Yokai Monsters Collection (Cert 15)

3 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 79/79/78/124 minutes approx.

Release Date – October 18th

In case you are not familiar with the term, “Yokai” is an all-encompassing Japanese word for “monster”, commonly used to describe any supernatural creature from Japanese folklore. As staples of Japanese legend, it was inevitable Yokai would make it to the big screen and this Blu-ray collection from Arrow Video collates the Yokai Monsters trilogy from the ‘60s and a modern reimagining from Takashi Miike!

 

100 Monsters directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda was made in 1968. A slow burning tale of corruption and greed set in feudal Japan, it centres on Hotta-Buzennokami (Ryutaro Gomi), a wealthy landowner and his plans to tear down a shrine and tenements in a small village to build a brothel, having bribed his way to getting official approval.

To celebrate his deal, Hotta-Buzennokami holds a party where a rakugo artist tells the 100 Tales about Yokai, which is supposed to end with a ritual to prevent the stories coming true, but Hotta-Buzennokami says it is superstition and ignores the request. This proves to be his undoing when later, as his men start to demolish the shrine, spooky events get in their way.

Made on a clear shoestring budget, there aren’t 100 monsters – only three crop up in the first hour, then a parade of about 15 briefly appear at the end. The first monster, an immobile giant hairy Cyclops except for its arms; second is a long necked woman only partly impressive; finally, an umbrella yokai which in animated form is great but its sentient form is a large marionette moving with the grace of a Thunderbird puppet.

Fortunately the story is fleshed out by a ronin Yasutaro (Jun Fujimaki) helping out the villagers by getting in Hotta-Buzennokami’s way every time he tries a sleazy new tact to move his demolition project forward. Despite the best efforts of the cast, this isn’t scary but the monsters would probably impress a 10 year-old child.

 

Spook Warfare was released later in 1968, directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda and it seems lessons were learned from the first film. Right from the start, the improved budget is on display with the setting of the Babylonian city of Ur where historical ruins are disturbed, resurrecting vampiric monster Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto). Daimon flies off to Japan, and possesses the first human he encounters, Lord Hyogo Isobe (Takashi Kanda).

Under this guise, Daimon’s gruff new attitude upsets Isobe’s daughter Lady Chie (Akane Kawasaki), whilst he secretly kills off the staff by drinking their blood. Daimon’s cover is almost blown when spotted by a Kappa (Gen Kuroki) who tries to warn the other Yokai but they don’t believe him. When young children are being round up for Daimon to drink their blood, the monsters decide to take action to get rid of this evil interloper.

You won’t believe the difference between this film and 100 Monsters – literally everything is considerably better, from the story to the effects, the acting and the monster count, which may not hit 100 but gets damn close for the climax. The umbrella Yokai returns and is still a gauche marionette but the others are largely impressive looking costumes, although the two-faced woman’s second face is a bit ropey, luckily her first is cute!

Chikara Hashimoto played the titular Daimajin in the trilogy thus has form playing stoic monsters, and in tribute to this Daimon grows to sky scraping height for the climactic battle. Quite easily the best film in the trilogy, and everything the first film should have been.

 

Along With Ghosts from 1969 saw Kuroda and Yasuda share directing duties, but sadly also saw a return to the low budget disappointment of 100 Monsters. A corrupt official Higuruma (Yoshindo Yamaji) kills a courier with evidence of his misdemeanours, despite old priest Jinbei (Bokuzen Hidari) warning him not to spill blood on this sacred ground or forever be cursed by the forest spirits.

Jinbei is attacked, while the document ends up in the hands of his young granddaughter Miyo (Masami Burukido). Miyo throws the document away but Higurama is still after her, so Jinbei sends Miyo to the village of Yui to find her estranged father. Miyo is helped by kindly ronin Hyakasuro (Kojiro Hongo) and other good natured villagers, but just as it seems Higurama has won, the Yokai learn about his acts on their sacred turf.

