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Y˘kai daisens˘: The Great Yokai War (2005)
(Warning: This article is a follow-up to a previous one. It, too, is all about monsters from Japan. If you don't know about the old Yokai films, I'd suggest checking out my ranting and rambling on the subject HERE before diving into this little review.)
I swear to God, Takashi Miike is slowly becoming my new hero. From the guy who directed Zebraman and a lot of other awesome craziness from Japan, we get a modern yokai story with state-of-the-art special effects (and some not-so-special) in an epic film that reminds me of a more surreal version of The Neverending Story. The film is based on the original yokai films and comic books and takes them into strange, but ultimately happy, territories. It's weird...I wish Hollywood could make movies this good. I'll stop gushing like a fanboy...because just because I think a movie's awesome doesn't mean that I can't mock the crap out of its weirdness. Ultimately, this might mean playing the "holy crap, the Japanese are sick, sick people" card, but for the moment that's not my intention. Oh, I'm sure it'll happen (I mean, this film IS Japanese, after all)...but it's not my intention.
Let's get something straight, right off the bat: This is a kid's movie. That's not as bad as you'd think, as a lot of kid's movies are loved by armies of adults. From The Dark Crystal to The Muppets take Manhattan to The Harry Potter films, there are children's movies out there that end up being for everyone. The reason I feel that I need to point this out is due to the stereotypical plot structure we've got going on here. I'll summarize the entire movie right now: A young boy becomes the chosen one and aligns himself with good so that he can, through the power of friendship and beans, defeat the forces of evil. The problem is that Takashi Miike doesn't exactly make kid's movies. Sure, all the kiddie elements are here...but when you see the ending, you'll realize this film is a lot darker and messed up than most kid's movies should be. I'm not making much sense now, so let's jump into the plot before I bore you to death with plot analysis.
Say hello to Tadashi. He's the young fellow being bitten by the Kirin dragon. While usually this would mean there's a street performer attacking a small child, in Japan this means that Tadashi has been chosen to be this year's Kirin Rider. It's a weird cross between the Chosen One and some sort of unpaid intern. The Kirin ritual ends up meaning something more than being bitten by a puppet, as our little hero gets pulled into the world of supernatural action and intrigue. A lot of that has to do with a kung-fu hamster, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
On the left is Kato. No, that's not the porn star who testified during the O.J. Simpson trial. In this case, Kato's the spirit of revenge...I think. Kato is the evil mastermind behind all the crap that goes on in the film. Well, that's not completely true. Pictured to the right of him is his servant, Agi, played by Chiaki Kuriyama. You might recognize her bad-assitude from the film Kill Bill, where she played the tiny but slightly hot Japanese girl with the giant steel flail (of death). Here she's got a giant beehive hairdo and whips her enemies whenever she can with a, well, whip. God bless this movie. Kato's other accomplice is the spirit of "unloved things." No, I'm not talking about you, Sarah. In this case the spirit is the embodiment of the rage items feel when they've been thrown away. As in, your shoes get very pissed off at you because you threw them away when they were too old. They felt that they did their job and they deserved a retirement package. In reality, they just get thrown in the dumpster behind your flat. Apparently, all objects feel this rage, from broken down motorcycles to defunct toasters to that old Neo Geo game system you don't care for anymore. So the spirit of revenge is working with the spirit of pissed-off garbage...and is assisted by a kinky reject from the Austin Powers movie? Dear God, what could they be doing?
They're imprisoning all the yokai they can get their hands on. There are a lot of monsters in the film (I'd say well over 100, unlike the older movies) and if you blink you'll miss them. Quite a few have already been captured and are being fed into a giant machine where the spirit of unloved things turns them into cyborgs. No, really. The plot of this film is our hero + good monsters fighting robots built from broken machines but powered by the souls of other good monsters. Remember that broken motorcycle I mentioned?
