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Y˘kai, Yōkai, 妖怪:  Why the Japanese win when it comes to mythological monstrosities (not counting tentacle porn).   (Part One of Two)

  You know, sometimes it's hard to not wish you were Japanese.  That doesn't mean much these days, admittedly.  I've said it many times before:  Japanese culture is all over America.  American Idol is just karaoke, Manga rules the bookstore, and Anime is on multiple channels 25 hours a day.  We don't always get it, but Gosh Darn It we love it.  I stumbled upon something a while back and I've finally gotten all my material together to present a mythical pile of weirdness (but  don't worry...I used the term "pile" for a reason) that'll make your soul hurt and maybe even entertain it in the process.  Today I'm going to introduce you the Y˘kai film series.  Three of them came out in the late 1960's (and obviously influenced a young George Lucas) and the last one came out LAST YEAR, and was directed by Takashi Miike (same guy who directed Zebraman).  This is going to be a big article because holy crap there's a lot going on here that you should know.  In fact, this article will most likely need to be broken down into two by the looks of things.  So expect this to be slightly informative but still heavily loaded with horrible things, like a young retarded lad having sexual relations with an umbrella, a tangent about the whole Japanese intimacy issue (with pillows shaped like women's crotches), and the best way to dispose of your dead wife's body. 

Y˘kai (which I will Romanize to yokai for the sake of this article being written by an American) is a japanese term that loosely translates to "spirits" or "demons".  Some are evil, some are just tricky, and others still are just too cute for their own good.  They're all supernatural and most have been in Japanese mythology for a very long time.  They're not to be confused with "Kaiju" (怪獣 which usually refers to giant monsters like Godzilla or any one wearing 40 pounds of latex on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show.  So the film series that I'm about to start breaking down for you is all based off Japanese mythology, right?  Not exactly.

Meet Shigeru Mizuki.  He's the guy responsible for what you're reading today.  He's also the man indirectly responsible for things like Princess Monoke and Spirited Away...you'll understand in a second.  Shigeru may be my new hero.  If I had a womb, it would hold his babies.  Born in 1922, his bio tells us that he spent most of his young life drawing like a madman...until he got drafted by Japan in World War 2.  That's about the time that things got pretty surreal.  During a U.S. air raid, there was an explosion and he lost his left arm.  The one he drew with.  By 1957, he'd taught himself to draw with his remaining arm.  Talk about being motivated by your Art.  He ended up doing quite a number of comic works, including a manga about the life of Adolf Hitler (the majority of his works have yet to be translated into English, so don't even look for it you American filthies). His big passion was (and is, because he's still alive at the time of me writing this) monsters.  Not to go into too much detail (they'll be time for that later) Shigeru Mizuki popularized the classic yokai monsters and deeply ingrained them into the brains of an entire population of the Japanese.  He didn't create these spirits, but he did make them so popular that they'd start appearing everywhere.   They still do...though you've got to remember that he only popularized something from the people's folklore.  Sort of like how Tolkein made elves and dwarfs popular, paving the way for things like Dungeons & Dragons.  Tolkein is to western fantasy as Mizuki is to Japanese fantasy.  I suppose.  I've read that in multiple biographies so I'd almost say it's got to be true.  His great yokai comic, Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, was so insanely popular that someone thought it would be a good idea to make not one not two but three films deeply inspired from the yokai sensation he had created.  (There's also several cartoons based off his stuff, but since I can't find them I'll ignore them for the time being.) I can't say that he got any money for the original trilogy, but still.  Quite a few of the monsters are exactly as they were in his comics, so this isn't just a rumor/joke.  Shigeru himself appears in the 2005 installment of the trilogy, permanently etching himself into the phenomenon like a happy one-armed book end. 

Boy, that was almost downright educational.  To balance that, let me just say that these aren't great films.  They're weird and goofy, but on the plus side, they have a lot of monsters.  How many monsters you ask?