Describing my incredulity at watching this film after the huge leap in quality between the first two films is near impossible. Usually the third entry in a trilogy tops the prior ones, making the fact it didn’t happen here a real mystery. The story is a well crafted samurai drama with some nice twists, and feels a little wasted as a backdrop for the Yokai, again limited in both numbers and screen time. 

Perhaps Daiei Films blew their budget on Spook Warfare, or one of the concurrently shot Gamera films, explaining the huge step down in quality and Yokai. It works as a decent if rather bloody tale of evil getting its comeuppance, but brings this trilogy to a close on a flat note.

 

Maybe this was something Takashi Miike had in mind when he made 2005’s The Great Yokai War. If anyone can restore the greatness of this franchise to its silly but exciting glory it is the master of silly and glorious cinema. With nods to Spook Warfare, the story concerns Tadashi Ino (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a young Tokyo-ite now living in the country, who is chosen at a festival to be the Kirin Rider.

His task is to collect a sword from the fabled Goblin King in the mountains and protect the village with it, but as Tadashi soon finds out, this isn’t part of traditional pageantry, this is the real deal. A vengeful demon Yasunori Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) plans to wreak havoc on humankind for their destruction of old Japanese tribes by fusing Yokai with discarded electrical and mechanical goods to create metal monsters, with the ultimate aim to birth a giant monster Yomotsumono built on hate.  

Very much a children’s film in tone and spirit, this is the by far the creepiest and darkest of the Yokai films making it quite unsuitable for its intended audience. And running for over 2 hours isn’t kiddie friendly either – a good 20 minutes could have been excised to make for a more enjoyable film. The story is strong in places and weak in others but this is about the spectacle of the Yokai, and the combination of bigger budgets and modern technology ensure that aspect id delivered upon.

Relying on a mixture of CGI, hand puppetry, and bespoke-crafted costumes, there are no excuses for this being the most credible entry in this set SFX wise, even if some of the green (blue actually) screen stuff looks a little dated in places. Among the cast is Chiaki Kuriyama as Agi, Kato’s evil henchwoman, and an unrecognisable Sadao Abe as the Kappa Kawatro, whilst Miike seems to have a fixation for the thighs of Mei Takahashi (now known as Seiko Iwaido) as Kawahime.

Juxtaposed with the earlier Yokai films, Miike’s work makes it clear what can be achieved with the right tools whilst the earlier films exemplify the benefits and strength of having a robust and engaging story to tell.

 

In conclusion, this is a tidy collection of films covering one of the more popular facets of traditional Japanese folklore as captured for the big screen, and whilst they can hardly be deemed cinematic or artistic triumphs in the strictest sense, the rich history they represent and the earnestness of the spirit behind the making of each entry results in a curio worthy of your time.

 

Extras:

Original Uncompressed Japanese Mono Audio (Discs 1 & 2 only)

Japanese 2.0 (Disc 3 only)

DTS-HD MA 5.1 Original Japanese (Disc 3 only)

DTS-HD MA 5.1 Dubbed English Audio (Disc 3 only)

English Subtitles

Disc 1:

Hiding In Plain Sight: A Brief History Of Yokai

Theatrical Trailer

US Re-release Trailer

Image Gallery

Disc 2:

Theatrical Trailers For Both Films

US Re-release Trailers For Both Films

Image Galleries For Both Films

Disc 3:

Audio Commentary By Tom Mes

Archive Interviews With Cast And Crew

Short Drama Of Yokai

Another Story Of Kawataro

World Yokai Conference

Promotional Events

Documentary On Ryunosuki Kamiki

Theatrical Trailer

Image Gallery

Limited Edition Only:

Illustrated 60-page collectors’ book

Reversible Sleeves

Art Postcards

Foldout ‘Yokai Guide’ Poster

 

Click thumbnail for full size image

 

Rating – ****  

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