What if Sid and Marty Krofft had been Japanese? I suspect they’d have created a series of films much like the Yokai Monsters trilogy. The stories of the three films aren’t connected but they all feature the bizarre creatures and spirits from Japanese folklore who step in when the local people are in trouble.
In the first film, Spook Warfare, that trouble comes in the form of a Babylonian vampire named Daimon who’s awakened by some Arab grave robbers. He’s not much to look at with his green conehead and bird feet, but he makes the most of his odd life and randomly decides to descend upon feudal Japan and kill a local daimyo. He then takes the daimyo’s place and feasts upon a buffet of servants and townsfolk.
His plan is well underway when a kappa spots the daimyo and sees his true face. He summons his friends and between the creatures and the remaining humans, Daimon is taken to task for his wrongdoings. Just think the A-Team with weirdos. No, wait. the A-team IS the A-Team with weirdos. Okay, then think the A-Team with bizarro, Japanese creatures and spirits and you pretty much have the gist.
While the film definitely works as a children’s actioner, it also has the added benefit of showing off some of the most notorious ghosts and creatures of Japan for us gaijin. I knew of the kappa, but the umbrella monster was a new one to me. Just seeing it onscreen prompted me to look it up. It’s a kasa-obake, a spirit that comes from an object reaching its hundredth year of existence. In this case, the object is a paper parasol that has one leg, one eye, and a long, Gene Simmons tongue. You can’t make this stuff up.
The biggest problem the film has is its complete lack of character development. If I saw the various yokai’s lines on paper, I wouldn’t know who said what. That’s a dramatic problem. Love it or hate it, at least the A-team weirdos had broad personality traits. Even the humans here are heinously undeveloped, but this is a folklore tale for children. I just think it could have been better. See Daimajin if you want to see this concept done right. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the two. Folk tales really are about plot and plot alone, and what’s here definitely works.
The transfer I saw was terrible. It looked like the contrast was turned way down with the end result being that blacks are awfully grey. That’s bad news for a film whose scenes mostly take place at night or by candlelight. Even so, it’s hard to complain when we should have a harder time finding a film as obscure as this one.
Writer Tetsuro Yoshida wrote 22 screenplays in his career, among them three Zatoichi films and the Daimajin trilogy. Those are much better films than Yokai Monsters, but not necessarily because of the writing. Film tech just wasn’t quite up to the task of showing us an army of Japanese spirits in 1968. Director Yoshiyuki Kuroda was a good choice since he was an effects guy, but even he couldn’t overcome the technical limitations of 1968. The Japanese definitely needed their own Ray Harryhausen.
I understand that Takashi Miike has crafted a remake of sorts with his film The Great Yokai War. I’m eager to see if modern filmmaking techniques are more up to the task of presenting these legends on screen.
Even with its limitations, this is a charming film and a great way to introduce kids who can read (this isn’t dubbed) to the wonders of Japanese cinema. Recommended for children and those of us who are still kids at heart.