100 Monsters (1968)

One hundred might be a bit of a misnomer...but the main thing about these yokai films is that they each tend to have a lot of very random monsters in them.  Very random.  I don't know if they're all from Japanese folklore or not, but I'm pretty sure if you could name all the monsters in these things you'd have a diploma with Japanese Mythology on it.  Either that or be a one-armed buy named Mizuki.  If you look at the poster, you might be wondering what the crap that umbrella thing is.  You know, the one with the long tongue and the one eye?  Try to push it out of your mind...it'll come crashing back into your brain sooner than you'd like.  I'm trying not to judge Japanese folklore, and you should do the same.

The first yokai film is pretty straight forward, with a botched supernatural ritual summoning evil spirits to haunt the bad guys that want to tear down a shrine and put in a brothel.  You know, because if you can't have religion you might as well have whores.  Perfect bad guy logic.  That ritual I told you about involves people sitting around a dark room telling ghost stories...so the first sequence is really illustrating what Spooky McSamurai is saying to the evil magistrate.  Let's watch:

According to my DVD's subtitles, that sign reads "No Suicides."  Dear God, if enough people killed themselves in a particular place you'd think that there'd be a better deterrent than "Go kill yourself somewhere else."  Man, now I want to write that on my door, just to confuse my neighbors. 

Back on track:  Some lazy fishermen catch a fish from the Haunted Lake and take it home.  Since fish from Haunted Lake are usually Haunted Fish, nothing good can come from it.  So when a fisherman's wife starts to prepare the food, she becomes our first real yokai of the evening.  A creature of pure malicious terror.

Or maybe she just becomes a woman with a really long neck.  I suppose it would be frightening if your girlfriend suddenly did, well, this:

On the other hand, I know far too many people who would pay to have a wife with a 7-foot long throat that she could wrap around you.  That's not as dirty a comment as you think it is.  Pervert.

And thus ends the dream sequence.  The evil magistrate doesn't have time for the "Curse Eliminating Ritual" so now all sorts of evil creatures start appearing.  Like the dreaded flaming marshmallow.  No really.

"100 Monsters" is set up like most films.  Bad guys do bad things, and supernatural monsters dish out poetic justice.  Poetic justice gets a little weird sometimes...particularly when the mentally challenged get involved.

This is the evil magistrate's retarded son.  I mean that literally.  Here he is painting cyclopsian umbrella monsters on the living room walls.  Instead of me just telling you the horror that's going to unfold, let me show you.

Oh no, the drawing has come to life!

Sweet mother of Christ, the drawing is licking itself.

OH MY GOD NOW IT'S COMING TO ME IN THE FLESH!

What does it want? What COULD it want?

The evil magistrate walks by his son's room, only slightly worried about the nervous giggling noises coming from within.  If only he'd known what was on the other side of that paper-thin wall.

:blink blink:  I don't care if it's implied or not, that retarded fellow is getting a lap dance from a one-legged umbrella beast that can't stop licking him.  How's that for a killer "how I lost my virginity story?"

"Oh, you lost yours in the back seat of a Gremlin?  Big whoop.  I got deflowered by a one-eyed marionette that let me open her up like an umbrella."

:shudder:

By this time various monsters are showing up all over the place.  Common monsters that we all know about.

You know, like giant disembodied transvestite heads.

Eventually the movie degrades to "how many monsters can we fit in the last 10 minutes" game, and everybody loses.  There's too much going on and it's all going by so quickly...you know what it reminds me of?  Star Wars.  Be it that Cantina or Jabba's palace, I'd bet money those scenes got their appeal the same way the yokai series likes to overload you with monsters in the last few minutes of the film.  Hell, even some of the monsters look similar.  I'm not saying that George Lucas saw these movies and said:  Holy crap, I should just put five bajillion monsters, I mean aliens, in my movie and it'll kick ass!  What I am saying is that a decade before Georgie changed the face of science fiction, the Japanese were already a bit ahead of the game, at least when it came to melting your head with too many monsters in a a short period of time.  Speaking of which:

Is it just me or is that the monster from "Where the Wild Thing Are" in the background there?

