The story the director tells is not especially memorable. In fact, it is pretty much like countless other adventure movies in which some person, usually a little boy, as is the case here, falls into some magical land or acquires some special power and then, having been proclaimed the savior of the world, must set out on a quest to procure a magical artifact or discover his bravery in order to defeat an insidious villain.
Nonetheless, Miike has embellished his work with so many odd touches that, in spite of its limitations, and although it is clearly a children's movie, it is still likely that a great many adults will be able to enjoy it. There are, for example, several genuinely funny moments. At one point, when the characters, having been knocked off the magical transport they were using to fly through the air, are forced to grab ahold of the wing of a passing airplane, the director suddenly stops the scene to show a placard warning children not to try to do this. Elsewhere, he includes what is, almost certainly, the most blatant example of product placement I have ever seen. The sequence in question actually plays out like a television commercial. Instead of being irritated by this scene, however, the viewer is almost sure to laugh at its goofy audacity. I simply cannot enumerate the variety of strange little details that have been included in the film.
What is more, The Great Yokai War is populated by an incredible diversity of outlandish monsters, most of which are based on beings from Japanese folklore. At different times, the director presents the viewer with a living one-eyed umbrella that hops about on its single foot and has a long tongue lolling out its mouth, a hapless little pot that runs about on a pair of tiny legs, frog-headed litter-bearers, a wall that can lift itself from the ground and wander about, a woman who is able to extend her prehensile neck as far as she desires so that, like a serpent, it can slither from one place to the next, and so on and so on. Most of these creatures contribute little more than their odd appearance to the narrative, but even this is enough to give The Great Yokai War such a mesmerizing weirdness that the viewer is rarely able to look away from it.
Regrettably, the personalities of the more important spirits are not revealed with equal success, although most are amusing. The sad but very pretty river spirit, Kawa-Hime (Mai Takahashi), is likeable, and the viewer is made to empathize with her, even if she is given so little to do besides looking cute and showing off her constantly moist thighs that her potential is largely wasted. The turtle-like Kappa (Sadao Abe) mainly provides comic relief, but his antics are far more annoying than they are funny. The adorable little Sunekosuri is entirely too saccharine, but the abuse that is given to him, which often causes his yellowish blood and innards to squirt out of his fuzzy puppet body, so contrasts with his cuteness that his being so cute actually adds to the movie's eccentric charm. Perhaps the most entertaining of the spirits, however, is the villain's henchwoman, Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama), who, attired in a skintight and very short dress and wearing an enormous white beehive wig, spends nearly the whole of the movie hunting down and capturing various yokai so that she can transform them into gigantic robots shaped like letters of the roman alphabet. Even she might not have much of a personality, but her vicious, whip-lashing antics are tremendously fun to watch.
Not surprisingly, most of the performances of the actors are ridiculously hammy. Sometimes, as with Chiaki Kuriyama's, this works. Other times, it does not. Natsuhiko Kyougoku is just forgettable, and Sadao Abe is, frankly, a little grating. The weakest actor in the movie is, however, the lead. Children are rarely skilled performers, and, I am afraid, Ryunosuke Kamiki is not one of the rare exceptions. He really does little more than mug at the camera to convey his character's happiness, fear, or excitement.
Whatever its weaknesses, The Great Yokai War is a wonderfully fun movie. If the viewer is able to enjoy a constantly weird, completely overwrought tale of supernatural adventure, then he will probably enjoy Miike's latest effort.
Review by Keith Allen
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