Sunday, August 29, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: The Great Yokai War—Guardians

He is a cult favorite among kaiju enthusiasts, but he is relatively under-represented on screen. There is his original 1966 film trilogy and his 2010 reboot series, but mighty Daimajin never had to duel it out with Gamera or Rodan. Takashi Miike partly rights that wrong by pitting him against a ticked-off collective of yokai (mythical Japanese spirits and demons) in The Great Yokai War: Guardians, which screens again the old-fashioned way during the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

You need no familiarity with Miike’s
The Great Yokai War of 2005 to fully enjoy Guardians, just an appreciation of the various traditional yokai. Many of those mythical entities apparently originated in the Fossa Magna rift and they have melded themselves into giant “Yokaiju” ball with the intention of barreling back into the sea. The problem is Tokyo is right smack dab in its path. In addition to causing horrendous destruction, it would release a primordial monster currently held in stasis beneath the city. Everyone coyly refers to it as “you-know-who,” clearly implying he is a big-name kaiju, whom Miike and the Kadokawa could not acquire the usage rights.

Frankly, some of the yokai are inclined to watch the world burn, but others would rather save it. To do so, they need to recruit a descendant of legendary samurai Watanabe no Tsuna to sacrifice himself to the mighty Daimajin. Scaredy-cat Kei Watanabe is not inclined to step up when they pull him into their parallel fairy world, but he gins up his courage to save his younger brother Dai, after he is tricked into being a replacement.

The Yokai (including outliers the Yeti, Cyclops, and Frankenstein Monster) are wonderfully bizarre and often gleefully over-the-top, but the kiddie melodrama can be more than a little too whiny and neurotic. Miike often has trouble establishing the right tone for his “family films,” like
Ninja Kids!!!, but it is especially true here.

However, seeing Daimajin return in all his earth-shaking glory is richly satisfying for fans. Miike fully capitalizes on his people-stomping fury. He still looks great on screen, so here’s hoping he gets a new film all his own. The Fox-faced woman and Ubume, the long-haired Yurei ghost woman also add archetypal depth and fan service.

There is always a whole lot of stuff going on in Miike’s films, but the chaos starts to compete with itself in
Guardians. Of course, that also means it is never boring. It is Daimajin and the Yokai that really work here, rather than the Goonies material. Recommended for the kaiju and yokai (but not necessarily for fans of Miike’s ultra-violent genre movies), The Great Yokai War: Guardians screens in-person again this Wednesday (9/1), as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.