H.R. Giger would be proud, I think. You're looking at a motocycle-transforming cyborg that kills children. It all happens off-screen, but the robotic demons end up killing a LOT of people off-screen as the film progresses. It's easy to miss...because this is a kid's movie, remember? Speaking of making children happy, check this out:
Yes, you are looking at a small battalion of Kung-Fu Hamsters. If you press their paw, they will start swinging the chucks of nun. They're apparently running from something. And even though you can hear the terror in their squeaks, they're too gosh-darn cute for you to care. What is that thing worrying them, though?
Oh. It's a robot coffin, handsomely engraved, on wheels. That's not so bad.
Let me rephrase that: That is very, very foul. The weird coffin-bot actually brings up why I think the special effects in this film end up seeming less crappy than a lot of American movies. The coffin-bot (and all the robots which are mostly CGI) is made of rusty metal. What I mean by this is that while most computer graphics in movies make things too perfect (think any Pixar film), the CG in this film actually is meant to be imperfect...so the "holy crap that's TOO real to be real" issue doesn't apply. Damn it, I'm rambling and you don't care. Let me make it up to you with a bleeding Kung-Fu Hamster.
Our wounded survivor ends up meeting our little hero Tadashi, and pulls him into the plot a bit further. From here on out, it's monsters all over the place. Some old faces return but we also get to see some exciting and innovative new yokai.
Like Azuki, the bean-washer. He washes his beans. He also counts them. Isn't that exciting and innovative? The spooky thing is that this jaundiced fellow ends up being the real hero of the film. To quote Kurt Cobain: Beans, Beans, Beans. (If you get that last joke, you are a total Nirvana nerd and need to be shot. Not by Courtney Love.)
Other, more familiar, faces make appearances as well. The giant head, the one that used to look like Tammy Faye, now resembles the moon, as I think it was supposed to originally. Since I've never had to fight a giant moon-woman in a video game, I've no idea what the name of this yokai is. You know, because everything I learned about Japanese mythology I learned from playing Final Fantasy.
The "Long-Necked Demon" is back, this time with the aid of computer graphics instead of good old-fashioned sock puppetry. She doesn't do much in the film, but she does do one thing of note:
If you didn't start having secret "long-necked" fantasies from the old films, how about this scene? Does it do anything for you? I mean, here she is....licking our hero. I don't know why, but the long-necked lass randomly starts salivating all over our little hero. He's either going to walk away scarred for life or with a very weird fetish.
Yes, the Kappa is back. And he's just as obnoxious as he used to be. Next!
I know people who would sleep with the guy on right if it meant they could touch the cat-girl on the left if only for a moment. Wyatt, I'm obviously talking about you.
You might not be able to tell by the picture, but the mushroom penis-beast also returns. This time being hugged by a midget. It's images such as these that make me think back to when colors were a little brighter and music seemed a little sweeter. A midget hugging another midget in a penis costume sucks the joy out of everything.
Of COURSE the umbrella thing returns. This time, however, it doesn't do anything sexual. Thank Christ. Oh, and the guy who looked like Yoda is back, riding it around again as well (as pictured to the right).
Speaking of sexual weirdness, I think it's time I brought up something that sort of bothers me about the film.
The whole "waking up next to a woman's crotch" theme is undeniably weird. While it ties in well with the secret meaning of the movie (the film is really about growing up and becoming an adult), it's very strange. It happens twice...to two different characters...but the same exact shots are used, tying them together.
The above two shots are from an adult's flashback, telling how he once met a yokai when he was a small boy and was drowning.
These two shots are what happens to Tadashi, when the same female yokai in the short skirt introduces herself by placing him on her lap when he blacks out. Both scenes feature a child's hand slowly sliding down a milky thigh...and words fail me. The film doesn't focus on this aspect (it's a kid's movie) but it's lap-obsession and thigh hyper-focusing does remind me of another thing I saw from Japan:
In Japan you can buy pillows shaped like women's lower halves. "Lap pillows" scare the bejeezus out of me...though a bit less than Real Dolls do. If you don't know what I'm talking about, feel very, very blessed. You don't want to know. :shudder: Let's get back to the plot, shall we?
