Monday 12 May 2014

Nippon Horrors:
The Great Yokai War /
‘Spook Warfare’

(Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968)

It would be interesting, I think, to know precisely when Japan’s legion of Yokai Monsters ceased to be a genuinely frightening presence in the nation’s mythology – boogeyman-esque nasties conjured up by parents to keep their children in line, or to put the wind up them on cold nights sitting around the kotatsu heater – and began to take on the slightly more… whimsical aspect generally assigned to them in post-war popular culture.

A definite turning point in this regard would seem to be emergence of legendary manga artist Shigeru Mizuki in the early 1960s, and in particular, the phenomenal popularity of his character Kitaro. A shaggy-haired, one-eyed ‘monster boy’ whose independently mobile second eye is, rather bizarrely, inhabited by the spirit of his late father, Kitaro represents an ambivalent but generally benevolent supernatural presence – a friend of the Yokai who often acts as a kind of intermediary between humanity and the monsters, using his powers either to punish human greed and egotism, or, more frequently, to combat more malevolent ‘outsider’ monsters who are feeding off the defenceless humans on his patch.

Earlier in his career, Mizuki had been advised by his editors that his interest in folkloric monsters was too ‘dark’ to be incorporated into a mainstream comic strip, and perhaps this is the reason why, with Kitaro, the artist took a more light-hearted approach to the material, tempering the macabre weirdness of his often extraordinary imaginings with a tone of gentle black humour, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Addams Family’, presenting Kitaro’s Yokai pals as goofy, somewhat likeable creatures, and making sure that their adventures were always neatly wrapped up with minimal harm done to innocent human by-standers.

As such, there is always a certain conflict between humour and genuine nastiness running through Mizuki’s work, but regardless, he apparently worked this balance well enough to make ‘Kitaro’ a massive hit, pretty much single-handedly reigniting public interest in the culture surrounding the Yokai, and defining their subsequent presentation to such a degree that many Japanese still have trouble differentiating monsters with roots in folklore from those which Mizuki invented from scratch.

With the popularity of Mizuki’s Yokai tales increasing through the 1960s, happily coinciding with the post-Godzilla/Ultraman boom in Japanese monster action, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the spooks got their shot at live action, big screen glory, and thus we come to Daiei’s 1968 production ‘The Great Yokai War’ (released in the USA under the wonderful title ‘Spook Warfare’). Whilst the film is in no way a direct adaptation of Mizuki’s manga, the spirit of his work is very much in evidence in Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s extremely strange motion picture.

For foreign viewers coming to it cold, I can only imagine that ‘The Great Yokai War’ must seem like a colossal WTF from start to finish, and even to those familiar with the ways of the Yokai, it proves a pretty peculiar business. For one thing, you certainly know you’re in for something a bit different when a Japanese movie – a product of surely one of the most inward-looking and culturally specific film industries in the world - opens with a prologue set amid the ruins of ancient Babylon, where a pair of Islamic-looking treasure-hunters are busy defiling the sanctity of some sand-blasted tomb or other.

In doing so, a solemn voiceover informs us, they are about to unleash the spirit of the all-powerful demon who was single-handedly responsible for the downfall of Babylonian civilisation. And indeed, the voiceover doesn’t lie. Lightning blasts! Earthquake! Whirlwind! And as our unfortunate nomads are buried beneath falling debris, a singularly gnarly, winged reptilian man-in-suit monster takes flight! Good grief.

Next, we cut to a narratively pointless but absolutely delightful Ray Harryhausen-esque sequence in which the winged demon descends upon a sailing ship making its way across a storm-tossed sea – a mixture of nautical model shots, back-projected monster-suit action and screaming, piratical crew member close-ups that serves both to demonstrate the kind of ambition this film intends to throw into its special effects, and also to bring a tear of joy to the eye of anyone with even the slightest love of ‘60s monster movies.

