Japan Cuts 2021: The Great Yokai War: Guardians – A Kaiju for All the Family

Though most known for extreme films such as Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), Takashi Miike has helmed a wide variety of films. Though, to be honest, it’s hard not to have done when you’ve directed over a hundred. Still, family friendly adventure is not Miike’s wheelhouse, he is famous for the outlandish and the downright weird, after all. But, his 2005 film The Great Yokai War was a hit, nominally a family friendly adventure but also featuring body horror; robots shaped like blood splattered torture devices and a message about the importance of lying. This sequel is less scrappy and more streamlined, capturing what worked about the original but not fully giving in to its madness.

Rather than functioning as a direct sequel, this film is very much a standalone continuation of the same mythos. Both films are inspired by wider projects (a classic film and a manga of the same name, for example) but are primarily based on Japanese folklore. The idea is that Yokai (supernatural entities in Japanese folklore) exist but exist on a different plane of reality to humans. The Yokai can traverse this barrier and, every now and then, something happens that threatens to destroy one or both worlds. In this film, the threat is an awakened monster: a Yokaiju. It’s a possessed rolling ball, made of fossils that lived in the ancient sea that is now Japan, that wants to return to the ocean. What this means is rolling across Japan and destroying Tokyo (it’s a kaiju film!). This is bad news for the human realm but even worse for the Yokai, as destroying Tokyo means unleashing an evil that has been locked up there, something that will bring ultimate destruction. The specifics around this are not important, what is important is the journey to solve them.

The Great Yokai War: Guardians. Dir. Takashi Miike

Here, we follow two young brothers who have been taken into the Yokai world in order to help out. They belong to a supposedly heroic bloodline and are the only hope, for plot reasons. It is traditional stuff but the film finds fun ways to play with tradition, and knows the impact of using a tried and tested structure. The appeal here is the world of the Yokai, a cornucopia of creatures that allow the film to go off into a number of directions. These monsters look brilliant and they often just fill the screen. It is fun to just scan the frames and take in the diversity of design on offer. They are also used well, certain Yokai are pushed to the forefront and feel very distinct. Some are solid repeating gags (one that just washes beans is just great) whereas some guide the narrative. There is a mix of CGI and practical effects and, like the first film, though neither is best in class on a technical level, the design work is very strong. Yes, not everything feels real but everything looks great. The cartoonish unreality of it all even helps to sell the idea of a different dimension, of a world of stories and imagination that exists beyond our own.

The entire journey is populated by striking set-pieces. Nothing is world changing or overly ambitious but everything entertains. Considering the low bar of your average blockbuster, this is somewhat of a revelation. It may be just that it is pulling from a different range of iconography, but this feels more creative and less stale than its international contemporaries. The overall narrative is very traditional, hitting expected beats, but this allows the film to be more creative outside of this. Following a straightforward path lets us stop at a lot of fun destinations, and prioritises them over the journey itself. That being said, the pacing is tight and the character work serviceable. The film does a good job of invoking a wider lore – relying on events that came before and gesturing to wider history and tradition – while never feeling bogged down by it. It also expands on its own lore nicely, in self aware ways. A scene at a Yokai convention is a highlight, as it widens the Yokai definition, pulling in folkloric creatures from all over the world to facilitate a classic ‘help us save Japan’ meeting scene, the kind that is in countless kaiju flicks (Godzilla especially).

The Great Yokai War: Guardians. Dir. Takashi Miike

A real joy here, though, is the way the film escalates from children’s fantasy and adventure (feeling accessible while never feeling childish in a prejorative sense) to a straight up kaiju film. This movie marks the return of a well known kaiju, used in the marketing but handled as a reveal in the film, and the climax delivers a large-scale, kaiju grudge match of the kind we rarely get to see with this kind of budget behind it. This face-off delivers on the spectacle, relying again on art-design over technical proficiency but the sense of scale is still impressive. However, the final sequences are an example of where the film’s layered identity holds it back. For the most part, the child friendly tone does not get in the way but the final confrontations feel stifled by it. We build up to a genre expectation and then Miike, usually the master of endings, takes a step back when you expect a leap forwards. It is a creative way to end, and has some emotional satisfaction, but is not in concert with the key joys of the film.

Still, this is an incredibly entertaining work and a sharp piece of filmmaking. It is also a step up from the original, though lacks some of its punkier edges. It is still a strange film, especially for its genre, and mostly uses its potential well to deliver visual splendour and exciting action sequences. It may not be the big kaiju blockbuster you would quite want but it certainly is a genuinely good family friendly blockbuster, and that’s a rare thing.

7/10

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