The titular yokai monsters of this forthcoming Blu-ray set from Arrow Video are hard to define, but one of the interviewees describes them as “personifications of natural phenomena and unexplainable things” or you can just call them monsters from Japanese folklore, in a basic sense. The way they differ from Japan’s other famous monsters, the kaiju, is in that Godzilla and friends are usually much bigger and created by science, instead of Japanese myths and legends. The yokai tend to be seen as spirits or ghosts, rather than physical beings too.
The idea or use of the name yokai didn’t become popular until the 20th century, but many of the stories from which the monsters originated came from throughout Japanese history, as well as from other countries, particularly from China.
In the Edo period (18th & 19th centuries) the Japanese people were big consumers of culture through stories and plays. The yokai stories became particularly popular then and they began to be documented.
Later, in the 1960s, Shigeru Mizuki became famous for bringing yokai to the modern world through his manga novels. The Kitaro series is his most popular manga, which helped popularise yokai. His stories also presented them as more friendly than they had been in the past.
This new yokai boom inspired Daiei Studios to create a series of films about the spirit creatures, releasing 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare and Along With Ghosts through 1968 and 69. Nearly four decades later, the series was resurrected through The Great Yokai War, directed by Takashi Miike in 2005, and this year a belated sequel to that has been released, The Great Yokai War: Guardians, once again helmed by Miike.
Arrow Video, continuing their dig through the Daiei archives, have released the first four Yokai films on Blu-ray in a limited edition box set. Intrigued, I got my hands on a copy and my brief thoughts on the four films follow, along with a look at the extra features and AV quality.
Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Screenplay: Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring: Shinobu Araki, Jun Fujimaki, Ryûtarô Gomi
Running Time: 79 min
The earliest film in the set, 100 Monsters, sees a village put under the thumb of a yakuza-like landowner, Tajimaya (Takashi Kanda). He’s planning on knocking down both a shrine and a tenement housing block to build a brothel. On top of this, following a traditional ceremony where scary tales of yokai are told, he foregoes the purification ritual at the end. The villagers warn Tajimaya that these disrespectful acts will put a curse on him, but he doesn’t listen.
So, the yokai, along with a heroic samurai (Jun Fujimaki), help restore justice and peace to the village.
This reminded me quite a bit of Daimajin, so it was no surprise to find that it had both the same writer and director as the first instalment in that franchise. Like that film, the supernatural force used to sell it is actually fairly incidental, mainly just called in at key moments to deal with the greedy bad guys that are terrorizing a traditional community.
That recycling of ideas is common for Japanese cinema of the era though. Both Daimajin and 100 Monsters could even be called Zatoichi clones. Daiei were struggling at the time, so stuck to tried and tested formulas and who can blame them when they work so well. I certainly enjoyed 100 Monsters’ mix of period drama and spooky ghost story.
The yokai, whilst looking pretty ridiculous at times and hardly ‘realistic’ in terms of make-up and special effects, still manage to look effectively creepy for the most part and wonderfully strange. Standouts include the ingeniously created long-necked woman (a.k.a. Rokurokubi) and the bizarre but lovable umbrella yokai (a.k.a. Kasa-obake). The latter is done largely with a puppet, but there’s a fairly audacious sequence where the spirit brings a simple painting of himself alive, done through animation over live-action backgrounds.
Overall, it’s an enjoyably odd, atmospheric and occasionally creepy tale that makes good use of largely practical effects to bring its wonderfully bizarre creatures to life.
Director: Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Screenplay: Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring: Yoshihiko Aoyama, Hideki Hanamura, Chikara Hashimoto
Running Time: 79 min
Spook Warfare (a.k.a. The Great Yokai War) surprisingly opens in the ruins of a Babylonian city. Here lies the resting place of the mighty demon Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto), who is roused by greedy treasure hunters. Daimon angrily breaks out and heads for Japan.