We are never given any explanation as to why this being of pure evil should head straight for Japan after being awakened in the middle of the Mesopotamian desert, but nonetheless, that is what he does, hitting shore in a remote coastal district where a respected local magistrate and his daughter are enjoying a quiet fishing trip. (Oh, and this all takes place during the Edo period by the way, so it’s top-knots and kimonos all round - you’d have to wait for Takashi Miike’s 2005 remake of this film to see your favourite Yokai running amok in contemporary Tokyo.)

The demon’s primary MO is soon revealed to be a kind of vampiric body snatching / mind control type operation, as he corners the magistrate in a spooky, cobweb-enshrouded rural shack, disarming him using a mixture of smoke, lightning and magical laser blasts, and bloodily consumes his soul, taking on his likeness and setting out to further extend his hidden influence within the man’s household. Not that our Babylonian antagonist really does a great deal to hide his presence, as the previously mild-mannered patriarch returns home and immediately begins yelling unreasonable commands at his family and servants, slaying the pet dog and violently smashing and burning the assorted shrines and religious icons dotted around his homestead.

Watching the ensuing chaos from a pond in the house’s courtyard is a curious Kappa – one of Japan’s reptilian river monsters, here represented as a kind of lovable, proto-Howard the Duck sort of fellow. As a supernatural creature, the Kappa is able to see the demon in his ‘real’ form, and, suitably startled, bravely sets out to take this scary intruder down with some Kappa kung-fu, getting his ass kicked in short order.

Tail between his legs, the Kappa retreats to an eerie, abandoned cemetery - a wonderful set, looking like it could have been taken straight from one of Mizuki’s drawings, with cluttered, ruinous mise en scene, overgrown weeds and voluminous quantities of gel-lit, multi-coloured Yokai Smoke - and reports his experiences to the local assembly of Yokai.

Everybody’s favourites are represented here, from the stretchy-necked woman Rockuro-kubi to the weird, one-eyed bouncing umbrella creature Karakasa-kozō, and Futa-kuchi-onna, the self-explanatory ‘two-mouthed woman’. Their leader and spokesman is the big-headed, staff-wielding Abura-sumashi, his oversized cranium presumably acting as movie code for “big brains”.(1)

Whilst the Yokai are largely ambivalent about the fate of the local human populace, they are a pretty patriotic bunch it seems, and on hearing the Kappa’s tale, they express concern that the preeminent reputation of Japanese spooks will be tarnished if they let this foreign interloper rampage around unchecked, taking over people’s minds and tearing down the sacred symbols of national tradition. (Do you detect a metaphor in there somewhere, readers? If so, I’m just going to whistle and look the other way.)

So, reccy missions to the magistrate’s house are attempted and plans are hatched, whilst, inevitably, a parallel ‘human’ storyline also emerges, wherein the noble fiancée of the magistrate’s daughter figures out that there is some demonic business going on and sets out to consult his uncle, a venerable Buddhist monk of an evil-fighting persuasion, leading to a couple of rather intense sequences of Asian-style folk magic business that play out like a far less icky version of one of those ‘Black Magic’ type Shaw Bros horror movies.

As neither human nor supernatural counter-attacks appear to have much of an immediate impact on the growing power of the Babylonian interloper though, the Yokai start to put the word out to their brother and sister spooks around the country, gradually assembling a full scale spectral army, as preparations for the Great War of the title start to get underway, building up to one whopper of a mind-bending, monster-bashing climax.

Director Yoshiyuki Kuroda didn’t have a great deal of directorial experience when he went to work on this film, and prior to this assignment I think he was primarily known as an effects guy – a background which certainly makes sense when viewing ‘The Great Yokai War’, in which a rather uncertain tone and underdeveloped narrative is livened up through the application of great art direction and lashings and lashings of outlandish special effects.(2)

In writing about films like this one, I always feel the need to preemptively defend their visual effects against hordes of hypothetical naysayers, pointing out that, sure, ‘The Great Yokai War’s creature designs are neither high-tech nor very convincing… but if you’re watching a movie as crazy as this and expect it to be ‘convincing’, then god knows, I can’t help you. What the effects ARE here is simple, imaginative, a lot of fun to look at and basically just really weird-looking, which I think is basically all you can ask of a barmy ‘60s monster movie.

