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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005

Goblins are great, but not 'Harry'

Youkai Daisenso

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Tsuguhiko Kadokawa
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Announcing the production of "Yokai Daisenso (The Great Goblin War)" last September, Kadokawa Group chairman Tsuguhiko Kadokawa said the film would "rival 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings' in its worldwide appeal."

News photo
Ryunosuke Kamiki in "Yokai Daiseno"

Can we dismiss this as hyperbole? Yes, we can.

Borrowing its title and little else from the 1968 Yoshiyuki Kuroda film about Japanese goblins (yokai) on the rampage, "Yokai Daisenso" is being promoted as Kadokawa's "60th anniversary film," meaning it's not just another would-be summer blockbuster, but a symbol of corporate pride.

Charged with "making the chairman's" words a reality is Takashi Miike, the bad-boy director best known for his head-first plunges into depravity, madness and general weirdness, among them "Audition," "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)" and "Visitor Q." All good fun, supposedly -- but with Miike, who knows? It's as if Disney had hired David Lynch to make a live-action version of "Snow White," in which Grumpy inhales a potent gaseous substance through a plastic mask.

Miike, however, has been dipping into the mainstream for a long time now, including the family-friendly "Zebraman," whose baddies were aliens that looked like cute green lab flasks. The goblins in "Yokai" are also more on the cuddly than scary side, though Miike and his production team have made the principal ones both eccentrically individual and impeccably traditional, as though they'd stepped out of an Edo Period print -- or a classic manga by film adviser Shigeru Mizuki ("Gegege no Kitaro"). Assembled in one room, they have the look of old-time sideshow freaks on their lunch break -- instead of the fish boy and the bearded lady, a three-eyed man and snake-necked girl stare at you with an unsettling directness, though they are not going to traumatize any but the most impressionable.

The story, of a wimpy kid who uses a powerful sword to battle supernatural enemies, while learning the usual lessons about courage and friendship, is a blenderization and Japanization of the "Potter" and "LOR" films. Miike tells it with an energy bordering on the manic and characteristic touches of black humor, but he can't disguise its recycled nature.

Also, though he and his effects people create a funny/creepy phantasmagoric world that is distinctively Miike, his attempts to build tension and suspense are less than inspired. Attitude, not talent, is the problem. Miike can't help winking at his material -- and who can blame him?

Keeping the movie from becoming a campy cartoon is star Ryunosuke Kamiki. A 12-year-old prodigy with 10 years in the business, Kamiki posesses a natural vivacity and polished acting chops -- and makes most other child actors look like hams or zombies. Playing each scene with total commitment and control, he keeps the film on track, even when his director has an impish urge to derail it.

He is Takashi, a city kid now living in the countryside with his divorced mother (Kaho Minami) and semisenile grandfather (Bunta Sugawara). Meanwhile his father (Kanji Tsuda) is still in Tokyo with his older sister Tataru (Akiko Narumi). Timid, lonely and the butt of his classmates' jokes, Takashi is miserable until, one night, at a local festival, he is chosen by a dancer in a dragon costume to be a Kirin Rider (Kirin Okuriko) -- a fighter for peace and justice.

This, he is informed, is no play-pretend title but the real deal. His mission: climb a nearby mountain and claim a magical sword from its resident Great Goblin.

Though scared out of his wits, he embarks on his journey, encouraged by his grandpa's words. As night falls, he boards a mysterious bus up the mountain and finds, at his feet, a strange cat-like creature called a Sunekosuri -- the first and most harmless of the many yokai he will meet.

Meanwhile, evil is abroad, unleashed by the wizard Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa). Using discarded machinery and the transforming power of a vengeful spirit called Yomotsumono, he turns once harmless goblins into relentless mechanical minions, who wreak havoc on the human world. He is assisted by Aki (Chiaki Kuriyama), a bad-but-beautiful goblin who has a honey-colored beehive hairdo and is a mean hand with a whip.

As might be expected, Takashi finds both his sword and his courage, with help from his good goblin friends, including the wily Shojo, or "Orangutan" (Masaomi Kondo), the excitable kappa (water sprite) Kawataro (Sadao Abe) and the pixie-ish Kawahime or "Water Princess" (Mai Takahashi). Kato, however, is not easily defeated, even when the hordes of the goblin world are arrayed against him.

The ending leaves an obvious opening for a sequel. Why not? Miike's yokai have their eerie charms and a few, like the one played by Ms. Kuriyama, are even hot. This is one yokai movie that will keep, not only the kiddies entertained, but Dad awake.

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