A podcast I listened to which is all about all things tokusatsu, recently did a review of some old Japanese movies from the 60s, the Yokai Monsters series. I love yokai. They are such strange, sometimes amusing, sometimes scary, creatures. I own the series. We bought it from ADV back when they were around, but never sat down to really watch them. After listening the podcast, I decided I wanted to watch them and see if I agreed with the reviewers.
The first movie in the series is One Hundred Monsters. It about a greedy land developer and official who seek to profit from taking an old shrine and tenant house from their rightful owners to build a brothel in their place. While the villagers try to fight back and protect their home, the land developer holds a One Hundred Stories ceremony. One hundred ghost stories are told, with a candle blown out after each one. At the end, it is said a ghost will appear. The land developer doesn’t believe in spirits, and doesn’t do the cleansing ritual afterward, bringing the wrath of the yokai down on him, as they reveal his deceits and help the villagers in the process.
I liked this first movie the best. Like the best Japanese horror/scary stories, the monsters are seldom seen, but their actions affect the movement of the story. Most of this story is about the humans; the villagers struggle against the rich, upperclassmen. While the villagers are mostly helpless, they do have the help of a masterless samurai, Yasutaro. For a while, you are sure if Yasutaro is human, as he seems to suddenly appear and disappear, and seems able to get into places he shouldn’t. He also doesn’t seem phased by the yokai’s antics. But his identity is revealed to be quite mundane. There is a good variety of yokai, from the Karasara, the one-legged, cyclops umbrella, No Face, Rokurokubi, the snake-necked woman, and Oni. The monsters appear ethereal. They never speak, but exact their revenge and then leave. The story might seem slow to some, but the characters are interesting and the story is engaging, especially if you enjoy historical dramas like I do.
The second movie is Spook Warfare. In this one, a powerful Babylonian spirit named Daimon is awakened and flies to Japan. There, he takes over the body of a Magistrate and his Stewart, and begins a reign of terror on his servants and local villagers, drinking the blood of adults, and then craving children. A yokai water spirit, a Kappa tries to stop Daimon, but is easily defeated. He goes for help from other yokai in the area, bu they are too weak as well, It takes the combined strength of all the yokai in Japan to finally defeat Daimon and banish him from Japan.
This movie focuses on mostly on the yokai. The humans are incidental, and just there to move the story along. There is a greater breadth of yokai in this one, and they spend a lot of the time bickering with each other. At first, they don’t believe Kappa when he comes for help. But when two children hide in the shrine they call home, they begin to realize the seriousness of the situation. This movie was obviously written to appeal more to children, as the yokai portrayed as scary but as more cute and lovable. They don’t get involved until children are threatened. The story also has a very patriotic theme to it, as all the Japanese monsters get together to expel the invader. This movie wasn’t bad, and it is the most action packed, as there are fights both with humans and yokai, but it didn’t have the spooky air that they first one did. So, I didn’t care for it quite as much.
The third movie, Along With Ghosts, is the weakest of these three. An old shrine guardian warns some gangsters not to spill blood on sacred ground. He is killed along with their victims, but before he dies, he tells his granddaughter, who also has a parchment the gangsters were looking for, to find her father, and gives her some dice as proof of their relations. The girl is chased by the gangsters, and found by a swordsman, Hyakutaro, who takes her under his wing and protects her on her journey. Also aiding the girl are yokai who want revenge for the bloodletting on their sacred ground. Between the two, the girl finds her father and the spirits have their revenge.
Along With Ghosts tries to combine the formulas from the first two movies, but does neither well. It focuses more on the humans like One Hundred Monsters, but the gangster/yakuza angle is less interesting, and the villains are very cookie-cutter. From Spook Warfare, it has the yokai being less scary and more friendly to children as the yokai help the girl out several times, but their insertion into the story feels more forced. You could take out the yokai element and the story would hardly be affected. There was one scene that used the yokai well, when the two henchmen stumble into the yokai realm and they are attacked by different yokai such as the severed heads and the child that gets heavier as it is carried. While there are more yokai that weren’t seen in the previous movies, the overall lackluster story makes you indifferent to their inclusion.
In 2005, a new yokai monster movie was made, though it doesn’t have much to do with the preceding three other than the title. The Great Yokai War takes place in the modern-day. Tadashi, a boy from Tokyo who moves to the country with his mother after his parents divorce, is chosen at a shrine celebration to be the Kirin Rider, a title he learns is more than honorific. A yokai war is brewing, as Yasunori Kato, a spirit that was once human, but hates them with a passion, is kidnapping yokai and turning them into machines of pure hate. Tadashi is chosen to lead the yokai left to stop him.
This movie is really based on the novel series Teito Monogatari, which is where the villain Yasunori comes from. The movie has a very Ghibli Studios feel to it, especially Princess Mononoke, as it pits the natural spirits against constructs of man-made metal and machines. The environmental message is pretty obvious. We see some of the same yokai as in the older films, such as the Kappa, Rokurokubi, Noppera-bo and Karakasa as well as some new ones such as the Yuki-onna, Wanyudo, and the Azukiarai who turns out to be instrumental at the end. It’s a well done story and a great kids film with the hero young Tadashi overcoming his fears and defeating the villain. The one thing I didn’t like was the end. It was a very Japanese, almost, but not quite happy ending. Everyone lives happy-ever-after, but only at the cost of Tadashi’s innocence. I’m a “I don’t want to grow up” kind of person, and like characters getting to keep some of their child-like innocence.
For the most part, all of these movies are good for the yokai fan. One Hundred Monsters has the atmosphere and most faithful depiction of yokai. Spook Warfare and Great Yokai War has lots of action and faster moving stories. The older movie uses more rubber suits and special effects, while the newer movie takes advantage of puppetry and CGI. Old or new, the yokai are fun and the stories are entertaining. You can find all four movies on Netflix. Great Yokai War can be found on Amazon at an amazing deal, and Rightstuf has the first and third Yokai Monsters in their bargain bin.