Although I casually mentioned Harryhausen earlier in this review, that comparison is of course highly misleading. In keeping with the majority of Japanese fantasy cinema from the ‘60s, stop-motion and other ‘in-camera’ means of realising monsters are almost entirely avoided here, with all of the creatures instead created ‘live-on-stage’ style, with full-head masks, life-size suits and the like predominating. As such, it’s clear that Yuroda’s budget and expertise in no way allowed him to replicate the kind of rubbery fantasias exploited by Toho and Tsuburaya in the same period, but watching this film’s crew strive to create extraordinary results from their obviously limited means certainly makes for an enjoyable and – there’s that word again - delightful experience.

Several of the most prominent characters for instance are lumbered with fixed-expression head masks that allow for little facial movement, which immediately gives a bit of a goofy, childish feel to proceedings, but if you honestly find yourself taking offence at the Kappa’s boggle-eyes or the Babylonian demon’s leery fixed-grin, you have a harder heart than I, especially given the kind of exuberant physical acting that both performers employ to make up for such shortcomings.

Beyond his high-school-art-class level mask, the Kappa is basically just a guy in green body-paint and what looks like a few bits of an old ‘jungle lad’/barbarian outfit, but it is the actor’s spirited and strangely elegant capering that really sells the character. A similar approach is taken with Abura-Sumashi, who is presumably just played by a child wearing a giant papier-mâché head, but again, the results are so pleasing that you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with such an arrangement.

Daimon – as the Babylonian demon is referred to in the subtitles and cast list – also has a *very* cool costume, immobile head aside, looking not dissimilar to the kind of creature that might have turned up in one of Daiei’s ‘Diamajin’ films (see footnote 2). Scaly and bony with a thick carapace, curly back-spikes, a belt of skulls and, strangely, feathered wings, he certainly makes for a formidable and scary bad guy.

The Karakasa-kozō meanwhile is represented by a life-size puppet bouncing around on strings – an utterly bizarre addition to any film – whilst Rockru-kubi’s stretchy necked attack is realised by means of a wild assemblage of flailing, flesh-coloured hosepipe, and the use of a lot of conveniently placed foreground objects for the actress to poke her head around. Nonetheless, she is a wonderfully sinister presence, and her one-on-one fight with Daimon is definitely one the film’s highlights, perhaps the overall peak of its “I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” awesomeness.

Well, prior to the conclusion, anyway. Here, as Daimon splits himself into a number of clones then grows to full scale kaiju proportions, the Yokai army close in to attack him, and the filmmakers decide to make best possible use of their twenty or so functional monster suits through extensive application of super-imposition, building up layer upon layer of shiny, transparent Yokai legions by the simple means of slapping loads of different shots on top of each other, to sublimely freakish, psychedelic effect. This ‘March of the Yokai’, shot in slow motion, with the spectral hordes traversing rivers, clouds and mountains, and their ensuing epic battle with Daimon, is one of the most extensive spectacles of mindbending fantastic cinema I’ve seen for many a month. (And as an aside, I like how many of the Yokai seem to tie handkerchiefs around their heads when they go to ‘war’, making them look a bit like desperate, battled-scarred fighters from a Kurosawa movie or something.)

As you may have gathered from some of the descriptions above, ‘The Great Yokai War’ features comical character designs and gentle slapstick humour that could have come straight from kid’s adventure movie, but frequently mixes them up with moments of unnervingly gruesome horror, leading to a tonal discrepancy that is never quite resolved. In addition to the demon’s gory neck-chomping antics and a few other bloody, gaping wounds, the atmosphere of the film is persistently ominous, and Shigeru Ikeno’s dissonant, Ifukube-esque music is often terrifying.

