Yokai, a general term that indicates an entire class of supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore and mythology, have a long history of cinematic representations in Japanese film—most popularly in the west in Ghibli’s Spirited Away. For tokusatsu fans, on the other hand, one of the most enduring renditions has been the Yokai Monsters series of films from Daiei. Heavily influenced by Shigeru Mizuki and his Gegege no Kitaro franchise, the Yokai Daisenso films began as a trilogy of quirky and creepy films back in the 1960s. These movies were period pieces, something like jidaigeki/samurai films characterized by encounters with supernatural creatures and usually laced with humor. The wide variety of yokai that appeared in those films were created mostly through costumes and puppetry, and while those physical effects were rarely very convincing, the movies are exceedingly charming for those open to the workmanlike patchwork feel. One of my favorite yokai is the haunted umbrella, or kasa bakemono, and I am a proud owner of an adult-sized costume which has gotten great mileage at Halloween parties here in Japan.
After the original Yokai Monsters trilogy there were no further entries until 2005, when ubiquitous genre director Takashi Miike put his spin on the franchise with The Great Yokai War. That movie reframed the franchise with an eye even more keenly set on children than the previous films; the main character was a child caught in a battle between teams of yokai, and the story delved deeply into themes of tradition vs. modernity. The antagonist yokai was creating new monsters from modern technology, and the biomechanical monstrosities were designed by Yasushi Nirasawa, who also designed the Godzilla: Final Wars version of Gigan—and, knowing that, the pedigree is unmistakable. Miike’s film was more of a reboot than a continuation of the previous films, and it utilized CGI effects in combination with more costumes and puppets to create a quirky hybrid feel. With hundreds of monsters appearing, and Miike’s unique touch giving the film some sense of life, the story ended on a cliffhanger, suggesting that sequels might be on the way.
That movie, however, was not a huge success, and the sequel never materialized. It would take sixteen years for Miike to finally make the next movie in the franchise, once again rebooting the story, and moving mostly away from the story threads of the first film (even if certain creatures and characters appear again, such as the adzuki bean washer). The Great Yokai War: Guardians was released on August 13, 2021, and sustains the kid-centric approach of the previous film. This time, amongst the promotional materials, we had a manga adaptation running in Shonen Ace from last year, as well as a cross-tie-in with the “Unko Kanji Drill”–textbooks teaching Japanese writing with example sentences about poop. For tokusatsu fans, The Great Yokai War: Guardians was also very exciting because it brought back that other frequently overlooked Daiei monster from the sixties, Daimajin, who appears in a large role within this film. Guardians also has a strong kaiju appeal, given that the nemesis in this movie is a “yokaiju”—an enormous, 300-meter-tall giant that would rival Godzilla Earth in size.
I dutifully set out to see the film on opening night, despite the rainstorm that was drenching the city where I live (and which continued to rain down all weekend). While the movie theater I attended seemed to be somewhat lively, the actual showing only had around ten to fifteen people, which, while more than showed up on opening night for my showing of Godzilla vs. Kong, was still pretty slim. Some left during the show as well.
I will be going into some spoilers here, so if you do want to see the film free of such commentary, feel free to skip to the final paragraph of my article.
The story of Guardians follows two brothers, Kei and Dai Watanabe, who are in (I believe) elementary school and who live with their single mom—their father has died, and remains a mysterious figure through most of the movie. Early in the film we see that a giant monster has been awakened, the previously mentioned Yokaiju, which initially looks like a curled-up shell possessed by a giant bald human head. The Yokaiju rolls across Japan, smashing things up, and threatening to sever the main island down the middle. Kei has been selected due to ancestry as a hero to awaken Daimajin (named “Bujin” in the film) and, together, to fight the Yokaiju and save Japan. However, little brother Dai (who is braver than his older sibling) is mistaken for the chosen one, and is whisked away by the good yokai in order to prepare to fight the Yokaiju. Kei, realizing what has happened, teams up with a fox-spirit and a flying bone-dragon-thing to try to save his brother and, hopefully, Japan itself from death and destruction.
For me, the story works… at first, but runs well out of steam by the end. Written by Yusuke Watanabe, who also wrote the screenplays for the live-action GANTZ (2011) and Attack on Titan (2015) films (oh boy), the set-up feels conventional but still maintains interest. I liked how Kei initially uses a leaf to cover one eye in order to interact with the yokai, and the mystery behind his father and his hesitant relationship with his brother at least inject the movie with intrigue and pathos. I liked the fox-spirit (those eyes!), and while the parade of yokai feels forced sometimes, it’s fun seeing the wide variety of creatures. There are even international yokai that appear in a council scene, ala Shigeru Mizuki’s “Great Yokai War” manga story from Gegege no Kitaro (I will bring him up again later). Watching Kei overcome his fears and enter into the dangerous world of yokai, his eventual transformation, his chance to ride the bone-dragon… while by no means enthralling, I was at least entertained.
