Great Yokai War, The (HK - DVD R3)
Gabe checks out Miike's valient swing at epic children's entertainment on DVD...
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A meek young boy, Takashi, lives an outcast's life. His classmates tease him mercilessly, his mother is a drunk, his father is MIA, his sister is away at college, and his grandfather is an insane war vet who confuses Takashi for his dead submarine mates. While attending a local festival, he is chosen by a ceremonial dragon to be a Kirin Rider, a champion of justice and peace. The ceremony is all in good fun, because everybody knows there's really no such thing as demons, dragons, or Kirin, or is there? It seems the Yokai (demon, which has a less negative connotation in Japan) are not only real, but also in need of a champion.
The evil Lord Kato is capturing the world's innocent Yokai, with the help of his lovely, white haired, whip welding assistant Aki (played by Kill Bill and Battle Royale's resident femme fatale Chiaki Kuriyama) and changing them into hate-driven killing machines. Takashi is asked by his new friends to take up arms against Kato, and save the Yokai and human realms for utter annihilation. Can Takashi succeed against these insurmountable odds to become the paladin of The Great Yokai War?
Takashi Miike has proven time and again to be one of the most talented, creative and progressive directors in modern film. Though not without his failures (the guy's made about a million feature films in his short career), Miike is capable of mastering varied genres while maintaining a style all his own. My personal favourite among his inventory is Happiness of the Katikuris, his ‘family musical’, based on The Quiet Family. The mixing of Miike's jet-black humour, his childlike sensibilities, and his eye for the insanely bizarre won me over from the word go. Though Katikuris was referred to as fun for the whole family by its director, no one could confuse its dancing, rotting zombies or underage schoolgirls crushed by sumo's during rough sex for children's entertainment, but the film was still a step towards more casually accessible work.
The Great Yokai War (a semi-remake of a 1968 film), though seemingly odd amongst Miike's gory excesses, is in a lot of ways the next logical step in his career. It builds on his favourite themes, and though a little on the scary side, creates the appropriate atmosphere for happy little scamps. This mainstream children's slant is, of course, more than slightly soiled by Miike's affinity for the macabre, and this makes The Great Yokai War a film special enough to appeal to the director's fans, and adult fans of modern film.
If you took Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids movies, pretty much every film ever made involving Muppets (including, but not limited to Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal), all those classic ‘kids having out of this world adventures’ flicks from the '80s ( The Explorers, The Never Ending Story, *shudder* Goonies), and crammed them into Ichi the Killer’s world, you get a pretty entertaining and visually stimulating little film. Epic art design was always something Miike verged on in his earlier work, and here he and his crew have created an entire world, a sublime world where men in rubber suits battle computer generated mechanical monsters. The effects are all obvious, no one's going to confuse any of the demons for real creatures, nor will they think any of the maddened robots are actual machines, but Miike is skilled enough at creating a charming atmosphere that the effects believability is moot.
The Great Yokai War isn't exactly a Miike landmark, like Audition or Ichi The Killer were, and its images won't be as indelibly burned into the viewers mind. The most memorable moments are those of cartoon excess, and the humour is, for the most part, successful. The Kappa Yokai, Kawatarou, who is the head comic relief of the main characters (though I suppose they're all pretty funny) could've easily been reduced to a Jar Jar Binks level annoyance, but in a testament to the film's good nature, he's honestly endearing. Because the lead is a cute kid with the depth of, well, a cute kid, more responsibility falls on the shoulders of the guest stars. Many a Miike regular is present in the major players in the epic final 'battle', and they hold tight to their small roles well. Had the film relied a little more heavily on the ensemble cast of demons rather than the plight of the human boy and his entourage, it may have been perfect.
The tragedy of the film is that it is ultimately too childish and silly for art house popularity, and the language barrier will keep children across the world from enjoying it as much as they could. This could have been Miike's crossover film, but is destined to be a cult item outside of Japan (and perhaps China, the Cantonese dub isn't half bad). Most punk rock filmmakers would risk alienating their fan bases by making a children's film, but Miike fans should know better. Our favourite filmmaking deviant finds time during the film's climax to have a police officer inadvertently shoot an innocent bystander dead when aiming for a demon machine, and plays it for laughs. That's our boy. Besides, you can't sell out if you were in it for the money in the first place.