I know it's supposed to be a mushroom monster.  Look at the guy's face...he WANTS, no , NEEDS that to be a mushroom monster.  But for the love of god, that's a penis monster if I ever saw it.  Considering how in Japan the word mushroom is often slang for penis...well, let's just say the penis monster is less than subtle.

What, you want to escape penis beast?

Haha!  No escape for you, it's the giant drag queen Tammy Faye head!

Long story short, the bad guy ends up going insane and dying.  The good guys win...and the monsters have a big parade as they carry big kegs of beer to whatever spooky land they came from.

Spook Warfare (1968)

If I had to pick a favorite film from the yokai trilogy this would have to be it.  Unlike the other two, humans don't matter so much.  This movie is all about monsters fighting other monsters.  Well, one monster against them all really. 

Archeologists on a dig in the West accidentally unleash an ancient Babylonian demon named...Demon.  Ok, he's actually named Daimon, but you get what I'm saying.  Anyway, the moment he wakes up he makes a beeline to Japan, destroying a Dutch trading ship on the way.  Apparently Japan really is a monster magnet...just as Godzilla can only really destroy Japan, so too can Daimon only go to destroy the world from the Japanese Isle.  The guy was asleep for 2000 years and immediately concedes that Japan is totally the place to be.  Good man.  He's also a snazzy dresser too.

I don't care if his head is shaped like a lumpy green potato, the exaggerated ribcage is cool, and the shoulder horns aren't bad either.  So that's Daimon.  The bad dude of this picture.  He can fly, shoot fire out of his staff, possess people by sucking their blood.  Oh, and he love the taste of children's blood.  This is actually important later as he sends out all the mind-controlled adults (he can do that too) to hunt down children for him to eat.  With all those powers, he's almost a Japanese Superman.  You know, if Clark Kent ever broke an 8-year-old open for sustenance every once in a while. 

Meet one of our heroes.  He's also one of the few monsters I recognize:  The dreaded Kappa...a water demon of sorts.  While I could go into more detail, this rather weird criticism from a New Yorker on IMDB stuck with me. 

"Strangely, the monsters that I'm familiar with from the old stories seem to be pretty friendly in this film. For example, the water demon-a kappa as he's known in Japan-is rather nice, but his type of demon are known for preying on people and horses. They love to eat fresh livers, which they obtain by reaching up the victim's anus and ripping out the tasty organ. Now THAT would have been interesting to see done"

At least he's not angry about the film's blatant inaccuracy.  Me, I'm thankful.  Also, I'm paying far too much attention to where the kappa is keeping its hands. 

Now that you know what he's SUPPOSED to do with those hands, it's harder to notice the fact that he's a discount ninja turtle, complete with painted green nipples.  Oh hell, he's goofy as crap.  And you know what, Daimon knows it too.  The turtle-man challenges Daimon to a fight (he's invaded the kappa's liver-ripping territory).  Daimon's response?

"You have GOT to be kidding me."

This ends up being Daimon's response to almost anything, as we learn he can pretty much pull any superpower out of his own butt whenever he wants.  He doesn't need to do that in this case, as kappas are apparently the red-headed stepchild of the yokai universe.

Nothing quite beats watching an obnoxious character grabbed by the back of his head, pushed on his knees, and forced to rhythmically bob up and down next to a wooden pole until the friction causes his head to catch fire.  If Daimon had then peed on the guy, all would have been perfect.  Still, the "simulated forced fellatio" attack is pretty damn demeaning.  The fact that Daimon wouldn't stop grunting while he does it is also very disturbing, but hey:  I don't judge.

So what does our dear Kappa do?  He does exactly what anyone would do after being beaten down prison-style...he gets all his rowdy friends together and start plotting his revenge.  Of course this doesn't go that well since there's still about 45 minutes left in the movie, but it does introduce us to the rest of the cast.  Since all these yokai movies were made practically at the same time, you shouldn't be surprised to see a few familiar faces.  Some still hurt if you think about them...but others...I'm not sure what to say.

