My first exposure to Takashi Miike began less than twenty years ago, eyeing Suncoast’s DVD kiosks where I would nab copies of some of their Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock titles. His range of directing proved to me to be as unique as it is versatile, exuding a style that rightfully stirred the pot at times and peppered it beautifully at others.
2005’s The Great Yokai War certainly fit the bill, catapulting viewers into a world where Jim Henson meets Japanese folklore, steampunk and mysticism. I’m not at all sure when Miike decided to make a sequel, though I have to say that last year’s breaking news about the film’s pending release was exciting, particularly since I hadn’t seen the first film until recently.
Returning to the genre brings viewers back into the hidden world of the yokai where young Kei (Kokoro Terada) finds himself thrust into an adventure of supernatural creatures and spirits, dark horrors, and self-discovery after a dare by his peers leads him to a tray of underground fortune scrolls from which he pulls one covered completely in red.
One evening when his mom is working the graveyard shift as a nurse, Kei is awoken by a yokai and transported almost instantly to a lair where other yokai gather to inform Kei of his predestined fate to save Japan from a Yokaiju, a massive, resentful creature comprised of the bones of fossilized creatures once trapped in the Fossa Magna. Little does he know that his callow younger brother, Dai (Rei Inomata), ends up wandering into the yokai underworld, forcing Kei to confront his own fears and save Dai’s life, all while embracing his own destiny as the decesendant of a legendary samurai in order to stave off Japan’s annihilation.
My biggest concern was not having seen the first film beforehand, and thankfully, that’s no issue here. The only important continuance of characters in The Great Yokai War: Guardians are some of the yokai seen in the first film; There’s a mix of returning and new characters this time around, namely including live-action Bleach actress Hana Sugisaki as the Fox-Faced Woman, who stalks and guides Kei on the path toward true courage.
Other principles include actor Nao Omori, sitting in for Kiyoshiro Imawano as Yokai general Nurarihyon, actresses Sakura Ando as Ubume, and Yuko Oshima as Yukionna. Eiji Akaso comes in the second act as Amanojaku, a creature with a penchant for talking and acting the opposite of things – in Miike’s incarnation, the Amanojaku is fixated on a flip phone, though we never know if he’s talking to anyone.
Actor Takao Osawa stars as Inugami Gyobu, a mythological raccoon dog with an army of hundreds who is bent on helping pave the way for the yokaiju to make its way out to sea where it wants to be, regardless of the protective barrier that will leave Japan vulnerable to a looming, destructive force once its destroyed. Oddly enough, he’s the center of Yukionna’s affection because of his cold hard, barring the heat of his fiery motorcycle when he rides into town with his army of tanukis in toe.
The development surrounding Kei as he fights to search for his brother gets more interesting well into the second act. His is a plot point that involves him awakening a certain power that ultimately turns him into a superhuman samurai warrior, and I couldn’t help but resolve this in my mind, as a more fitting story attribute than it was in a certain recent tournament fighting film inspired by a video game. Mind you, the action doesn’t bare a full show since this isn’t that kind of movie, there’s ample thrill in watching Kei do battle with Tengu (Takahiro Miura), and his squad of horrors doing Gyobu’s bidding.
There are moments in this film that will light you up completely, as expected of any kids’ adventure epic, with both excitement and tearjerker poignance. The crux lies in the film’s messaging where the struggle lies not so much in fighting a monster, but tackling our penchants with kindness as a true strength. Keep in mind the shot near the beginning of the film where Kei tries and fails to open a can of jam with his hands and the final act will feel a lot more rewarding.
Preferences on pacing and the usual opinions on wonky CG aside, it’s a lot less visually flawed than the 2005 film. Costume design resumes its aesthetic in fitting fashion with some sleeker improvements on the hit-or-miss visual effects, and Miike never runs out of ways to implement the intended comedy and gags that are usually abound in this kind of affair.
The Great Yokai War: Guardians never wanes away from its main m.o., and its methodology in delivering a story with the kind of idealistic and positive fervor that could age well depending on how we choose to make this world ourselves in the years to come. And it works, especially with a towering, reanimated and uber-pissed Damaijin involved.
The Great Yokai War: Guardians, is screening for the 2021 hybrid installment of Japan Cuts which runs from August 20 through September 2.