THE GREAT YOKAI WARNR
Yokai are a class of supernatural spirits within the larger category of obake, or Japanese folkloric creatures. They can be monstrously grotesque, cute like Pikachu, regal like Noh theatre gods, or, in one case, like a refugee from Cats. They're as popular in Japanese fiction as ghosts and ghoulies are in English-language tales-you've seen a few in Spirited Away and other Hayao Miyazaki animated films-and this 2005 effort from J-horror director Takashi Miike remakes a 1968 movie that was part of a whole yokai series. American distributor Tokyo Shock, which opened this subtitled feature in New York City before taking it on the road, is likely thinking that kids weaned on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers might get a kick out of going the next step. But, as they used to say in kids' screen fiction of an earlier day: Watch out, that first step's a lulu.
Ten-year-old Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a fey little boy who looks oddly like a child version of Julia Roberts, has moved with his recently divorced mom from Tokyo to a seaside village. His grandfather (Bunta Sugawara) is growing senile, his big sister still lives in the city with their dad, and the kids at school bully him. At a local festival, however, the costumed paraders pick Tadashi as the traditional "kirin rider." This has nothing to do with Kirin beer, which does appear later in the film, but with the mythical horse-dragon beast of Japanese lore. Addled Grandpa tells Tadashi that the kirin rider must climb up the nearby mountain to unsheathe a mystical sword held by the Great Goblin-no relation, we trust, to the Great Pumpkin-and bring peace to the world.
Tadashi's first attempt up the trail nets him a furry little friend in Sunekosouri, a living hamster plush-toy. Oh, all right, he's actually a "shin-rubbing yokai." That any better? Non-speaking but expressively cooing, like Gizmo in Gremlins, Sunekosouri sits atop Tadashi's head on a second trip, in which the kid-who spends a tedious amount of the movie simply screaming-meets humanoid yokai allies Shojo, the Kirin Herald (Masaomi Kondô); Kawahime, the River Princess (Mai Takahashi); and Kawataro, the River Sprite (Sadao Abe). Together they confront Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama), a beehive-blonde babe in a micro-minidress and go-go boots, and the dark-suited Lord Tasunori Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa).
The special effects in The Great Yokai War aren't very special, even given the film's modest budget; there's really no reason the cave scenes should look so matte-y. But the stop-motion, bio-organic beasties are cool-steam-punk Transformers, Harryhausen by way of Dickens-and it's certainly, well, interesting in a children's movie to have adult characters smoke, drink beer, or, in one oddly unexplained moment, to have Agi pull off her top to flash her breasts (completely chastely, below the bottom of the screen). At just over two slow-moving hours, this picture might well outlast the narrow audience at which it's aimed-very young kids who can read subtitles quickly. One thing's for sure-they'll never have seen anything like it.