Friday, October 30, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: Y is for Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)

Legends abound of a powerful entity of unbridled evil buried in the ruins of the ancient Babylonian city of Ur. It's been said anyone foolish enough to even enter the blighted pocket of land is never heard from again. Thus, the area has been abandoned for eons. Still, the lure of treasure will eventually make someone brave enough to go digging around, and so, when looters break into large crypt they disturb the spirit of Daimon, a powerful demonic sorcerer, who quickly shakes off his 4000 year nap by wiping out the grave-robbers with a wave of his magic staff. Then, Daimon decides to stretch his legs a bit, takes flight, and draws a bead on feudal Japan for reasons whose guesses are as good as mine.

Once there, Daimon slays Isobe (Kanda), a local magistrate, after easily defeating him in battle. The final blow -- well, bite, comes when Daimon spouts some fangs and latches onto Isobe's neck. This fatal DNA sample also allows Daimon to morph into a duplicate of Isobe, who usurps his role as lord of the land and quickly makes some drastic changes to the manor, beginning with destroying all the holy shrines found therein, much to the confusion of Isobe's daughter, Chie (Kawasaki), and chief samurai, Mayama (Aoyama). In his frenzy to burn it all, Daimon chucks an idol into the courtyard’s fishpond, conking a sleeping Kappa (Kuroki), a turtle-like water spirit, on the head, who surfaces to see what those crazy humans are up to -- just in time to see Daimon put the bite on Kawano (Kimura), Isobe’s second in command, and recoils as the demon sucks up the blood. But Kawano doesn't die; he becomes possessed just like his master and takes over the unholy purge.

Being a fellow supernatural spirit, the Kappa is able to see Daimon in his true form. Also extremely territorial, the doltish Kappa attacks Daimon but is easily overpowered and forcibly evicted from the estate. Fleeing to an abandoned shrine, the Kappa summons his fellow mischievous spirits and relates his tale of woe, hoping to rally his fellow monsters to help him defeat Daimon. But this cantankerous collection of critters refuses to believe the type of monster described really exists and won’t budge. Meanwhile, Chie and Mayama start finding drained corpses littering the house and grounds. Tying this in with the faux Isobe's odd behavior, Mayama consults a priest, who discerns a demon is now masquerading as his master.

Armed with several magic totems, the samurai tries and fails to exorcise the demon, which is so powerful just the feedback on a failed spell to kill Daimon backfires and consumes the priest! Now flush with victory, and feeling peckish, Daimon orders his men to round up all the local children they can find to satiate his thirst for blood. And the only thing standing in the way of Daimon’s ghoulish smorgasbord and total conquest is a rag-tag group of stubborn goblins – if they can ever get their shit together that is...

The term Yōkai is a catch-all-phrase for a conglomeration of strange mythological beings based on Japanese folklore or kaidan (strange stories). Loosely translated, it means “changing things” or “goblins” and each Yokai has a unique power set or trick, making them a form of proto-Pokemon if you’re looking for a contemporary comparison. Here, we have the water-spitting Kappa; a one-legged Kasa-obake, which resembles a flying umbrella that likes to lick things; the beautiful and terrifying two-faced damsel, Futakuchi-onna (Yukimoto); a sentient potato-turd known as Nuppeppo; the Rokurokubi (Mori), another female demon that uses it’s python like neck to strangle philandering men; and a foul-mouthed encephalitic midget named Abura-sumashi. There’s also a Teletubby type critter whose stomach serves as a TV screen / scrying pool to keep tabs on what Daimon is doing, and a were-lion, whose names I didn’t catch.

Mythologically speaking, what J.R.R. Tolkien is to elves and dwarfs Shigeru Mizuki is to Yokai. Born in 1922, Mizuki was a prolific illustrator until he was drafted into the Japanese army during World War II where he tragically lost his right arm during an air raid – compounded by the fact that he also lost his drawing hand. Undaunted, he taught himself to draw with his left hand and by 1957 he started a long career in manga, focusing on some of his favorite things: Yokai monsters. His comic series Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro popularized these critters and were insanely popular – so popular they got their own anime, which proved just as popular, explaining why Daiei Studios decided to make not one, not two, but a trilogy of Yokai monster movies that all came out within the same calendar year (March of 1968 – March of 1969).

Daiei was the chief competitor of Toho Studios when it came to Japanese sci-fi and fantasy movies. Gamera the flying, fire-breathing turtle was their kaiju-eiga answer to Godzilla. And the studio was just coming off the highly successful Daimajin trilogy, kind of a samurai spin on the legend of the Golem, and all three films are amazing and a visual delight, which makes one wonder if that had any influence on setting the Yokai series in feudal times? Or maybe they just had a bunch of Zatoichi sets lying around. (That’s me shrugging right now.)

