The Great Yokai War (Takashi Miike, 2005)
Japanese Title: Yôkai daisensô
The plot of Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War is generic: scrawny and frequently bullied little boy finds the courage to battle it out with an apocalyptic force thus saving the world. The little boy is Tadashi (girly boy Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Tokyo-bred kid who is spirited away to his mom's provincial village after his parents' divorce. In one village festival, he gets chosen to be the kirin rider, supposedly the nominal keeper of the peace. The apocalyptic force is Kato (Etsushi Tokokawa) and his dastardly plan is to merge the discarded junk of the city (these metallic trash is said to have a negative energy supposedly out of being thrown away and forgotten) with the so-called yokai or traditional spirits, creating metal monsters that would wreak havoc wherever they go.
Miike obviously has a bigger budget (not nearly as big as the normal budget of a Hollywood flick, though) than usual to play with as The Great Yokai War is mostly a string of spectacles tied together by a flimsy and random plot. The problem is that the film is seldom spectacular. The metal monsters are obviously CGI creations; the yokai are a mixture of puppets, animatronics, or actors in heavy make-up and prosthetics. The computer generated effects aren't very impressive. The puppetry and the make-up, on the other hand, are quite charming in all their cheesy glory. The turtle-like yokai, for example, wears a green-hued rubber suit. His face is made up to include the beak-like choppers of a tortoise, and his extremities bear similar modifications. The rest of the yokai are all delightful creations including a one-eyed, one-legged umbrella, a walking wall, a long-necked woman, and several others. Visually, it's a mixed bag; the CGI doesn't merge well with the prosthetics and the puppetry. Oftentimes, you'd wish Miike had just stuck with traditional effects, had trusted his zany sensibilities, and had given us something that doesn't look half-baked as this.
The themes are unsubtly laid down. It's basically a tale of good versus evil. The good guys are the traditional spirits led to defend their existence by the unlikely hero who is himself a victim of divorce and bullying. The bad guys are the mechanical hybrids, produced from smoke belching factories using depletable resources: yokai tortured and collected by Kato's henchmachines and one yokai desperately in love with the evil mastermind named Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame). Modernity and the unnecessary wastage that it produces are the causes of the impending apocalypse; they are the underlying evils that we are warned against as opposed to the giddy and often amusing antics of the yokai (who are too busy partying to actually wage a war against impending doom). There's also an anti-war message in the end from what seems to be a yokai leader, uncomfortably as an afterthought.
Hayao Miyazaki is a clear inspiration with his works that appropriate the same theme and style (like Nausicaa and the Valley of the Winds (1984), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2005)). In one scene, Tadashi rides a mysterious bus (reminiscent of Mei and Satsuki's ride on the Cat Bus in My Neighbor Totoro (1988)) where after breezing through a tunnel (brings to mind Chihiro's entry to the spirit world in Spirited Away), the yokai (mostly the creepy-looking ones) start appearing outside the bus windows. Unlike the famous Japanese animator however, you don't feel any real passion or sincerity. Miike is after all a mere hired gun (reminiscent although in this case, he surprisingly shares screenwriter credits), a director with enough international reputation and a bit of talent to bring about a picture bizarre enough to arouse interests worldwide (especially to the many Miike fans) and still be commercially viable domestically (mostly to the children and those who made Miyazaki's Spirited Away a box office hit).
What he lacks in passion and sincerity, he makes up with irreverence, half-hearted and careful though. There are scenes that border being sexually provocative like when the river nymph rescues Tadashi from drowning, we are given a close-up of the kid's hand subtly caressing the nymph's thigh, or when Agi suddenly removes her top (and this is promoted as a children's film), or when Tadashi starts wearing his armor in a bizarre montage (a startling butt crack makes an appearance, totally unwarranted). Miike is quite good when he puts his heart in his work (like in Audition (1999), the film that established Miike as a relentless director of torture porn, or Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006), a homoerotic and far more successful reworking of Lars von Trier's production experiment in Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005)). Sadly, Miike dons mercenary clothes with The Great Yokai War, and the result is far less fruitful than it aims to be.