On his arrival in the country, he encounters the good and just Lord Hyogo Isobe (Takashi Kanda), who he swiftly kills and sucks the blood from. This act allows Daimon to take the form of the Lord and he proceeds to demand all shrines be torn down in his house and acts much more tyrannical than before. Isobe’s daughter, Lady Chie (Akane Kawasaki) and samurai Shinhachiro Mayama (Yoshihiko Aoyama) are shocked by this sudden change in the Lord and believe something is wrong.
Meanwhile, a kappa (a water imp yokai) witnesses Daimon killing and taking over the body of a samurai in the estate and tries to intervene. When the kappa is easily defeated, he heads back to his home in the woods, to warn the rest of his yokai friends about this evil creature terrorizing the locals nearby. The rest of the yokai are not initially convinced by the kappa’s story, but soon witness Daimon’s powers first hand and team up to get rid of the menace.
Sensibly, Daiei put the yokai front and centre in Spook Warfare and it works a treat. Tonally, it’s quite different too, with the monsters now much more friendly (other than Daimon of course), giving a comic spin to proceedings. There are still some effectively atmospheric and chilling moments though, with Daimon’s vampiric acts and a great sequence where a monk attempts to exorcise the demon.
With the yokai playing a bigger part, there are more special effects used, as well as some nice lighting tricks. Again, the monsters can look a bit silly, but the yokai have always looked this way, even in the early paintings and such.
So, in amping up the yokai levels, the second film in the series is an action-packed, quirky, atmospheric delight and my favourite in the set.
Along With Ghosts
Director: Yoshiyuki Kuroda, Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Screenplay: Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring: Kôjirô Hongô, Pepe Hozumi, Masami Burukido
Running Time: 78 min
Along With Ghosts opens with a group of bandits waiting to intercept two men carrying important documents. An old man warns the bandits that they’re on sacred ground so shouldn’t do anything rash, but they don’t listen, killing both the couriers and the old man.
This angers the yokai spirits of the sacred ground and the documents are sent flying in the air. There’s still a little life left in the old man at this point, and he takes the documents to his granddaughter, Miyo (Masami Burukido). In his dying breaths, he asks her to seek out her father (who she hasn’t seen since she was a baby) for protection.
We discover the bandits are working for a cruel Lord, who will be ruined if the documents get into the wrong hands. So, his minions are sent out to find the little girl and retrieve the documents by any means necessary. Thankfully, Miyo gets help along the way from both the yokai and a wandering samurai, Hyakasuro (Kôjirô Hongô).
After making the yokai our friendly protagonists in Spook Warfare, the creative team of Along With Monsters decide to go back on themselves and make a samurai film with the yokai thrown in as a bonus. It’s surprising after, by all accounts, Spook Warfare was the most successful of the 60s Yokai films. I guess Daiei must have had a spare script lying around (likely a Zatoichi episode) and turned it into a Yokai film to rush something out and cash in on the success of Spook Warfare.
Despite being a little disappointed in the yokai taking a back seat here, I still enjoyed Along With Monsters. It helps that I’m a big samurai movie fan, but Miyo’s adventure is fun and contains a few nice swordfights and such, as well as some emotionally satisfying scenes towards the end when she’s reunited with her not-so-honourable father.
The yokai, when they do eventually appear, are back to their creepy activities from the first film and the scenes where they torment the villains are suitably frightening. Great use is made of light and shadow here, in particular. This might have been a money-saving ploy to avoid too many special effects, but it’s still very effective.
Overall then, the yokai may seem a bit tacked on in Along With Monsters, but the film remains an effective samurai drama. With a bit of katana-slashing action, some spooky yokai punishment and a touching central conceit, it’s an enjoyable slice of all-round entertainment.
The Great Yokai War
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenplay: Takashi Miike, Mitsuhiko Sawamura, Takehiko Itakura
Based on a Novel by: Hiroshi Aramata
Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Chiaki Kuriyama, Bunta Sugawara, Kaho Minami, Riko Narumi, Etsushi Toyokawa
Running Time: 124 min
The Great Yokai War is seen as the start of Takashi Miike’s turn into a mainstream director, making hit films, particularly family-friendly fare, after previously being famous for making violent, twisted films, like Ichi the Killer and Audition. Zebraman, made a year before The Great Yokai War wasn’t a massive hit but leaned towards more family fare and One Missed Call was a horror/thriller but was a hit, so the shift wasn’t totally out of the blue, but it was still a surprise to many.
