Those who can discard their past have no future.
—Kawahime, the River Princess (Mai Takahashi)
Every genre is defined by formula. Working within conventions, it’s possible to produce everything from homage (Star Wars) to satire (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to reinvention (Pulp Fiction). Perhaps the most difficult approach to genre is one that “plays by the rules” while reinvigorating them. That Takashi Miike uses children’s fantasy conventions to transform The Great Yokai War (Yôkai daisensô), a remake of the 1968 film of the same name, is a testament to his status as one of Japan’s most original and versatile directors.
The film opens on a ruined Tokyo, reduced to a jumble of skeletal skyscrapers under a dull, red sun. Young Tadashi Ino (Ryuunosuke Kamiki) is lost and alone amongst the devastation, pleading, “Is anyone here?” Then he wakes up. The dream seems a subconscious reaction to his mother’s recent divorce, which pulled Tadeshi far from the city in which he grew up. He’s now in a small country town, surrounded by strangers who practice inscrutable customs (including a grandfather who only recognizes him every third day, otherwise calling him “Akira,” and who wanders the hills making cryptic remarks about “adzuki beans”).
The fantasy formula suggests that the dream carries the force of premonition. His outsider status—he’s small for his age, picked on at school, and without friends in the village—provides him singular vision. He’s chosen as the village’s Kirin Rider, the Guardian of Peace and Friend of Justice. Soon after, he meets Sunekosuri, “the sprite that rubs against your shins,” an unidentifiable but cuddly creature only he can see.
Sunekosuri is one of the yokai, impish spirits from Japanese folklore. All but forgotten by the modern world, they’re visible Tadashi. “The chosen one” is another fantasy-religious trope—doesn’t every child dream of waking up to find out he’s a forgotten prince?—but here, the emphasis is on the power of innocence and imagination rather than lineage.
One of the film’s subplots concerns reporter Sata (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who as a child was saved from drowning by Kawahime, the River Princess (Mai Takahashi). She provided his only glimpse onto a different world, and since then he’s tried to repeat that moment of transcendence. As an adult, he can only see yokai after downing several cans of Kirin Ichiban beer (in an ingenious bit of product placement).
Sadly, even that other world of the yokai is at war. The two sides are similar to those in The Lord of the Rings: conservative, agrarian tradition (hobbits and yokai) is pitted against the forces of depersonalizing, exploitative industrialization, embodied by Sauron inLOTR and Lord Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) here. Wearing the black suit of a corporate raider, Kato is determined to destroy the civilization that’s discarded him, dropping his fellow yokai into “the accumulated wrath of things humanity has used and thrown away… the raging spirit Yomotsumono!” Following this incantation against consumer culture, these yokai are transformed into killing machines (recalling those in The Terminator). Of course, once the yokai become city-destroying monsters, normal humans see them just fine. As Kato’s Matrix-style airship tears through Japan, rendering it one vast skyline of belching smokestacks, humanity scurries in panic.
The other yokai convene a war council comprised of absurd, even comical, creatures: turtle-men, a one-eyed umbrella, and a walking wall that refuses to fight because, as he insists, “I’m only a wall!” A fair weather soldier called the Snow Woman says, “This really isn’t my season.” A geisha with a rubber neck complains that they’ve already “stuck out their necks” far enough.
The yokai world gives Miike plenty of room for visual experimentation: some are costumed actors, others stop-motion animation or CGI-rendered. Their motley assemblage, along with the film’s vibrant color palette, makes them enchantingly child-like. Where LOTR aspires to epic grandeur, The Great Yokai War is more like a coloring book, as though Miike took the outline of the standard fantasy text and filled it in using his own crayon box. The yokai remain playful, frivolous talismans who have no concept of “war.” Confronted with Kato’s war machine, many assume the devastation in Tokyo is prelude to a giant party.
But The Great Yokai War is only ostensibly about war, displayed here as a failure of imagination. Winning and losing both involve loss. Aramata offers this abstruse admonition: “Won the war? Don’t be a fool! There is a limit even to foolishness. Wars must not happen. They only make you hungry.”