Still, the movie falters around halfway, and the climactic action (in my opinion) almost completely falls apart. One issue for me is that Kei instantly becomes a great warrior through the use of a mystical sword; he doesn’t really earn it, he is just controlled by the sword and amazing, which I think is just kind of a boring story choice. A second issue is that there are so many yokai, and most of them don’t really have a strong role to play. I had a hard time relating to their infighting, and some individuals are frankly irritating (the yuki-onna in particular, who has a crush on a tough yokai and constantly makes comments about how she likes cold men).
I have mixed feelings about the use of Daimajin, and I imagine the movie will engender a mild controversy amongst fans. The incarnation of Daimajin here retains a sense of danger AND the role of the rage-fueled anti-hero that the god-statue played out in his own trilogy of films. His look, with veins of lava across his body, is striking (if perhaps a bit reminiscent of Shin Godzilla), and I liked how his face-changes are handled. He is also remarkably powerful—pretty sure he would kick Godzilla’s ever-loving hinder.
So much of how this movie goes over with fans I think will come down to how they react to the climactic confrontation between Daimajin and the Yokaiju. For me, this confrontation was very unsatisfying. I believe the story was heavily influenced by Shigeru Mizuki’s stance against violence and the use of battles to resolve conflict. The ultimate method for the Yokaiju’s defeat is… well, it’s just…
Look, I want to talk about it, so seriously, if you don’t want the ending spoiled, skip the next paragraph.
Okay, so, yeah, so, after Daimajin slices the Yokaiju in half, the monster reconstitutes itself into a pretty cool-looking giant dragon. The appearance of the dragon scares Daimajin, who changes his mask into a scaredy-face (sigh), and then the kids have to save the day because Daimajin is useless now. The two tikes thus defeat the Yokaiju by… singing a song. They just sing, and tanuki play their bellies as drums, and the various yokai join in, and the Yokaiju transforms into a giant tree for some reason, then disintegrates, happy ending. After that, Daimajin randomly becomes angry and tries to stomp on Dai. Kei stops him by (sigh) catching the giant statue’s foot and holding him up somehow, and the giant avenging statue is so moved by their brotherly devotion or somesuch rot that he reverts back to his slumber. Now the actual resolution to the giant monster fight felt anti-climactic and poorly set-up. It didn’t feel earned, and while the execution is cinematic and has swelling chords and dramatic intention, it didn’t connect with me. Then the face-off with Daimajin just felt overdone, makes the giant look stupid, and… gosh darn it, the whole thing is pretty lame. That’s all.
That said, performances are pretty solid. Child performers are often the weak link, and while Kokoro Terada as Kei doesn’t have great range (I think he makes the same awed gasps and startled grunts a million times in the movie), he still shows emotion and passion and I liked him. The actor who plays Dai is cute as frick, and that’s all he needs to be. I liked Hana Sugisaki as the fox-spirit—she shows a lot of emotion with her bulging eyes, even if she doesn’t really get to do THAT much. The devilish Amanojaku, played by Eiji Akaso, seems to be channeling Nezumi Otoko from Gegege no Kitaro, and he is… fine. I don’t know, I didn’t really LIKE him, but the performance matched the smarmy, untrustworthy character of the guy. As mentioned previously, I didn’t like the Yuki-Onna played by Yuko Oshima, but I also wasn’t overly fond of Sakura Ando as Ubume and her overly gaping performance. Takao Osawa, who I am often not a big fan of, is really charismatic as the head of the Tanukis. I liked his sneering and posturing.
Special effects are, like most everything else, a mix. There are many, many monster costumes and puppets, which are great fun to see, and I loved just trying to get a glimpse of the different designs that appear. I wish everything had been practical. The CGI sometimes looks decent, especially in the cases of Yokaiju and Daimajin, though movements can look jerky and ridiculous; there are too many scenes where the CGI creatures seem to kind of lash around with little weight to them.
The Great Yokai War: Guardians offers a bit of folkloric amusement for kids and non-discerning adults, bringing back franchises from the grave, but without really continuing much from what came before. The cliffhanger from The Great Yokai War was not addressed (that I noticed), and the new narrative is only partially successful, with a botched climactic series of confrontations that drain much of the tension away. Performances are mostly good, but if you can’t get behind the story, it’s hard to care much. Guardians seems to be trying to set up a franchise, too, but given the low turn-out I saw, I am not going to be waiting around for the next film to show up. A mildly disappointing kiddy monster-fest.