Takashi Yamazaki is one of my favorite Japanese genre directors working today for his highly entertaining, heartfelt sci-fi and fantasy films. He directed Returner back in 2002 (which I gave a positive review, though I don’t think it’s one of his best), and he is famous for bringing a fully computer-generated Godzilla into the second of his Always: Sunset on Third Street films. He directed two rather good movie adaptations of the Parasyte manga (which I also reviewed), a live-action adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato (2010), and a yokai love story with Destiny: A Tale of Kamakura(2017)—I should revisit that one, as it was a lot of fun. However, especially after he directed the excellent short film for Seibuen Theme Park’s Godzilla the Ride, the kaiju rumor mill has gone into milling overdrive—particularly when it was announced back in February 2022 that he is directing a new Toho kaiju film. Come on, it’s probably some new Godzilla film. It’s almost a foregone conclusion.

Which brings me to Ghost Book: Obakezukan, Yamazaki’s latest genre flick—this time aimed at youngsters, and based on a long-running series of children’s books. This movie, too, has added fuel to the Godzilla rumor storm, given that one of the posters for the film was placed near the Godzilla statue in Tokyo and references the kaiju king by name. I personally was interested in Ghost Book because I have really enjoyed Yamazaki’s touching, sentimental, effects-heavy films in the past—and this one looked promising, if somewhat derivative and unimaginative. And… after finally sitting down to watch the film, it was everything I was hoping for. No, the movie is not some new classic—not quite. But it’s lighthearted while dealing with some difficult themes, it has pretty decent special effects and a memorable hook, it has reasonably likable characters and cool monsters, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. Darn it, I liked this movie.

The story goes that gawky elementary-school kid Itsuki Sakamoto (Jyo Kairi, The Promised Neverland [2020]); his funny fat friend Sunny Iida (Sonny McClendon, in his film debut); and cool smart kid Taichi Kudou (Fuga Shibazaki, Tomorrow’s Dinner Table [2021]) stumble on a strange little shrine at which they make a wish. That wish reaches the ears of the Shopkeeper (Ryunosuke Kamiki, Your Name [2016]), a mysterious figure dwelling in a magical bookstore. He decides to answer their wishes, and sends his servant, a small cat-like yokai named Zukanbou (voice by Rie Kugimiya, Godzilla Singular Point), to contact each of the boys, offering them the chance to bring their wishes true—if they are willing to put their own lives on the line. The boys agree to the wager, and they then gather at the magical bookstore where they receive the titular Ghost Book—but upon picking it up, they become scared and run away before the Shopkeeper can explain the rules of the life-or-death game they are embarking upon. To make matters more complicated, their substitute teacher at school, Yoko Hayama (Yui Aragaki, Code Blue: the Movie [2018]) gets pulled into the game as well when she tries to investigate why her students are poking around in the creepy bookstore. Together, the boys and their teacher find themselves stranded in a strange alternate reality version of their city that seems empty of other inhabitants and cut off from the rest of the world. As they are coming to grips with their situation, they come across Minato Tachibana (Ayaka Yoshimura, in her film debut), the boys’ classmate who Itsuki has a crush on. She has no idea why she is stuck in the alternate world, but happy to have others she can rely on in their shared crazy situation. As they attempt to figure out what is going on, they investigate the Ghost Book, which is mostly full of blank pages—except when one page suddenly changes to an image of a yokai monster, complete instructions for how to defeat it—and then capture it with the book, which can suck yokai inside of its pages. At the same time the instructions and image appear inside, a time limit appears on the outside, along with a number. The number indicates how many monsters the kids have to defeat within that time limit to claim victory and make their wishes come true. As they track down each monster and work out how to defeat them, their time swiftly leaches away, and with the monsters becoming crazier and more dangerous, and with more additional dark secrets lurking in the shadows, they may soon lose their lives along with their dreams—and never see their real home again.

Movie Review: Ghost Book

Ghost Book’s story, while unlikely to win awards for depth or characterization, nevertheless provides an exciting and sometimes mildly surprising moviegoing experience. The conceit of the alternate world, and the need to find and defeat a series of yokai monsters by capturing them in the book, is engaging and enjoyable in a simplistic way. Yes, much of the tale feels familiar—the monster-capturing hook feels a bit like Pokemon, and some of the yokai that appear are standards from Gegege no Kitaro (I’m looking at you, Ittanmomen), but the good-natured adventure feel and the sometimes creative ways in which the yokai are defeated provide appropriately amusing monster fun for kids. There is also a dramatic reveal towards the end of the film which I didn’t perfectly guess, and it worked for me and added emotional weight and a feeling of genuine heart that ties the destinies of the characters together. I don’t think the execution is perfect, but it’s enough, especially in the context of a children’s film, to engage the emotions. The story also gives each of the characters a moment to shine and a role to play in their group—nobody feels superfluous, even if the characterizations might be shallow sometimes. My biggest complaint with the writing is the surprising lack of urgency that our heroes operate under. There is not much of a sense of threat for most of the film, with the “yokai busters” casually eating and joking even with the timer ticking at their heels the entire time; they don’t even check the Ghost Book to see what the next yokai mission is going to be after defeating the second-to-last monster obstacle.