What does every hero need? A magic sword, that's what! Tadashi ends up questing to the Goblin King, the protector of said magic sword. He's interrupted by Agi...and a punk robot with chainsaws for arms.
That rocks my socks and butters my muffin. I don't care how fruity that sounds. It's true.
Hardware Hank says: Because one chainsaw blade isn't enough, please note the two "lesser" blades at the wrist joint. Note the serrated teeth that have been hand-welded into each individual tooth of the chainsaw. While the rust implies that this doesn't work that well, it also guarantees some sort of horrible infection if it does end up slashing you to all types of kingdom come. Remember: When building your robot of doom, don't overlook the scrapyard when it comes to finding pieces. They might not be pretty, but damn are they ever nasty if they stab you.
Of course the magic sword saves the day, blocking every scary blow of the awesome robot before slashing him in half. The thing is...the sword does all the work. We've all seen or read about magic swords that do all the work for the fighter. From Terry Pratchett to Roger Rabbit to Lewis Carroll, it's not terribly uncommon. The funny thing is how this film might be the first to realistically wield a blade that swings around on it's own like a ninja working off a double espresso.
If you lost control of your arms due to a magic sword when a giant chainsaw-wielding robot, you'd wet yourself in terror as well. Of course, he ends up dropping the sword (and it becomes broken, therefore requiring the next plot point to revolve around fixing the magic sword) and in deep, deep trouble. What can save our poor little Tadashi?
Kung-Fu Hamster Crotch, that's what. Even better, check out what Agi does to punish him for his genital ninja attack:
Any bad guy that puts a hamster in a microwave (and turns it on) is awesome. The hamster in the microwave joke is nothing new, but for some reason I was reminded of THIS.
So the story progresses, including hitching a ride on the side of a plane and an entire factory being turned into a giant yokai-robot monster/mobile base for the bad guys. Tadashi has a new set of clothes (traditional "I'm a fighter now" stuff) and his sword back, and it's time to kick some butt. The problem is that no matter how dashing he looks in his little Halloween costume, there're just too many robots for him to fight. It's a losing battle. Until the yokai arrive. Apparently all the spirits of Japan think that there's a giant festival/party going on in Tokyo...instead of the world-destroying chaos that Kato and the spirit of broken Game Boys are unleashing. So when a robot attacks one of them, the crowd assumes that his is a "fight festival." Yokai apparently aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they definitely have the numbers advantage. When I said the yokai arrive, I meant to type a LOT of yokai arrive.
While they may mostly be people in plastic masks, there are far too many yokai in the film's finale for you to even pretend to count. Once you've watched all the Yokai Trilogy you might start recognizing a few, but there really are LOTS AND LOTS OF MONSTERS.
See? Lots and Lots. Men dressed as frogs, women breast-feeding dead infants, a man talking to his tofu...did I mention that I liked this movie?
Oh and while adults can't see yokai normally, they can after they've had a couple of beers. It's a fact.
Ignore Sata (that guy's name) and his "Mom, what are you doing?" expression. Pay closer attention, trivia dork, to the crabheaded monster in the background. Yes, Miike fanatics, that's a cameo of the villain from Zebraman in the background. Hell, I'm sure Zebraman's lurking somewhere in the crowd. I can't spot him because a grown man dressed as a zebra actually blends into the crowd during a scene like this. Which is surreal.
Tadashi ends up having to fight one more killer cyborg-yokai and this one's actually his mutated Kung-Fu Hamster friend. He ends up winning (with the power of friendship...and a large sword). Tadashi gets to the boss' room, where the boss is betraying Agi and jumping into his robot-making machine...with the intent to convert himself into the most destructive robot-yokai of them all.
