The least eye-catching of Daiei's 1968-9 yokai trilogy. It's not bad, but it's so light on yokai that after half an hour I'd forgotten it was a yokai film. What we have instead is a bog-standard "katanas and kimonos" movie set in the old days, which is okay but nothing to rush out and buy.
Significantly, the ADV Films collection is trying to pretend that it's the first film in the trilogy, rather than the last. Sounds sensible. That's what I'd have done too. Watch this after One Hundred Monsters
or especially Spook Warfare
and you'll be disappointed, but watch it first and you'll be fine. The differences include:
(a) only a handful of yokai and none of Shigeru Mizuki's famous ones, e.g. the living umbrella, Snake-Neck Woman, etc.
(b) a plot that doesn't need them. The human heroes of One Hundred Monsters
and Spook Warfare
are out of their depth and would have had no hope without supernatural intervention, but here Kojiro Hongo looks in control of the situation.
(c) the film doesn't look silly.
The story involves a yakuza boss (Kazue Tamaoki, I think) who opens the film by killing two men to get at their incriminating evidence about him. Unfortunately there are two possible witnesses. The first is an old monk who warns him in advance that this is mystical ground on a special day for demons and so if he kills anyone here, he's going to be cursed and die horribly. (Tamaoki kills the monk.) The second witness though is a seven-year-old girl (Masami Burukido). What's more, she picks up the dead men's evidence. Naturally Tamaoki decides he wants her dead too, so five minutes of screen time later she's an orphan on the run and looking for a father she's never seen in her life.
The cast can be divided into allies and enemies. The most important of the former is Kojiro Hongo, who's a good-hearted tough guy and more than a match for Tamaoki's goons, although there are others too. The dwarf is funny while she's around. To be honest I didn't think Hongo looked physically imposing, but he carries off the role anyway through his body language. He has confidence. He walks around as if he's not frightened of anyone, which is mildly cool when almost everyone he meets in the film has a sword and wants to kill him. He's also endearingly protective of Burukido's innocence, so for instance after fighting off someone who was trying to decapitate him, he'll claim that his attacker had to leave because "he forgot something".
As for the yakuza, they're convincing, but not scary. This is after all a children's film, although admittedly the other two films in the series have suggested that it's okay for a children's film to have attempted rape, blood-drinking demons and gangsters who want to build brothels. Of the trilogy, this is probably the best fit for modern Western ideas of what a children's film should be.
Ignoring the yokai side of things, the film's fine. It has some strong scenes towards the end, courtesy of Burukido's father and especially that bizarre, sadistic dice game that ends up going in unexpected directions. In addition, crucially, Burukido works well in her role. She's no actress of course and this would be her only screen credit, but that doesn't matter because she's not really being asked to act. They've kept her dialogue simple and her character's actions clear. She simply has to be what she is. She's a seven-year-old who's believing in what she's doing, so she convinces and is successful in the role. I liked her.
As for the other actors, they're filling their boots well enough and there's even one biggish name among them, Bokuzen Hidari of a bunch of Akira Kurosawa films including The Seven Samurai
. He died two years after this, aged 77.
That's all well and good, but of course we're watching because of the yokai. In this film, they're in the shadows. Life goes on and you don't think of them, but go into the forest on your own and you might find yourself in a Japanese folk story. You can feel the moments when the script stops being a 1969 sword-wielding historical drama and becomes something that for centuries people would tell around fires. These aren't yokai you get to know. The costume designs aren't that imaginative and as a result they lack personality. However I like their presence in the film, which is low-key enough that this doesn't feel like fantasy, but instead like a regular historical drama into which supernatural forces are capable of peeking.
My favourite scene of theirs came at the end, when they come out and dance. That was atmospheric.
Did I like this film? To be honest, I was slightly disappointed. It's okay and it has good bits, but I'd been hoping for more. That's been true of all three of Daiei's yokai trilogy, frankly, but this time for a slightly different reason. They're all solid in their dated, low-key way and I don't mind having bought them, but I'd been hoping for more insanity. They're staid. Spook Warfare
is the loopiest of the three, but even that one's got less energy than the two flawed but wholehearted GeGeGe no Kitaro
films of 2007-8.
In summary, I'd neither warn against this film nor recommend it. It's fine. It's also okay for children, with the sword-killings not being any bloodier than a shoot-out in an old Western. If someone gets skewered with a katana, for instance, you might see that it went safely under his arm, for instance. Personally I wanted more yokai, but if you don't go in with such expectations then you'll probably quite like it.