 

Say hello to this film's "long-necked woman" monster.  I don't know if it's the retro-Goth thing or what, but I never thought I'd call a woman with a 10-foot neck sexy.  In fact, let's pretend I didn't.  And we'll be moving on now.

Say hello to Jabba the Hutt and his best friend.  Their names are actually Aobozu and Ungaikyo but for the love of all that I know, the big fat rat-faced gentleman sounds exactly like Jabba the Hutt.  I don't now if it's just another coincidence that ties this trilogy to Star Wars or what, but if you heard this guy speak you'd swear he was asking for another table dance from Princess Leia in that chainmail bikini all the geeks like.  But that's not Aobozu's only trait of note.  He's got a magical stomach.  Again, I'm not lying.

 

When our chubby friend holds his breath and puffs out his stomach, anyone watching it can see whatever they want.  Yes, that does mean that several important scenes involve a bunch of people wearing goofy costumes sitting around staring at a fat guy's belly.  I've never seen a more charming plot device.

Even when put right next to Yoda dressed up like Aunt Jemima, the giant penis (I mean mushroom) monster steals the show.  And your sanity.

There are a few other monsters (like a woman with a freaky mask on the back of her head) but ultimately the plot comes down to about a zillion little monsters trying to take down good ol' Daimon.  Daimon keeps smiling that "Don't even try" smile, but now I realize his mask doesn't really let him emote anything beyond mild comedic disdain.  Eventually, Daimon clones himself into an army of, well, clones...before doing the classic Japanese monster kata that makes him grow to giant size.  Since his weakness is apparently his eyes (this is my weakness too...and exactly why I try to prevent people from gouging them out) everyone grabs something sharp.  The umbrella monster returns here, thankfully not corrupting the mentally ill this time.  Instead, she flies through the air letting good old Aunt Jemima (Oil Lamp is the character's name if you care) get a good angle for a little classic eye-stabbing action.  Three of the warrior monsters fire their projectiles at the same time, blinding Daimon and saving the day.

These film's aren't inherently sexual, but it's hard to not point out that the bad guy just got defeated by being triple penetrated.  In the face.

If you can only stomach one of the old yokai movies, I really suggest this one.  It's totally meant for kids (unlike the other two) but has two whole scoops of monsters completely saturating the whole flick.  Of course now that we've had a film that's overloaded with yokai, there's got to be a shortage somewhere.  This brings me to the final of yokai trilogy:

Along with Ghosts (1969)

The first yokai film was a film for everyone.  The second had more action and kid-friendly weirdness.  The third?  The third isn't a bad movie, but really the film is a slow-moving drama/suspense piece about corruption and redemption.  The plot revolves around another evil magistrate (I think) and how he can't let a piece of evidence out of his sight.  The wind (or ghosts) end up stealing it but the bad guys think a little girl has it...or maybe they want her dead because she might have seen them killing the messenger who had the document.  The girl's grandfather ends up getting killed, but not before he can tell her where to find her father.  He also passes on a bizarre gift that ends up being even more screwed up when we finally realize what it is. 

When my grandparents pass away, I hope they give me something better than dice.  These aren't ordinary dice, but I'll explain why later.  The film is pretty much the misadventures of the little girl and how she meets up with other social outcasts...including a large and incredibly dense man as well as a screeching midget of a woman.  They're pretty much put in for comic relief that's meant to balance the rest of the cast trying to katana-slice an 8-year-old girl in half.  The duo does offset the film's seriousness in, shall we say, less than classy ways.

The above image may be the scariest moment in the entire yokai trilogy.  Of all the camera angles to choose for a woman crawling between a man's leg, why did they have to choose the "look at my undercarriage" angle?

Eventually the girl gets capture...and we learn that one of the men that's been trying to kill her is actually her father.  Apparently, he had a gambling problem and ended up becoming a hired goon to pay his bills.  He tries to set his long lost daughter free but they both get captured.  The evil magistrate makes them roll dice to see if they live or die.  There's only one problem....