The performances are a shuffle of thin character types, but generally have a squeak-by level of enoughness. Itsuki looks like a mix between a Japanese Harry Potter and Mike from Stranger Things, and Jyo Kairi does a decent job with what is given him. He goes on an emotional journey and deals with angst and trauma as Itsuki, and it feels… fine. It feels a bit “TV,” a bit corny sometimes—but acceptable gawky kid acting. That sort of low bar becomes about the standard in the movie. American actor Sonny Mcclendon as Sunny gives a standard funny fat kid performance—he has energy, but his jokes aren’t that great, and he isn’t so memorable except insofar as he is an American and not a standard Japanese face, which is rare in these kinds of movies. I was glad to see him in the role, but I wish he had had something a bit more than his “haha, jolly overweight kid likes food” bit. Ayaka Yoshimura as Itsuki’s love interest Minato reaches a similar level of “hey, not too bad” as she deals with the supernatural goings-on, though she has no chemistry with Jyo, and their scenes together are embarrassing more than sweet. Yui Aragaki as teacher Yoko Hayama is better, working through the substitute teacher’s insecurities and finding confidence as she realizes what her real dreams are—but she feels just a bit trapped by the kiddy nature of the film, reduced to sometimes comical reactions and broad-brush emotional sequences. The low point of all the performances for me was Fuga Shibasaki as Taichi the cool kid. Shibasaki feels lifeless in the role; rather than exuding charisma and intelligence, the confidence like a lack of emotion, and his acting can feel wooden sometimes. Worse, for all his “cool,” he can be irritating in how he constantly digs at the teacher (who is trapped in monster limbo BECAUSE OF THEM) with a consistently deployed snarky nickname and poison-dart comments to slice at her esteem.

Movie Review: Ghost Book

As for the more supernatural performances, Ryunosuke Kamiki gives the Shopkeeper a bouncing, sly vibe, which matches his eccentric fashion sense, but still struck me as overly safe and familiar—kind of a slightly less eccentric Japanese Willy Wonka type. Rie Kugimiya as Zukanbou plays the character as a chattering, high-pitched, excitable cartoon. I don’t have a complaint other than that again the performance feels trapped in predictability, and that may be the biggest problem with all the performances. Most of what we get are competent, watchable, executed with a measure of verve and energy—but they aren’t really memorable like Robin William’s Genie from Aladdin (1992), or Mari Natsuki’s Yubaba from Spirited Away (2001)—though Min Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai [2002]) comes close as the impressively menacing big bad Shizuri. The story has great moments and imaginative scenes, but the performances rarely stung me with a sense of surprise or noteworthiness.

On the other hand, the special effects felt cohesive, magical, and pretty dang cool at times—if not necessarily convincing. The alternate mixed up landscape of the world our heroes find themselves in is neat, with all the architecture and signage twisted and broken with weird angles and shifting transformations ala InceptionDr. Strange, or the warping staircases in the Harry Potter franchise. The novelization depicts this alternate world as a hastily pieced together faux reality for the purpose of the game-of-death the kids are participating in, so if the CGI looks not quite real, there is room to wiggle—the concept that the characters are in the equivalent of a video game is baked into the concept for the movie. The monsters look good—I won’t say they look perfect, but they look competent enough, with a cartoonish flair that is snug for the feel of this movie. Whereas The Great Yokai War: Guardians (2021) had for me inconsistent and sometimes weightless effects and creatures with little detail and an uneven mix between costumes and CGI, Ghost Book has silly-looking creatures, but it feels appropriate and cohesive. The dorky eyes and awkward fakeness doesn’t matter when it’s a walking jungle gym—it’s supposed to be crazy. The final monster, Shizuri, is a kaiju-sized creature with an impressive and intimidating design that is truly menacing. No, it’s not as convincing as something like Smaug from The Hobbit or the dragons from A Game of Thrones, but the wildness of the design meshes well with the unreality of the CGI here, too.

Movie Review: Ghost Book

Moving on to music, when the movie started, the twinkling, chiming soundtrack drew me in and provided an aural sheen to the world of the movie, and I found myself excited to see what was going to happen. That sense of immersion lessened as the film went on; the themes mostly did not stick out to me, though the soundtrack includes action-packed brass-heavy tracks and gentle, emotional, delicate cues that create a strong sense of the supernatural and sentimental emotion. The end theme, too, is a catchy Japanese pop song about yokai that was enough to inspire me to boogey in my seat. Still, while I like the energy and piercing emotion of the music, it never quite reaches the level of iconic, memorable melodies that resonate in the bones.