Anyhoo, the first Yokai film, Yôkai hyaku monogatari a/k/a One Hundred Monsters (1968) concerns an evil landlord who rousts all the tenants out of a building so he can turn it into a brothel, which brings down the wrath of the spirits. Like its kaiju minded brethren, the Yokai kinda take a backseat to the human protagonists, which is too bad as the F/X employed to realize them is really clever and quite effective. (The giant demon looking into the window even gave me a slight case of the heebie-jeebies.) I have yet to see the third installment, Tôkaidô obake dôchû a/k/a Along the Ghost Road (1969) but I’m happy to report that the second feature, Yōkai Daisensō a/k/a Spook Warfare (1968), brings the monsters we all paid to see to the forefront. And this time, they are less vengeful and malevolent spirits and more mischievous gremlins and in the end heroic, basically taking a page from the Gamera playbook by making them the friend to all children.

For you see, it isn’t until Daimon’s goon squad starts rousting villagers do the Yokai finally get involved; in particular, one peasant family who manages to sneak their two children out before they are seized as portable blood donors. As their parents are slaughtered, the two children find refuge in the abandoned shrine where the Yokai are bivouacked. And after hearing their tale, realizing the Kappa wasn’t lying, the monsters quickly rout Daimon’s men and prepare for an assault on his fortress. Unfortunately, they still underestimate the demon’s power and, refusing to coordinate a joint attack, each Yokai attacks Daimon individually with disastrous results. (The scene where he ties the Rokurokubi’s elongated neck into a knot is pretty nifty.)

And to make matters even worse, Mayama also launches another attack but his talisman winds up trapping near all the Yokai in a spirit jar instead. However, Mayama does manage to put an arrow in Daimon’s eye, essentially killing the host body. Even though this proves the demon has a vulnerable spot, Daimon once more appears to be several steps ahead of everyone else as he quickly chomps on the newly appointed magistrate, and so, essentially loses nothing. And his first order of business is to set the date of Mayama’s execution for the murder of ‘Isobe.'

Meanwhile, still trapped in the jar, the Yokai manage to attract a few free spirits. They can’t break the magic seal on the jar but Chie can and does. Realizing they must work together to defeat Daimon, the Yokai send out a call for all the native spirits to join them in driving out this invading demon. Thus, with an army of Yokai marching on his fortress, Daimon creates several clones of himself for the upcoming rumble, which goes completely bonkers once fists and tongues start flying. The Yokai strategy is simple, find the real Daimon and separate him from his staff of power. With this they succeed, but Daimon is far from defeated and quickly grows to kaiju-size and starts stomping around. All seems lost until word comes of Daimon’s true vulnerable spot, and a desperate effort is made to take out his other eye before he crushes them all.

Tetsurô Yoshida wrote all three Yokai Monster movies (-- he also scripted all three Daimajin films.) Again, it was mostly based on Shigeru’s work but also borrows liberally from the story of Momotaro, who leads a group of native animals to fight off a group of demons that have taken over an island. The second film was directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda and it is beautifully shot. The Yokai are a combination of make-up, people in rubber suits, and puppetry. Sadly, information on who designed, built and brought all those wonderful critters to life is pretty sparse. So whoever you were out there, man, great job.

Of the two I’ve seen, the Yokai movies are a surprising amount of fun and genuinely kind of creepy. On the surface they seem to be geared toward children but what we get on screen is rather bawdy and gruesome – and that first one, with the brothel and its paying customers? I mean, *sheesh*. In 2003, ADV Films released the first two Yokai films on DVD, which look great with some amazing transfers. And on the heels of that, in 2005, Takashi (he’s really not right in the head) Miike essentially remade Spook Warfare as The Great Yokai War, which includes a bunch of kung-fu hamsters that I really didn’t care for. (The kung-fu hamsters weren’t the problem.) And after revisiting Spook Warfare, the desire to also revisit the first and finally finish off the original trilogy has definitely been rekindled. TO THE AMAZON!

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd.

Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968) Daiei Motion Picture Company / EP: Ahiko Murai, Masaichi Nagata / P: Yamato Yashiro / D: Yoshiyuki Kuroda / W: Tetsurô Yoshida / C: Hiroshi Imai / E: Toshio Taniguchi / M: Sei Ikeno / S: Chikara Hashimoto, Akane Kawasaki, Gen Kimura, Takashi Kanda, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Hideki Hanamura, Chikara Hashimoto,

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