I assumed this was tiresome straight-to-DVD nonsense. If you'd seen the DVD cover, that's what you'd have thought too. It looks cheap and contains girls, samurai imagery and silly monster costumes.
Happily, I was wrong. It's still not something you'd recommend to normal people, but it's a long way above the dregs of straight-to-DVD. I'm going to be praising both its script and its production values.
Firstly, it's a samurai movie! I'd been starting to think Japan didn't make any at all in the year 2000, unless you count Versus
and that was a present-day action movie which also had zombies, yakuza and time-travelling immortals. In contrast this one is set in the early 18th century, but it's also full of insane yokai costumes and CGI. Mount Fuji has exploded because the world is evil and the lava it's throwing out is full of demons! We see this.
Fortunately though, Japan has samurai. We see one of them, Hiroshi Fujioka, who in his spare time clearly also runs a shaggy hair salon. He's fighting a kappa, which is a water goblin from Japanese mythology. They look like frogs and have bowls on the top of their heads.
Anyway, Fujioka has a magic sword which kills its owner. Seriously. It drains your life energy, which is represented by a red candle on a shrine, burning lower and lower until you die. What's more, he knows this. However he's a true samurai and has accepted his fate, since this magic sword makes him super-powerful in combat and will make his enemies explode in blue flames. His job is to kill demons and that's what he's determined to do... except that at last his luck's run out. Exit Fujioka, but not before passing on the magic sword to his daughter (Nozomi Ando, playing Sakuya). Wow. Cheers, dad. You or I would probably donate the sword to the nearest charity shop, but Ando is made of sterner stuff and takes up her father's suicidal mission. What's still more mind-boggling is that there's another way for the sword's owner to save themselves. If the sword drinks human blood, your candle will burn high again. However Ando thinks this would be an abomination and has sworn never to kill non-demons, despite the fact that she's the last of her line and after she goes, there won't be anyone to fight the good fight.
Well, no one human anyway. She's adopted a younger brother, Taro. He's the son of the kappa who killed her father, who in turn she killed. Yes, Ando's ninja agree with what you're thinking.
This is cool. Seriously, this is good stuff. If you can accept that you're looking at sword and sorcery, this is a story premise with meat on it. Both Ando and her adopted brother have made extreme decisions and I cared about both of them. Taro isn't a plot token but a crucial character in the story, while the child actor playing him is also good. His temptation makes for a strong scene, as does his inability to swim. (If there's one thing all kappa can do, it's that.)
That I really liked. Then you have the demon world, which is surprisingly well done. It's still tokusatsu, yes, but only one monster (the cat-demon) comes even close to the goofy rubber level you'd expect. The kappa at the beginning is detailed, for instance. The CGI is well used, the miniature work is excellent and all the monsters here are either taken from real mythology or from classic Japanese monster movies. There's an extraordinary cameo for some friendly dancing demons, which all come from the Daiei studio's 1968-69 Yokai trilogy (The Hundred Monsters, The Great Yokai War and Yokai Monsters Along Came Ghosts). This film isn't just a monster-bash, but instead a trip into a mindset much more intriguing and alien. There's also the Marionette Man, who's one of the creepiest things I've seen in a Japanese film that year.
These are playful visuals. Its demons are surreal, while Ando's ninja at one point pull out an 18th-century bamboo machine-gun. The important thing you need to know is that this film's writer/director is Tomo Haraguchi, who's basically Japan's Tom Savini and a "kaiju craftsman" who works in make-up and special effects. He's done Capitol Story and its sequels, the All Night Long films, Otsuyu and Daiei's 1990s Gamera trilogy. His grandfather was a sound man at Toho and he grew up surrounded by Godzilla
, Ultraman and giant monsters.
Those are the two good things about this film. What's more, they're big. I've made recommendations on far, far less. So is there anything that's less good?
Um... maybe, I suppose. I probably sound as if I adored this film, but I didn't. I'm scrabbling around for the right words, but I suppose it boils down to the whole not being the sum of its parts. I'm a huge fan of the two protagonists and I admire what the film does with them, but at the end of the day they're stuck in a silly monster movie. I'm not sure all the plot points make sense, unless perhaps I missed a few explanations. The film never transcends its genre, or even manages to be entirely consistent within it.
It also has the basic problem that it's an action movie with iffy action. Versus
had an action director, while this was helmed by a special effects man. You can tell. I'd be impressed by the special effects, but never by the swordplay.
These are quibbles I'm struggling to nail down, though. At the end of the day, I was impressed. I think Haraguchi wrote a genuinely strong storyline, while the final film is inventive and surprising to watch. A demon on horseback gets skeletonised, for instance, but they keep on galloping. There's something charming and almost nostalgic about his take on special-effects driven fantasy. I'm thinking of looking up his other films, although he hasn't directed many and his latest (Death Kappa) sounds utter rubbish. I might watch it anyway... or alternatively, maybe I'll start looking up 1960s yokai movies. There's a whole world of Shigeru Mizuki I'm looking forward to discovering, starting with Spooky Kitaro.