Yōkai In The Pack
aka Yōkai hyaku monogatari
Japan 1968 Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Daiei Blu Ray Zone B
From Arrow’s Yōkai Monster
Collection Blu Ray set
100 Monsters is the first of a trilogy of films which are included as the first three films in Arrow’s recent, four movie Blu Ray set, the Yōkai Monster Collection. The set also includes the first of Takashi Miike’s two Yōkai Monster movies (I believe the second one premiered in Japan sometime in 2021). I’ve been wanting to see these for a while and, well, I won’t go into the story of how a relatively ‘easy to purchase’ new Ltd edition was a bit of a chore to get a hold of but, thanks to Arrow for finally putting these things out (I hope they’ll consider putting the Crimson Bat series of films out there at some point too... I really want to see them).
According to that modern font of all knowledge... Wikipedia (whether it’s accurate information or not)... the term Yōkai comes from various kanji which mean, between them, such terms as ‘attractive; calamity’ and ‘apparition; mystery; suspicious’. Which sums the spirit of this first film up as nicely as writer Kim Newman does on the accompanying featurette on the Yōkai, where he prefers the broader, catch all term of Monsters as a collective companion name as the various spirits, ancient advertising creatures and personifications of places or inanimate objects can be easily dealt with in such a manner.
The film itself is... well it’s certainly charming but it’s also quite strange. Not because of the off kilter, surrealistic inventiveness of the creatures themselves (reintroduced into Japanese culture from stories passed on down the years to a successful and popular manga writer) but because of the way the film seems to take a standard, corrupt official exploiting the downtrodden ‘little people’ for his own profit and gain cliché of a story... and then kind of grafting on the aforementioned Yōkai as the downfall of all the corrupt plans, bringing their own brand of retribution.
So, very briefly, the village shrine and tenement building is about to be torn down by the local corrupt official with the support of his equally treacherous and rich friends. To get what he wants, he entraps the local landlord and even, eventually, ends up murdering him when he finds he has the means to buy himself back out of an arrangement whereby the tenement would be demolished... also nefariously plotting to take the landlord’s daughter as his own slave in the process. However, a government spy is causing hell for him to stop this. Parallel to this, some of the villagers are from the society of 100 Monsters, who tell stories of their own first and second hand experiences with Yōkai and who burn out a candle in ritual to ensure the spirit does not visit them after the telling of the story. Their leader tells the stories to the bad guys at a ‘pay off’ party for the villanous central deed but none of the bad guys can be bothered to participate in the ‘cleansing ritual’ afterwards. Thus, the various Yōkai manifestations in the film come after the villains to thwart their plans and reward them with their just and sometimes terminal deserts.
So, yeah, it’s the kind of plot you would see in, say, a regularly Zatoichi movie (and director Kimiyoshi Yasuda was no stranger to the Zatoichi movies, having directed several of them and even some of the Zatoichi TV series episodes)... but with added monsters/vengeful spirits grafted onto the story where the lone avenger of a movie of this type would traditionally take on all the bad guys and, more often than not, beat them on their own turf. There is, indeed, such a character in this, the government spy... but his resistance plot as he tries to help the surviving tenants is kept completely separate from the Yōkai and the two factions fighting off the evil oppressors are kept completely oblivious to the existence of the other.... with the ‘good humans’ benefitting from the Yōkai justice when everything just seems to fall apart for the villains of the piece.
The strength and, indeed, charm, of the film is definitely the various shapes and forms that the Yōkai monsters take. I had four favourites from this one. Firstly, the giant head manifestation of the Kuchisake-onna or Slit Mouthed Woman (think, giant Black Dahlia head lady, maybe?) who is very much a malevolent spirit and who seems to be making herself known again in various manifestations in the ‘J-Horror’ scene in recent years (I need to get into those movies... if I can find any).
Another great one is the Rokurokubi, who is a lady with a kind of telescopic, Mr. Fantastic style neck, who looks truly fiendish as her snake like neck with her head on the end terrorises those humans who have an encounter with her. Thirdly, the Tsuchikorobi, who is basically like a big hairy bigfoot cyclops creature who can ‘tractor beam’ a person into it’s paws by the use of some kind of mental telepathy.
An fourthly, my absolute favourite and almost a comic relief monster... the Karakasa Obake, who is basically an umbrella demon with a single eye and a big, lolly licker of a tongue that dances about on one leg and befriends the ‘mentally challenged’ young son of the prime bad guy. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him in the next one and his first appearance in this is quite startling... especially for a 1968 movie. The young man is painting line drawings of him all over some screens and one of them comes to animated life, jumping down and dancing around as a line drawing before switching to a more realistic puppet version of the character, while Chumei Watanabe’s comical scoring for this creature plays addictively in the background as it dances around (Watanabe is still composing scores for films, it seems, despite being born in 1925).
Asides from this, the film is fairly well made with the director and cinematographer making great use of blocked areas thrown up by the verticals... which can be a common but effective choice in Japanese films set in the Edo period, where the paper screen walls often throw up big, rectangular blocks which can be used to delineate the space on screen. Indeed, there is some use of dead areas of close ups of wall screens in certain places where the screen is pulled open to show a slit of a vertical rectangle with one or other character’s head in close up peering through. This is an aesthetic which actually has a great narrative pay off later in the film, when the bad guy slides open a screen door to be confronted with a giant head manifestation of the slit-mouther woman taking up the whole area beyond the screens.
And that’s me done with this one but, thanks to Arrow’s new limited edition set, I’m just getting started on the Yōkai Monsters, I’m glad to say. 100 Monsters is a nice introduction to some of the monstrous characters but, looking at the accompanying documentary, there’s a lot more good stuff to come so, yeah, I’ll get back to you very soon with the review of the next one in the series, for sure.