What happens when director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) tackles a children's fantasy film? Unfortunately, the end result is not as awesome as one might expect. The Great Yokai War is a reinterpretation of the Japanese monster classic Spook Warfare (1968) and, like its predecessor, features a host of creepy, and sometimes just plain goofy (I'm looking at you, umbrella monster), creatures from Japanese folklore. Ryunosuke Kamiki stars as the young hero Tadashi who squares off against the evil Lord Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) and his twisted, but incredibly hot, henchwoman Agi, played by Chiaki Kuriyama (EXTE, Kill Bill: Vol. 1).
Tadashi, the son of recent divorcées, moves from Tokyo to a seaside village to live with his mother and grandfather. In typical children's fantasy fashion, Tadashi lacks confidence. He finds it difficult to adapt to his new life and his heavy-drinking mother and dementia-suffering grandfather don't make it any easier. Everything changes when Tadashi is chosen by the Yokai to be the Kirin Rider, protector of all things good, at a local festival. He discovers that, as the Kirin Rider, he is destined to obtain the magic sword, Daitenguken, from the Great Tengu and protect the Yokai from the advances of Lord Kato and Agi.
Meanwhile, we discover that Lord Kato has summoned Yomotsumono, a massive factory-like Yokai born from all the things that humans throw away. Lord Kato and Agi have also imprisoned several Yokai, including Tadashi's friend Sunekosuri, a cute hamster-like thing with a penchant for humping shins, and developed a method of absorbing their powers and, in the process, transforming them into rage-driven mechanized guardians. Accompanied by a small group of companions, Tadashi undertakes the quest to defeat Lord Kato and rescue Sunekosuri (and Tokyo) before it's too late.
Although this sounds like a great premise for a children's film, in Japan at least, The Great Yokai War never quite reaches its full potential. I expected a bit more experimentation from Miike, especially given the weirdness of the source material. That's not to say that there aren't some great moments: an early scene in which a dying newborn Yokai warns a frightened witness of the coming war is both visually striking and establishes the rather dark nature of the film. Unfortunately, this destined war never quite materializes and, by the end of the film, things just start to seem goofy.
Thematically, Miike tackles the human potential to discard things without a second thought and the detachment from the realm of nature and imagination that inevitably occurs as we grow older. All in all, this is a message that is more likely to resonate with adult viewers than with children, upon whom a lot of the underlying thematic subtleties of the film are probably lost. Adult viewers will find themselves wishing that Miike had explored this rather depressing subject matter as an adult fairytale, something more along the lines of Guillermo Del Toro's excellent Pan's Labyrinth, than within the constraints of a children's fantasy film.
As it stands, The Great Yokai War has its moments and does boast great special effects and a horde of unique and interesting monsters. Unfortunately, it never quite succeeds as either a children's fantasy film or a Miike film. It never really establishes a sense of epicness in regard to Tadashi's quest, an element that is of utmost importance in this type of film. However, genre-wise it is much more akin to the mildly disturbing children's fantasy films of the '80s, like The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and Return to Oz, than to other Miike works, like Audition, Visitor Q, and Ichi the Killer. Fans of the former will probably find a lot to like in The Great Yokai War, while fans of the latter will more than likely be a little disappointed.
Gore Police (dreadfulreviews.com)