On average, this Hong Kong Special Edition release (from Universe) looks great. Colours are rich and vibrant, detail's are sharp without edge enhancement, grain is minimal, and black is actually pretty dark. Like seemingly every Hong Kong release (at least in my collection), the transfer does suffer some compression issues. During the swirly, fast moving digital effects sequences some of the action becomes pixelated, specifically when harsh lights flash or somehow otherwise enter the frame. Occasionally dark backgrounds will display hints of low-level noise blocking. All in all, the transfer probably could've done with a bit of contrast adjustment and brightening, but is more than satisfactory all around.
Both the Dolby Digital and DTS Japanese surround tracks are as aggressive as the film's visuals. Music cues are surprisingly modest, but artificial sounds of camera momentum and CG creatures rampaging is fantastic. The combative sound effects besiege the viewer, encircling them with texture. Occasionally the general business of the soundtrack will cause some minor distortion, but this is a predominately effective track. Also included is a Dolby Digital dubbed Cantonese track, which is pretty much identical, with the exception of character voices, which aren't as endearing in this particular language.
Universe has put together one of those all-inclusive, but ultimately only moderately entertaining sets that I've come to know so well over the years. There is a lot of stuff on this two-disc set, but most of it is repetitive and campaign based. The features run about three hours total, and are all delegated to the set's second disc. This is partially because of the film's two plus hour running time and space consuming DTS track, but also because the film is available in a single disc, bare-bones edition. This way Universe can offer a choice to the consumer, though it is a bit unfair that the thriftier buyer gets nothing in the way of extras, but I digress.
The features begin with a short film entitled Another Story of Kawataro. Kawataro, you may remember, is the turtle Yokai who acts as successful comic relief for the majority of the film, and here he is able to continue his adventures. These adventures are of the low budget, high comedy variety, and include the first gathering of the Yokai poetry club (which Kawataro put together himself), and a few run ins with Tokyo law enforcement. This was the best feature of the entire set, and was candidly amusing, in a very different way than the film.
The behind the scenes footage is mostly interspersed with the cast interviews, which are all in good fun, but a bit overlong in all. The players are all eloquent enough, and the general consensus among them is that Miike is a great director, and one of the main reasons they came on board the project. Well, that and the scope. The section marked ‘Making of Yokai Movie’ is really an interview with Miike, the first unequivocal discussion I've personally seen with the director yet. His love of the project is obvious, and the fact that he spent well over a year developing it is pretty amazing considering the average production span of the man's films. This was a dream project, and Miike seems to have let his heart and gut guide him through the process.
The featurette about the young star, Ryunosuke Kamiki, and the visual records of promotion are the most taxing extras to sit though. The promotion record is just footage from various premiers and news conferences, and is about as entertaining as it sounds. The only remotely critical information I got from it was the producer’s role. The man really seemed to be under the impression that he was part of the biggest film in Japanese history, hyperbole aside. More entertaining, but irrefutably baffling, is the footage from the 2005 Yokai Conference, where Miike and a few cast members put in an appearance. I'm not sure on the history of this ‘conference’, but am assuming it's similar to a comic book convention, just with a stricter Yokai theme. The feature is edited down to a palatable length, and features an onscreen earthquake, which the audience takes really well. I suppose that's Japan for you.
Things are consummated with a series of not very funny Yokai sketches, entitled Short Drama of Yokai, and an indispensable listing of all the film's Yokai, and their histories and purposes. The Short Dramas are pretty dumb little stories that seem to be making fun of such children's entertainment drivel as the Teletubies. The character profiles, on the other hand are comprehensive and worth a read. Also see the inside of the gatefold packaging for pictures of these critters.
Another winner from the most intuitive director since Steven Spielberg first introduced Mr. Man to a deranged eighteen-wheeler. The Great Yokai War is the type of film I'd like to see find a greater audience. It's entertaining, fun, visually absorbing, and doesn't insult anyone's intelligence. It doesn't quite reach the level of unadulterated tomfoolery of Happiness of the Katakuris, but settles nicely into a respectable second place among Miike's more light-hearted films.
You can purchase this title for $21.99 from top retailer YesAsia
Review by Gabriel Powers
Not suitable for children
Release Date: 23rd February 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS-ES 6.1 Japanese, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Japanese, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Cantonese
Subtitles: English, Chinese (Traditional), Chinese (Simplified)
Extras: Another Story Of Kawataro, 2005 Yokai Conference, Short Drama Of Yokai, Making Of Yokai Movie, Interview With Main Casts, Visual Records Of Promotion, Documentary Of Ryunosuke Kamiki, The Introduction Of Yokai (Picture Only)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Takasi Miike
Cast: Kamiki Ryunosuke, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Masaomi Kondo, Sadao Abe, Mai Takahashi, Chiaki Kuriyama, Takashi Okamura
Length: 124 minutes
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