He followed The Great Yokai War with several films from major franchises aimed for box office success in Japan and made fewer low budget, ‘extreme’ films. He didn’t stop completely though, it must be said, directing some unusual titles in-between the money-makers but, on the whole, he veered away from his previous enfant terrible image.
The Great Yokai War sees Ryûnosuke Kamiki play the young Tadashi Ino, a boy whose parents have recently divorced, leaving him living with his mother out in the country whilst his sister lives with their dad back in Tokyo, where Tadashi grew up.
One evening, Tadashi attends a traditional festival, where he is selected as the year’s Kirin Rider, a heroic figure of peace. The Kirin Rider, legend has it, should ascend a nearby mountain to obtain a special sword that can be used to defeat any evil sent to the land.
Unfortunately for Tadashi, evil is on its way in the form of Lord Yasunori Katō (Etsushi Toyokawa), who is a spirit born of rage. He wants to punish the humans of modern Japan for their crimes against the yokai.
A cute little yokai called sunekosuri approaches Tadashi and encourages him to take the trip up the mountain. The boy is frightened but is eventually convinced, helped by advice from his grandfather (played by the great Bunta Sugawara) who’s becoming a little senile. Along the way, Tadashi meets more yokai and they team up to try to defeat Katō.
The Great Yokai War takes inspiration from Spook Warfare in its story, as well as Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro series. The author even makes a cameo appearance and Tadashi visits the Mizuki museum in one scene. As such, the yokai once again are largely a sympathetic and friendly bunch (other than Katō, his right-hand Agi, played by Chiaki Kuriyama, and some other minions).
There’s a more lighthearted approach in general, with an increased level of wacky comedy and a family-friendly adventure vibe ruling over proceedings, particularly in having a child lead the film (and Kamiki does a wonderful job). Miike didn’t want to completely cater to kids though, adding some pretty scary sequences to keep them on edge. The robotic yokai mutants that Katō creates are particularly frightening and will send many kids rushing to find sofa cushions to hide behind.
This blend of light and darkness might put off some and I do feel some of the violence pushes the boundaries a bit too far for kids (mine certainly wouldn’t last long watching it). However, I do think many of the best family films and stories have a strong element of horror in there. Think back to many of the classic Disney films and you’ll often remember the villains and more shocking scenes rather than the heroes or jokes (think Cruella de Vil and the death of Bambi’s mother). Then, to take things further, look at the original Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm tales that inspired those films. They’re much more twisted and disturbing than you might first remember.
On top of the usual idea of the yokai fighting to uphold traditional values, The Great Yokai War has an ecological theme, with the good yokai living in the natural world and the bad guys clearly more industrially influenced. Most notably, the giant kaiju-like yokai that provides Katō his base has some sort of factory or city growing out of his back. The way the different factions are created mirrors this idea too, with the good yokai generally done physically with actors in make-up, puppets or animatronics, whereas the evil robot creatures are CGI.
Like in the old movies, the good yokai can look a bit daft, but I’m pleased Miike stuck to his guns in conceiving them practically as it gives the creatures a tactile, friendly look, akin to some of Jim Henson’s creations. In contrast, the CGI in the film looks rather dated. I liked the design of the robot villains and the way they move in awkward fashions, due to their rusted forms, is nicely done, but they, and some of the other CGI elements, aren’t brilliantly integrated into the world, sticking out like a sore thumb in places.
Overall though, it’s an unusual yet epic adventure that reminded me of the wackier blockbusters from my youth in the 80s, but with a Japanese twist. Had I not seen the other films in the set before this or watched the primer documentary on disc 1, I probably wouldn’t have made much sense of the film but, as I did, I knew what I was in for and enjoyed it quite a lot.