Given that I was completely unfamiliar with the book series Ghost Book is based on, I did some investigating and picked up several volumes to see what they were all about. Written by Hiroshi Saito and illustrated by Etsuyoshi Miyamoto, there are over thirty books in the Obakezukan series to date, as well as an animated adaptation from 2020 with 39 two-minute episodes. “Obake” means something like “ghost,” and “zukan” means “illustrated guidebook” more-or-less… and that’s basically what they are, and the origin of the title of the movie. The book series is NOT an ongoing story, or even an episodic collection of individual short stories, but rather more like descriptions of various monsters, their abilities and habits, and how to survive an encounter with them, written in an easygoing style in simplified Japanese (no kanji, which can make it a little frustrating to read). Each chapter introduces a monster and its habitat, tells how it attacks or otherwise menaces its victims, but then has a standard line that can be translated as “But it’s okay! You can do this, this, this to survive.” These guidelines are accompanied by Miyamoto’s brightly colored and distinctive artwork, with clean and lightly-detailed depictions of the monsters and human victims/survivors.

Movie Review: Ghost Book

But how does any of this translate into the story of the film? (Some spoilers are in this paragraph.) Takahashi Yamazaki also wrote the screenplay, and obviously he deviated from the source material—and he did not seem to take cues from the animated series either, which had a completely different main character and story involving a ghost cat. To be frank, when I was looking into the source material, I was confused at first because the books look so different from the movie—and the movie poster doesn’t have any of the distinctive artwork of Etsuyoshi Miyamoto. Essentially, the movie’s “Ghost Book” that Itsuki and the others use to trap the yokai is functionally a magical version of the books from the series. It gives details about each monster and how to defeat them and even the catchphrase “But it’s okay” (usually—this becomes an ominous plot point late in the film).  However, the ghost book from the movie doesn’t have as much information about the monsters as the real books do… and even the advice that the books give can be slightly different from that given in the movie sometimes. For example, I have the book Machi no Obakezukan, or “Ghost Book of the City,” which features yokai that appear in cities. Two of the monsters from this volume appear in the movie: Ittanmomen (a flying sheet) and Hyakume (which is a creature with one hundred eyes). The advice for defeating the Ittanmomen is basically the same in both (dirty his perfect white sheets). With the Hyakume, the book includes more details on how to defeat the monster than the movie gives. Both book and movie suggest using a hundred people to fight the monster and deplete his eye-ammunition, and that requirement is made a joke in both—who can get a hundred people together to fight a monster, after all? But whereas the book also gives an alternative to use a go board to fight the monster, in the movie the kids come up with an alternate plan on their own—which is a marked improvement, really.

A more troublesome change from when viewing the film as an adaptation, however, is that the design of the monster in the movie is so different. The Hyakume in the books appears like a big red square with arms and legs and wears a purple vest with green tufts of hair on each side of his noggin, while the creature in the movie is shaped more like a sumo wrestler (no vest!), and it has a distinct head, a mustache, and even a feather on its head. Whereas the book explicitly states that the Hyakume has no mouth, he is given one in the movie. Illustrations of the monsters are seen in the ghost book featured in the movie, and they look nothing like Miyamoto’s style. Of course, all that stuff about bringing wishes true is an invention for the movie as well. The end credits had illustrations of the monsters, too, which are animated and appear on a chalkboard—but even THOSE don’t look like Miyamoto’s drawings. For whatever faults the animated series may have had, at least they seemed to pattern the art on the books. I liked the movie quite a lot, but given it’s only very loose ties to the books, it feels like a waste of the property rights, almost as if the production designers of the film were embarrassed by their source material. Why use the books at all if the aspects chosen are such a small part of the film?

Ittanmomen

So much of Ghost Book operates on a level of childish fun, and if you as an audience member can’t get behind that glee, the movie won’t work. The performances teeter on the edge of strong competence without reaching excellence; and the music similarly undergirds the story with emotion and power mostly without distinctive and unique themes. But the special effects work is solid, with stylish monsters and a magically realized world and surprisingly well-staged action sequences. The film rarely whittles out much tension, but still manages more emotional resonance than I was expecting, and the ending just feels cozy and right for the genre. Stay through the credits for a little easter egg after (no Godzilla, though). Despite only the loosest connections to the source material, and some spotty bits of execution, I found this Ghost Book to have a good amount of life in it, and enjoyed it much more than The Great Yokai War: Guardians from last year. Give it a try if you like children’s fantasy, but steer clear if you want real scares.

3 and a Half Stars