One sequence in particular, in which a pair of young children are forced to flee their home and take refuge in the ghost-infested cemetery as their parents are slaughtered by demon-possessed samurai, seems purpose-built to send unsuspecting little ones straight into a screaming vortex of no-sleep-for-a-month trauma, but apparently none of this stopped ‘The Great Yokai War’ from finding a home as a frequent holiday TV fixture in Japan, so who knows, maybe kids in the Far East are just made of sterner stuff?

With this mixture of kiddie-friendly creatures and genuine threat, ‘The Great Yokai War’ could perhaps be seen as a precursor to something like Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’. But whereas that film managed to merge the two impulses very smoothly, Kuroda is less successful, with the resulting stylistic confusion perhaps serving to make things a bit too weird and alienating for casual viewers. Whilst the appearance of the Yokai is clearly quite cutesy, with the exception of the Kappa they are never really anthromorphised very much, nor allowed to develop their own personalities. And whilst their refusal to really give much of a fuck about the fate of the humans in the film is pretty refreshing for those of us with an ingrained hatred of Disney/Hollywood schmaltz, the spooks’ failure to become “relatable” also leads to something of a character-vacuum at the centre of the movie, especially given the rather dry and unengaging nature of the accompanying human drama.

Really though, such confusion is probably to be expected when you realise that Kuroda and his collaborators were basically going way off the map here, with no established set of genre conventions to guide them: in addition to horror and kid’s fantasy, there’s a hefty dose of kaiju eiga DNA in the mix, to say nothing of some distant hints at kaidan ghost stories, and even a fair amount of chambara-style period drama. With all these generic tropes flying around but never quite coalescing into a coherent whole, it is probably best to view ‘The Great Yokai War’ as a complete one-off, and one whose drawbacks are very much the result of its untested and somewhat unique style.

And, more importantly of course, those drawbacks never even come close to outweighing the sheer pleasure that the film’s wildly ambitious visuals, macabre atmosphere and unhinged creature designs have to offer to anyone with a fondness for unusual international fantasy cinema. In fact, if your tastes veer more toward the exceptionally weird, lower budget and culturally specific end of the scale, you can peg this one up as a ‘must see’ for sure... but then if you've read this far, you probably don't need me to tell you that.

As with just about every character or concept that emerged from Japanese popular cinema during the ‘60s, it seems that one film just wasn’t enough for Daiei’s Yokai, and they soon returned for ‘One Hundred Yokai Stories’ (1968) and ‘Journey with Ghosts Along Tokaido Road’ (1969). I’d imagine my quest to find both of those in watchable, sub-titled form might be worthy of a series of films in its own right, but nonetheless, I hope I’ll be able to share my thoughts on them with you sooner or later.

For now though, let's all wave goodbye to these spectral defenders of Japan's supernatural sovereignty, as they dance eerily back across the misty mountains. They may be apt to scare the shit out of us in nocturnal graveyards from time to time, but they're a good bunch really... well, provided you've got your visa papers in order and aren't planning to eat anyone or make with the mind control, at least.


(1)Many thanks to the indispensable for helping me get all those names straight – a wonderful resource, and a great way to waste a few idle hours at work.

(2) Kuroda’s main claim to fame prior to this film was as effects supervisor on Daiei’s series of ‘Daimajin’ movies, of which three were made in 1966. A similarly off-beat kind of period kaiju / Shinto mythological(?) type creation that perhaps represents the nearest relative to what we see in ‘The Great Yokai War’ and its sequels, you can learn more about ‘Daimajin’ via this informative post at Cool Ass Cinema.


Bollops said...

Man alive, this looks bloody brilliant! Thanks for posting it, Ben. Shame it's not on UK-friendly DVD - I'll check it out on YouTube.

Ben said...

Thanks Pete! Yes, I'm sure you'd enjoy this one.

There is an out-of-print American DVD release under the name "Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare", which I managed to pick up for a reasonable sum via ebay...

vwstieber said...

Tokyo Shock aka Media Blasters released all 3 films, as well as the Takashi Miike GREAT YOKAI WAR. I can recommend all 3 whole-heartedly!

Ben said...

Thanks Volker! I didn't know they'd done the 2nd and 3rd films too... will have to look out for them on ebay etc.