Great Yokai War – Youkai Dai Sensou (Miike Takashi 2005)

Genre: Traditional Monster Explosion

review in one breath

After being singled out at a local Shinto festival, Young Tadashi finds himself in the middle of an epic battle between traditional youkai and the forces of Evil. This is a rather amazing tale utilizing nearly every traditional youkai known. Directed by Miike Takashi and tapping Mizuki Shigeru for creative design, this is a veritable smorgasbord of fun and nostalgia.


WOW. I’d say the gang’s all here, and then some.

This film is a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Kadokawa Pictures, and as such, is a high budget, family-friendly blast to the past. It also serves as a tribute to Mizuki Shigeru whose youkai-centric drawings have inspired the imaginations of the previous two generations. Mizuki, who turns 84 this year, was invited to head the Creative Productions team for this film and clearly had a major role in terms of the many historically accurate creatures appearing herein. He also makes a cameo appearance at the end of the film as “Lord of the Youkai”, perhaps a very fitting role indeed.

I have read (more than my fair share) of reveiws of this very film and they all, in one accord, attempt to describe this as a “Miike film”, comparing it to his many prior and notorious films.

But this film actually has very little to do with Miike or his directorial style and direction, in the same way that Godzilla Final Wars, the 40th anniversary tribute to Godzilla, cannot really be used to determine the directorial direction or leanings of the similarly unique Kitamura Ryuhei. Instead, what both these films have in common is that the honor of directing a film retelling a culturally beloved story has been given to a director whose films were originally well outside the mainstream.

[Just take a moment, breathe deeply, and contemplate the fact that Miike Takashi was asked to direct this ultimately important anniversary tribute to a major film production studio (whose longeveity is thrice that of Miike’s films).]

A “Great Youkai War” has been a common theme amongst Japanese audiences during the past five decades. First (on SaruDama radar) there was Mizuki Shigeru’s manga series Ge ge ge Kitaro. (Kitaro is a young boy, raised by youkai, and through their benevolent influence comes to learn significant humanitarian lessons.) Then in 1968 a live-action theatrical version was released, directed by Kuroda Yoshiyuki and here, in many ways, Miike’s version is best understood as a technologically and creatively advanced remake of Kuroda’s initial attempt. Finally in 1986 there was an anime version of Mizuki’s “Ge ge ge Kitaro Great Youkai War” by director Kasai Osamu.

Thus Miike is here traversing very familiar territory of which every viewing Japanese will undoubtedly be looking for the nostalgia of old. And here it should be pointed out that this is not intended to be a “kids” film (in the same way Kitamura’s Godzilla film was not). The target audience here is clearly middle-aged adults who through this film will undoubtedly tap into nostaligic moments. And for this reason alone, Kadokawa’s decision to choose such a film for its 60th anniversary tribute makes a whole lotta sense.

we interrupt the regularly scheduled program...

Rather than my normal review format, I think I’ll do something different here. I’d rather talk about particular aspects of this film and then look at some of the characters. (Hope that’s okay with you.)

First off, this is indeed a war between Youkai, “good” on the one side, with evil on the other. Let’s talk about the EVIL first (BUWAHAHAHA). The main bad guy is Kato Yasunori who in this film is simultaneously infamous and yet utterly undefined. By that I mean, everyone shudders at his name, but the audience is not given any history as to why. But astute observers (or those with WAY too much time of their hands) may recall that Kato Yasunori is the formidable villian of Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (Teito monogatari). In that manga world (which similarly evolved to an anime series and then a live-action theatrical release), the character of Kato is thoroughly defined, a definition which Miike’s film wholly assumes that the audience is familiar with.

What’s so special about Kato that would necessitate his appearance here? Very good question, with an interesting answer. The Kato character is always depicted as a power-hungry man discontent with the potential of traditional Japanese spirituality and thus turning toward any and all foreign demonic or divine power he can lay hands on. For this reason, he is considerd a majin whose “magic” is something outside the sphere of traditional Japanese sensibilities. Here, to emphasize his reliance upon non-traditional resources, Kato (magically) wields a vast mechanical island fueled by the most horrendous technologies developed by humankind. One primary function of his technology is to harness the darkest wraths of Hell in order to transform traditional youkai (victims) into mechanized killing machines.

And on the topic of mechanized youkai, I just finished a review of the new CG-anime Karas (whose release date was slightly prior to this film) which also entailed a war between good and bad youkai. Of interest is the fact that in Karas, evil youkai intent on manifesting themselves in the human realm requited formidable mechanized bodies. Though these two films’ underlying philosophies are radically different, this particular similarity really stands out.

In my review of Karas I made the (incredibly insightful !) comment regarding the difference between “youkai” and “o-bake-mono”. However I was a little surprised to hear the characters in this film make this same explicit distinction between themselves and the mechanized hybrids produced by Kato.

What does it all mean? YOU TELL ME!

Okay, let’s talk about youkai shall we?

I’ve decided I won’t go into plot details or even provide you with screenshots. (I’ll recommend Alex Apple‘s review for those — though beware his Miike-centric cynicism.) Instead, I’d rather explore some of the youkai you will see herein.

The degree to which this film is dedicated to artist Mizuki Shigeru perhaps defies explanation. Besides his active involvement in the film’s production and his cameo appearance, the film itself is actually shot in Mizuki’s hometown of Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture. In Sakaiminato, there is in his honor a “Mizuki Street” lined with bronze statuettes of the characters from Ge ge ge Kitaro (which you will see in this film). It is also the home of the “Mizuki Shigeru Memorial Hall” (kinenkan), the interior and exhibits of which also appear in this film.

Perhaps most importantly, narrative-wise, is that this film’s entire storyline revolves around a local Shinto festival dedicated to the Kirin, and wouldn’t you know, Mizuki’s own childhood memories are filled with visions of Sakaiminato’s primary local festival, dedicated to the Kirin. Long story short, the Kirin is a mythical (Chinese) creature whose appearance is said to portend the coming of a great sage. Thus the festival involves a decorative horned beast which, during the course of its annual procession, selects its “sage” with a gentle bite on the head. Here, young Tadashi is bitten on the head, but for him this quaint tradition takes on epic proportions.

This film has plenty of humor, most of which consists of “inside jokes”. Thus note which brand of beer suddenly falls into the hands of our overly gleeful, youkai-loving reporter. You guessed it… Kirin Beer. 😀

If you are familiar with Mizuki’s work, you’ll recall that he diligently records the particular region and era of any given youkai’s origin. This aspect of Mizuki’s detail actually is given homage in this film during the “ancient map” scene wherein news of an enormous gathering of youkai spreads throughout the nation. As each region of the map is highlighted, that particular region’s unique youkai are depicted. This degree of detail is simply evidence of Mizuki’s design.

Okay. (FINALLY!!) The following drawings are by Mizuki Shigeru penned years if not decades prior to this film. After you watch this film, contemplate whether or not you recognize any of the following characters (all of which do appear prominently therein).

[My apologies, but due to consideration of time (and my sanity) I will simply post raw scans rather than their polished/editied versions.]

Cultural Interest

This “Great Yokai War” remake focuses wholly upon Mizuki Shigeru.

Amazing brutality to a cuddly stuffed ferret.
Boyhood fantasies go through the roof via the unforgettable touch of Kawahime’s inner thigh. (And you KNOW what I’m talking about!)
With director Miike at the helm, here’s where we give Mizuki Shigeru his long deserved dues, thankfully while he’s still alive and vibrantly so at the age of 83.