It's a Takashi Miike children's film inspired by the yokai stories of Shigeru Mizuki. I'd been looking forward to this for months and I'm delighted to have seen it, even though it's an interesting failure.
Just to do the basic groundwork...
1. Takashi Miike = super-prolific director of 1000000 films a year, which are best known for perversion, gross-outs and going way further than normal people could imagine. However in addition to the notorious stuff, he's worked in every genre there is. I think he's nearly a genius.
2. Shigeru Mizuki, one-armed creator of manga about yokai, those monsters from Japanese folkore that make Miike look normal. I recently read some of it. It's not bad. He takes goofy monsters that you'd expect to be played for laughs, then takes them to dark places that you could call either horror or tragedy. Meanwhile as an artist he's clearly streets ahead of people like Go Nagai or Matsumoto Leiji. His figure work is rough but passable, while his backgrounds will be gorgeously detailed when he's able to draw them from life.
3. Yokai are weird. Imagine a monster that can't do anything except wash azuki beans, or another that just likes rubbing people's shins. Then imagine that level of oddness, but alongside creatures that might pull your face off and wear it.
This is clearly a film to rejoice in. I've seen it getting the brush-off, but it's not hard to find people raving about it with comments like "Where was this film when I was a kid?" Imagine something that could stand up alongside Labyrinth
, The Neverending Story or The Addams Family, except that it's bigger. Mizuki's practically his own genre. There's the 1960s Yokai Monsters trilogy, the 2007-8 live-action GeGeGe no Kitaro films and of course a ton of anime. I must check out the latter one day. If you've got children old enough to read subtitles and young enough not to register that they're watching a sprawling mess of a film with the narrative sense of a headless chicken, they might just go apeshit for this. It's a juicier evocation of Mizuki's universe than any other live-action adaptation I've seen, although on the downside it's crying out for an editor.
The storyline barely exists, frankly. Ryunosuke Kamiki is a twelve-year-old boy whose parents have divorced and so has moved to his mother's small town, where the children bully him and his grandfather keeps confusing him with a dead boy. This goes on for quite a while. Kamiki just does normal stuff and suffers some semi-bullying that's sufficiently wooden that I got nervous about watching other children's films from Miike. However there are also yokai. Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill
, Battle Royale
) is leading a bunch of freaky non-robots to do something ill-defined for a man we don't really get to know. As far as I can tell, the good yokai disapprove. Kamiki gets bitten by the Kirin (don't ask) and as a result becomes the Chosen One who has to wield a magical sword and save the day. That's more or less it. Yokai stuff happens, Kamiki eventually dresses up in a traditional outfit and the entire film runs a good hour longer than its plot called for.
To be fair, though, the film has emotional content. Kamiki wants to defend people and will put himself in harm's way even for an obnoxious cock. Chiaki Kuriyama is in love with her evil boss. Being cute doesn't give you plot immunity against bad things happening, which has caused indignation among people I think are wrong. Some of the themes aren't coming through properly (e.g. Kamiki's white lie), but nonetheless this is an important level on which the film's satisfying.
What the film does outstandingly well is its special effects. The CGI's terrible at cute furry things (e.g. rat gerbil kittens), but Miike fundamentally gets yokai. They're brilliant. I loved watching them. They bulldoze through "look at the special effects" and get straight into "bloody hell, look at the teeth on that!" I can imagine a lot of parents being unhappy about all this being in a children's film, although they'd probably drop stone dead if anyone ever showed them the 1960s yokai children's films. The one of the same title as this
(original Japanese only), for instance, has as its main villain a blood-drinking demon from a Hammer horror film. Miike isn't going there, although he does have a lava/acid pit in which we see yokai being thrown and dissolved. There's no gore, but it's vivid.
"Vivid" is the keynote, actually. Look at that first yokai, for instance. It's a simple piece of work that only gets about thirty seconds of screen time, obviously done as a puppet rather than CGI. However it's also a characterful little bugger and they've put slime on it. The film's full of things like that. The thing I love about Miike is his immediacy, the way his films keep startling you and pushing themselves to show new things in a new way, which makes him God's gift to yokai.
Miike also casts hot girls. That's not just me being shallow. If you didn't have sexy women among these yokai, you'd lose an entire layer of surrealism and "what the hell did I just see?" value. Chiaki Kuriyama will never have worn more amazing outfits in her life, while Mai Takahashi appears to be wearing a short tunic with a slit thigh and no knickers.
The acting is almost all Kuriyama. That's not to say that the other adults are negligible, but she's sizzling. She's tearing the screen up as the front-line villain you'd have to be blind not to be gawping at, but then later she backs it up with emotional weight. I wanted to rewind and watch again just for her reading of "sugoi sugoi". However on the downside, we have child actors. The bullying scenes are godawful and at that stage Ryunosuke Kamiki was looking like a plank. However in time he turns out to have a couple of subtle moments on the phone to his sister, then he does a 180-degree turn and becomes perfect once he's up against yokai. He's grounded himself with all that earlier underacting, so his (good and likeable) reaction shots become twice as effective when Miike's wheeling out the real freaks. I liked him. He's still acting today, incidentally, and even back in 2005 was already a regular voice actor for Hayao Miyazaki.
Overall, not a film you watch for its plot. You watch to immerse yourself in its universe, in which Mizuki and Miike get together and make something that's kind of glorious even though it doesn't work. How did Kamiki reach that conclusion about Sunekosiri towards the end, for instance? Buggered if I know, but it's emotional. I think Miike did a bad job of serving the script in terms of storytelling and clarity, but I approve of the film's existence strongly enough that I'm willing to squint past that. Wallow in the experience. It's a shame that Cat-Girl's not played by Rena Tanaka, but this is clearly the best live-action Long-Tongued Umbrella Yokai to date, unless you're (understandably) in love with the ridiculousness of the 1960s puppet. That's a great kappa, too. Even when Miike makes a mess of things, he's still worth watching.
Mizuki gets a cameo, incidentally. "Wars must not happen." That has weight, from a man who lost his arm in the last one.