Yokai Monsters Collection will be released on 18th October in a Limited Edition 3-disc Blu-ray set from Arrow Video. The transfers are all decent, though some are better than others. Spook Warfare and The Great Yokai War look fantastic, with a sharp print, little to no damage and pleasing colours, as well as robust soundtracks. 100 Monsters is not far off these but does display a few faint flecks and lines here and there, and there was a slight crackle on the soundtrack. Along With Ghosts has the weakest of the transfers. Colour and sound are fine but the grain is a bit harsh and there are more flecks and dirt on the print than on the other films. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review, to give you an idea of appearance, though the films look better in motion.
LIMITED EDITION BOXSET CONTENTS
– High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentations of all four films
– Optional English subtitles on all four films
– Illustrated 60-page collectors’ book featuring new writing on the series by Stuart Galbraith IV, Raffael Coronelli and Jolyon Yates
– Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jolyon Yates
– Postcards featuring newly commissioned artwork for each film by Jolyon Yates
– Foldout ‘yokai guide’ poster illustrated by Jolyon Yates
DISC ONE – 100 MONSTERS
– Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio
– Hiding in Plain Sight, a brand new documentary giving a primer on yokai for Western audiences, featuring interviews with experts Matt Alt, Zack Davisson, Kim Newman, Lynda E. Rucker and Hiroko Yoda
– Theatrical trailer
– US re-release trailer
– Image gallery
DISC TWO – SPOOK WARFARE / ALONG WITH GHOSTS
– Brand new 4K restoration of Spook Warfare by Kadokawa Pictures
– Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio for both films
– Theatrical trailers for both films – US re-release trailers for both films
– Image galleries for both films
DISC THREE – THE GREAT YOKAI WAR
– DTS-HD MA 5.1 original Japanese and dubbed English audio
– Brand new audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes
– Archive interviews with the cast and crew, including Takashi Miike
– Short Drama of Yokai, two shorts detailing the further adventures of the yokai
– Another Story of Kawataro, two shorts featuring the continuing story of the kappa character in the film
– World Yokai Conference, a publicity event where Miike speaks about the film
– Promotional Events, video of the press conference to announce the start and completion of filming, as well as the premiere in Tokyo
– Documentary on the film’s young star, Ryunosuki Kamiki, and his experience making the film
– Theatrical trailer
– Image gallery
Disappointingly, there’s not a lot of material on the first two discs, in relation to the 60’s Yokai films, but the ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ documentary is required viewing for anyone picking up the set. There are clips from all the films and a little discussion of what happens in them, so you might want to wait until you’ve seen the films. However, it does a great job of explaining what yokai are and their history in Japanese culture, so, if you can turn away when you think spoilers are being given, it might still be worth a watch before the films, to better understand where they’re coming from.
The Great Yokai War disc is another matter entirely though, being crammed with extras. First up is a commentary by Tom Mes, which is very good. On his exceptionally well-researched track, he discusses the history of the yokai monsters as well as the work of those involved in the film.
The two short yokai films are pretty shoddy, to be honest, made on a shoestring with weak comedy. Maybe something was lost in translation but I found little to enjoy.
The two Kawataro shorts are more successful, offering a couple of amusing side stories about the kappa character.
I enjoyed the piece on the young lead actor’s time on the shoot too. It shows a lot of behind the scenes footage and makes you appreciate the hard work he put in at such a young age.
The World Yokai Conference looks like an unusual feature on paper, but it’s really just an interview with several of the people behind the film, including Miike and Shigeru Mizuki, so is a welcome inclusion.
There’s a veritable mountain of archival material on top of this, including interviews with a great range of cast and crew members, so pretty much all bases are covered. These interviews are all quite short, but there are so many of them there’s a very healthy amount of material overall. Some of these are quite amusing too. In particular, Miike has a dry sense of humour so he’s always fun when he crops up.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.
All in all then, though there could have been more material dedicated to the earlier films, what is included is very good and Miike’s more recent film gets the deluxe treatment, meaning the set comes out trumps in the end.