It's the latest live-action movie based on the works of yokai manga master Shigeru Mizuki. There have been plenty of these, not to mention any number of anime adaptations. There's been roughly one series a decade since the 1960s and by now they've clocked up hundreds of episodes. The main characters are:
1. Kitaro, who's a small yokai boy born in a cemetery and the last living member of the Ghost Tribe. His hair hangs over the left hand side of his face, hiding an empty eye socket. His other toys include a detachable remote-controlled hand and hair that doubles as weaponry.
2. Daddy Eyeball, who's Kitaro's dead father reincarnated as a walking eyeball.
3. Rat-Man, who's 360 years old and never takes a bath. He calls himself Kitaro's friend, but he's also a money-grubbing, backstabbing piece of trash with super-flatulence that knocks people unconscious.
4. Cat-Girl, who's basically a nice girl. Just don't piss her off.
5. Sand-Throwing Hag.
6. Child-Crying Old Man.
7. Roll of Cotton.
8. Plastered Wall.
...and those are the nice ones who hang out with Kitaro. There are plenty more, including the umbrella tsukumogami, but they're more untrustworthy and are liable to do things like melt people's faces. The manga was judged unsuitable for children on first publication and the various anime series are capable of being sinister, violent and/or outright objectionable, with Rat-Man in some branches of the franchise being fond of making sexual advances. It sounds great.
This movie though is kiddified. Overall I liked it, but every so often I'd want to throw things at the screen.
The biggest problem is the film's occasional tendency to go all Children's Film Foundation. Baddies will be hamming it up as if they've forgotten this is live-action and they think they're in a Disney cartoon. Line deliveries would have me chewing the walls. The main character is about five years old. There aren't many bits that are actually annoying, but they're (a) mostly near the beginning, and (b) bad enough that you'll need willpower to keep watching despite them.
Then there's the storyline. It's not taking its villains seriously. The first one wants to evict the Miura family (Mao Inoue, Go Riju, Ruka Uchida)... which is good for about five minutes' screen time, after which the movie forgets about him. Unbelievable. He just falls through a plot trapdoor and is never seen or heard from again. A completely different plot starts up instead, involving fox spirits and a Stone of Evil, but that's resolved with a deus ex machina. I get the impression that the production team were terrified of making a film that couldn't be safely watched by four-year-olds and had thus been systematically watering down everything that could be construed as intense or frightening. They picked the wrong franchise.
I'm also not wild about Kitaro himself, played by Eiji Wentz. In the end I quite liked his acting, although there's not very much of it, but he's clearly been cast because he's a pretty-boy pop star (half of singing duo WaT) and he looks bloody stupid with Kitaro's manga outfit and floppy grey hair. Mizuki's Kitaro was a pre-pubescent potato-like lump. Wentz looks as if any moment he's about to be thrown a microphone.
However apart from that, I enjoyed it.
The stars are of course the yokai. Rena Tanaka's Cat-Girl is insanely hot, especially in that red mini-dress, and I hope she's prominent in lots of other movies. Let me look her up. Hmmm, she's in GTO. There's lots of CGI, inevitably, which overall is nifty even if I prefer the 1960s puppet version of the umbrella tsukumogami. The new one doesn't make your eyes pop from your head, ergo isn't as brilliant. I found Rat-Man kind of annoying, but as far as I can tell he's also reasonably faithful to the original and so I have to give him a pass.
I also like the real story. This doesn't involve the villains, although of course you couldn't tell a kiddie adventure movie like this without them. No, the startling bit involves a death in the family. Our three Miuras are about to have a bereavement and I was taken aback by how seriously this was taken. This then gets even more complicated than you'll be expecting, since Kitaro and his yokai friends have Addams Family powers, but the result is a film that's hitting some surprising story notes and going further than you'd expect on the theme of dealing with the loss of a loved one. Their child actor Ruka Uchida does really rather well with this material, incidentally, and to my surprise he turned out to be one of the more dependable parts of the movie. His delivery of "yatta" is laughable, but that's one line fluff in a performance that's otherwise pretty solid.
It's also worth mentioning that the evil fox spirits are driven by mankind's destruction of their forests, leaving them with nowhere to live. This movie has sombre tones underneath its goofiness, not to mention occasional moments that I found emotional.
Overall, I quite liked the film. It sometimes made my teeth itch, but the good stuff outweighs the bad. I love Mizuki and his world of spooky things that go bump in the night, even in this kiddie-friendly version. It's even funny, e.g. Kitaro going to school. The film's set-up of Pretty Teenage Girl (Mao Inoue) and Prettier Teenage Boy (Eiji Wentz) made me roll my eyes... until Ruka Uchida got in a dig at his big sister about it, whereupon I laughed and relaxed. Inoue and Wentz are good together, actually. They don't go through all the cliched teen romance beats, but instead have a relationship that's bumpy and heading somewhere less expected. Overall, a film that demands a tolerant audience, but for me had charm.
I've heard even better things about the follow-up, Kitaro and the Millennium Curse
, by the way. Sounds perfectly natural to me. For a superior sequel, just build on the good stuff and fix the annoying bits. How rubbish are those police, for instance?
"We love it. We can't live without it. Please tell the humans to leave more fried tofu at our shrines."