The stories regarding Minamoto no Yorimitsu and his four guardian kings and their conquest of demons in the first century have been fodder for a lot of different media over the years, including Noh plays, kabuki plays, wood block prints and eventually film. The Demon of Mount OE is an especially good amalgam of the various tales and their popular presentations from the past, even though it’s somewhat tainted by its sympathetic treatment of the villain.
The story revolves around Yorimitsu’s efforts to stop Shuten-doji from overthrowing the Mikado and hurling Japan into turmoil. Much like Tekken or Mortal Combat, Yorimitsu has four guardian kings on his side, each with a powerful weapon. Not to be outdone, Shuten-doji has amassed an army of bandits and he’s also helped by a cadre of demons. If, like me, you were raised on Ray Harryhausen and Hammer horror fare, this kind of movie is hard to resist.
Director Tokuzo Tanaka takes a dream cast of Daiei studio regulars and weaves them into a visual tapestry that takes its design cues from the popular woodblock prints that told these very same stories centuries before. The imagery really resonates if you’re as familiar with these famous prints as most Japanese would be. Along with his adept production team, Tanaka carefully recreates enough of the costumes and poses to strike a chord, but then wisely moves on to the action. There’s a fine line between milking a concept and using it to your advantage and Tanaka walks it successfully. Shot composition is inventive and interesting but it’s the use of theatrical lighting that makes these images shine, no pun intended. I especially liked how magenta light was used to indicate magical beings.
The only shortcomings on display here are the fights. They’re stagey at best, especially when the camera gets in close. You can clearly see that the actors are pulling their punches and missing their targets. Most of the fight scenes play like they were mark-throughs for the stunt team. We know how well some of these actors could perform with a blade. It’s really too bad they didn’t get much opportunity here.
Speaking of the cast, it’s a veritable who’s who of Daiei stars including Raizo Ichikawa as Yorimitsu and Shintaro Katsu as Watanabe no Tsuna, one of the four guardian kings. Together, they certainly seem invincible and, as we now know, both would go on to star in tentpole franchises. Not to be outdone, Kazuo Hasegawa rips down walls as Shuten-doji even though the script hobbles his performance to some degree.
In this version of the story, Shuten-doji is practically justified in his actions. The Mikado, who he seeks to overthrow, is shown to be a petty, bitter man of little worth to the Japanese people. Add in a few scenes where Shuten-doji is kind and level headed and you have a recipe for a film with a castrated bad guy. Not to worry, though. The demons make up for any shortcomings in that area!
Too much information about the demons and the wonderful, practical effects that bring them to life here would do a disservice to potential viewers, but I will say that I found them goofy and charming and scary all at the same time. A wizard who hurls web-like streamers from his fingertips then turns into a spark-spitting giant spider has got my attention from the word go!
As movies about Yorimitsu go, I prefer the much more mature and horrific rendering of the character in Kuroneko (reviewed here). That doesn’t mean this is bad. It’s just a little more Jason and the Argonauts than it is The Ring. If you like a little whimsy and history with your horror, this film is right up your alley. Highly Recommended.