Yokai are real Japanese folklore. They're not just something made up by one-armed manga god Mizuki Shigeru, although he's the man who dragged them into popular culture and one day I want to visit his home town of Sakaiminato. Apparently there's a Mizuki Shigeru Street with over a hundred freaky bronze statues of the yokai he immortalised. This film is the first of a 1960s trilogy inspired by his work, incidentally.
Anyway, I was talking about yokai. The usual translation is "demon" or "monster", but those don't convey the sheer oddity of all their different varieties. Technically almost any monster or supernatural being can be called a yokai, so we can identify various sub-categories.
(a) obake, usually with magical powers (e.g. shapeshifting) and animal features (e.g. raccoons, foxes, snakes).
(b) tsukumogami, which are ordinary household items that come to life on their 100th birthday. These might include straw sandals, lutes, paper lanterns, umbrellas, sake jars, tea kettles or paper screens (with eyes).
(c) human beings that became yokai due to strong emotions, e.g. jealousy. These yokai might have necks that elongate like snakes, an extra mouth on the back of their head, a blackened mouth and no other facial features at all, etc.
(d) surreal ones, e.g. azuki arai (who never stops washing azuki beans), tofu kozo (a small monk carrying tofu) or akaname (who lives in dirty bathrooms and licks them).
Yokai are common in ghost stories and there are many you wouldn't want to meet. The kappa, for instance, is a turtle yokai who sticks his hand up your anus, pulls out your liver and eats it. However kappa are also polite and you can defeat them by bowing, which causes them to bow in return and hence spill the magical water bowl on their heads. However other yokai are merely mischievous, while a few will even bring good luck.
This children's movie contains lots of yokai. I'll let you guess how many.
Clearly this is a must-watch. Obviously I'd been expecting the most brilliant film ever, which was silly of me. It's not. It's a perfectly bog-standard samurai-era drama of nasty exploitative rich people and the downtrodden poor... but with yokai. Take out the latter and you'd have an ordinary jidai-geki movie. The villain wants to tear down a shrine and build a brothel. When the villagers object, saying they'll have to live next to it, he says that won't be a problem because he'll be pulling down their tenements too. This is a children's movie? Wow. Now admittedly we don't see beheadings, sword fights or stomach-turning carnage, but the villain does have people murdered and there's a reasonable body count by the end of the film. People get stabbed to death on-screen.
Oh, and there's also a sub-plot about him trying to get his hands (and other body parts) on the attractive daughter of one of the villagers. What's more, late in the movie she gives herself up to him in order to save her friends and family. Fortunately nothing happens, but not before we see a (mild) attempted rape. Every parent in the world just stopped reading this review. However that said, the scene's not particularly bad and probably not even the thing most parents would be most worried about their children seeing. Did I mention that this film contains yokai? I could imagine very young children getting nightmares at some of these monsters' antics, although at the same time they're often also lovable and never terrorise good guys. The usual pattern is as follows:
1. We meet some unpleasant bastards.
2. The bastards get a clear, sincere and oft-repeated warning that they're about to do something silly and piss off the yokai. They sneer at these superstitions and violate the curse.
3. Bad move.
So, what are these yokai like? Answer: weird. Realism was not a concern of the special effects department. They look cheap, but in such a bold, goofy way that they work anyway through sheer kitsch and give the film its own kind of heightened reality. Imagine the evil Japanese cousin of Big Bird off Sesame Street. One or two of them are genuinely spooky. The freakiest though is an umbrella tsukumogami, which bounces all over a retarded man-child when no one else is looking, gives him a lap dance and has a foot-long tongue.
I like the music, which contains unusual sounds. If I were shooting these yokai special effects, that's the music I'd choose too. Oh, and when making this film it must have been freezing. You can see the actors' breath.
The film's less kitsch than I'd expected. I'd seen pictures of some of its yokai, but in fact they're just the spooky things in the shadows of a regular movie. The latter side of things is straightforward and perhaps a bit drab, but still good. The villain's villainous enough that you want to see him suffer. Interestingly also the movie contains storytelling and stories-within-a-story, so most of the yokai appearances are merely within one of these ghost stories and there's even a layer of deniability built into the finale. A criminal court would simply assume that the thugs went mad and started killing each other or committing suicide. Maybe they did? The film's open to that reading too.
Is it a good children's film? Hmmm. I don't know if I'd recommend it for particularly young ones, but it's probably no less suitable than an episode of Doctor Who. I liked it. It's fun. It's not an eleven out of ten, but nothing in the world could stop me continuing with the next film in the series (Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare). It's got highly entertaining special effects, lots of fantasy and satisfying things eventually happening to bad people.