lord Of The Rings", Takashi Miike's supremely deranged idea of a "kiddie flick" smacks more of a live-action piss-take on Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" with production design by Sid And Marty Kroft. While nowhere near as scatalogical or grand-guignol-violent as Miike's more famous works like the "Dead Or Alive" trilogy, "Ichi The Killer" or "Audition", "Yokai" still offers enough spurting fluids, malevolent beasties, and jaw-dropping child endangerment to induce night terrors for years.
Budgeted at $10 million (Japanese figures) "Yokai" is Miike's most epic production to date (ever prolific, the man makes about four movies a year, so who knows what's coming before the end of 0h-five?) and offers him a broader canvas to raise holy hell. As with last year's "Zebraman", Miike has embraced CG and has used it sparingly but inventively, combined with traditional puppetry and prosthetic gags to give life to envision a candy-coloured parade of oddities--think Clive Barker's "Nightbreed" gone East-- from snake beings to humanoid bamboo umbrellas to giant robots--even an enchanted"Azuki Bean Washer". The cutesy--read: "family friendly" elements--such as "Sunekosuri", a squeaky guinea-pig-in-jammies who partners with Tadashi, is so completely unconvincing and annoying that Miike must've surely intended its inclusion as fodder for gleeful cruelty (he even cops a bit from "Gremlins" and imprisons it in a microwave, to the Midnight Madness audiences' thunderous applause).
The film is probably best enjoyed by those with a healthy knowledge base of Japanese folklore, and pop culture for that matter: in between the usual empowerment homilies and pro-environment messages, Miike references Japanese commercials (one for beer), video game characters, and out-of-left-field catch phrases that--as a fella who doesn't know his Azuki from a Suzuki, left me completely baffled. Cultural niceties aside, it's still all a lot of spirited nonsense and eyeball-rubbing fun--but to a point: at more than two hours in length I was ready to cry "enough already" by the umpteenth false climax. And given its open-ended conclusion at the end of it all, I'm sure nothing less than a timely trilogy has been planned.
Miike slumming is better than no Miike at all (he's become something of a Midnight Madness tradition with Colin Geddes having taken over programming from Noah Cowan), and should be enough to tide fans over until he debuts his episode of Showtime's "Masters Of Horror" sometime next year.
Robert J. Lewis