All seems to be going as planned for Kato. Sadly, he completely underestimated the true hero of this film: Beans.
Azuki is a bean-cleaner. He cleans beans.
Azuki also spills beans everywhere when he flies through the air. "Everywhere" means that one bean goes into the robot-making machine with Kato.
Kato's final words are: "A bean?" With that cryptic phrase, the bean starts an atomic explosion in the machine, destroying everything. There's a song (in English no less) that basically is all about how GOOD beans are for you. So the bean of GOODNESS put in the machine of EVIL robot-making, makes an atomic explosion. So Good isn't the opposite of Evil...Beans are. Sure. Whatever. Makes sense to me.
By the way, those little things being blown every which way in the explosion are yokai. Apparently, they either love nuclear death, or the blast can't kill them, as they all scream "Whoo hoo!" or the equivalent of "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" as the bean-blast atomizes the area.
And that's pretty much our film. Tadashi rides out of the explosion on the back of a flaming horse/dragon (he was, you might remember, the Kirin Rider) and has saved the day. He philosophizes about how he's grown up, and the film fades. The one thing I forgot to mention was a brief cameo by the one and only Shigeru Mizuki. Just to remind you, that's the cartoonist who created the whole yokai phenomenon, which brought us films like these as well as almost every supernatural anime film you've ever loved (and then some). Shigeru appears as a giant head that says: "Don't be a fool! There is a limit even to foolishness. Wars must not happen. They only make you hungry." This is particularly screwed up when you realize it's coming from a guy who was IN World War 2 and lost his drawing arm in it...and his comment immediately follows an atomic explosion on Japanese soil. Miike makes the very best kid's movies, I swear.
So that should have been the end. If this had been undeniably a children's movie then it would have stopped right then. Instead, we get to see Tadashi a few years later, practically an adult. He's not alone, though. Look closely:
The Hamster is right there, only it's transparent and apparently can't be seen by Tadashi. You see, he's grown up and left the world of fantasy and yokai behind him. He's become an adult, and an adult has no time for Kung-Fu Hamsters, apparently.
His rodent friend cries, desperately willing himself to be solid for his friend, to force him to believe. To let him know that magic does exist in the world. But ultimately, the Hamster is just too ethereal.
But what's this? Something so opaque that it casts so solid a shadow it makes our fading hamster friend near-invisible?
That's right kids, Kato-the spirit of revenge, is very, very real. Adults don't believe in magical hamsters and other flights of fancy, but adults DO believe in all the nastiness and "evil" out there. Kind of a spooky message, really.
And that's the movie, kids. A whimsical, magical tale filled with surreal weirdness, action, and fun...that ends with a merciful whimper as adults keep evil alive and let cute hamsters fade into nothingness. The Great Yokai War is a movie about growing up. It's about a lot of things, particularly what we lose as we grown up. It's a common theme amongst a fair number of kids' movies...because nothing is scarier to a small child quite like the idea of becoming "dead inside" like so many adults seem to be. Of course, maybe that's just me projecting my own childhood fears out into the world. I don't know. I can still see my Kung Fu Hamsters, so obviously the moral doesn't apply to me.
I hope you've dug this little walk through all the yokai films...God knows they're flicks everyone should get a chance to see, particularly if you're a monster enthusiast. Of course, there's obvious so much more to it. Besides a city filled with statues of yokai, besides the story of a one-armed cartoonist veteran, besides the whole George Lucas ripped the original films off, besides Takashi Miike...besides ALL these things, the Yokai series has one thing no other film series will ever have. Can you guess what it is?
If you guessed "It has a retard getting a private lap dance from a one-eyed umbrella monster", then give yourself 10 points. If you got this wrong, be comforted by the fact that you'll never look at your umbrella the same way ever again.
Copyright 2006 jared von hindman, except for images that are used via fair use for review purposes. Please don't steal my Kung Fu Hamster either.