The magic dice won't let them lose.  The magistrate starts to get pissy, forcing the father of the year to start spilling his guts as to where he got those dice.  Allow me to paraphrase:

"I had a huge gambling problem.  So when my wife died I had her bones carved into gambling dice to help me win.  You know, because I really loved my wife.  When my daughter dies I was thinking of having her mashed into a lotto ticket."

I can't say much more about how screwed up it is to grind your wife's body into a gaming component...but it's a nice "holy crap" plot development.  Speaking of holy crap, you're probably wondering where the hell all the yokai monsters are right now.  In truth they're lightly seasoned throughout the film, appearing only for a few seconds whenever people are lost in the woods.  Of course by the film's end,  there needs to be some hot monster action or someone's going to pitch a fit.  Along with Ghosts might not be the best monster film, but it knows when to bring out the big guns.

 

A burning wheel of infernal fire that shoots bloody severed ghost-heads at people may be the most hardcore messed-up thing I've seen in a while.

In the end the bad guys end up fighting severed rubber heads on strings.  The magic dice also contribute to the final attack by sticking to a guy's hand.

The final horror of this one is the magic dead wife dice (also known as wice) keep sticking to one goon's hand.  If you're being attacked by a wheel of fire that shoots zombie skulls at you, would you honestly be so freaked out by dice superglued to your hand?  One samurai seemed to think so, as he was motivated enough to cut open his own hand trying to remove them.  In case you haven't figured it out, the third yokai film may or may not be good for children to watch.

In case you were curious, the film does end with the "evidence" being recovered.  Hot paper-reading action.  That's what I'll remember.  Well, after the flaming head-launcher.

Let's fast-forward through time, because I don't know how to fast-forward through anything else..  About 26 years later (1996), Shigeru Mizuki (the guy who inspired this whole thing and popularized yokai) got honored by his old home town naming a street after him.  Enjoy a look at a tourist-oriented map of downtown Sakaiminato:

The reason I'm showing you a map is to impress upon you that if you ever got to Japan, you MUST visit the town of Sakaiminato and bathe in the glory that is Mizuki.  See all those little black dots?  Those each represent something very special.  Not only did the down name a street after him, but they also constructed over 100 bronze statues, each shaped like one of the monsters in his comics.  So yes, Mizuki Shigeru Road may well be the coolest street ever.  Take a look:

Yes, the sexual predator shaped like an umbrella can be found there.  Not all the monsters on the street are found in the yokai movie series, but man check these two out:

  

The one on the left makes a serious appearance in the 2005 yokai movie while the other one is still trying to find his way to the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Other things found on the road include artistic sculptures as well as giant skeletons coming out of the ground as well as little boys playing with their dead father's haunted eyeball.  Have I mention that I want to go to Sakaiminato yet? 

If you're as pleased by these things as I am (just knowing that there's a town that put this much effort into immortalizing one man's comic creations that's not Disney pleases me greatly), then you might even want to try your hand at Sakaiminato's tourist website.  It's not in English but once you figure out that each of the numbers takes you to another statue of a monster, it's not too difficult.

Click here to solve the puzzle of a Japanese Website (with Prizes!)

So that's it for this week.  Tune in later to read about the latest yokai film from Takashi Miike.  It's a huge tribute to the original trilogy as well as Shigeru's comics...hell, Shigeru even has a cameo in the damn thing.  The film's fun to make fun of, but if you ever wanted to see a Japanese film that rivals The Neverending Story when it comes to epic awesomeness, you'll dig it.  Oh, and it has robots and ninja hamsters in it.  Take a peek at the poster before I wish you good night.

Goodnight, kind internet people.  Oh and keep an eye open for horny umbrellas.  They're out there.  Waiting.

 

Click here to read about the Great Yokai War, directed by Takashi Miike and filmed in the year 2005!

 

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Copyright 2006 jared von hindman, except for images which are used via Fair Use only for review purposes.  Shigeru's art is his own, obviously.  Oh and sorry about this article being so almost educational.  I'll have to remember to only review complete crap in the future.  I promise.