aka Yōkai daisensô
aka The Great Yōkai War
Japan 1968 Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Daiei Blu Ray Zone B
From Arrow’s Yōkai Monster Collection Blu Ray set
Spook Warfare, also known as The Great Yōkai War... which is also the name of the partial reboot of this movie made decades later... is the second film of the original Yōkai monsters trilogy, again from 1968 but with a different director. And it’s a very different feel to the first movie in that a) it’s much more focused as one story, rather than two different character factions trying to solve the same problem, as in the first film and b) it feels much more comical in its execution. This second thing is interesting because, like a few of the Godzilla films where child heroes are pitched in with magazines showing ‘page 3 girls’, the Yōkai monsters films seemed to be perceived by a modern Western audience, from what I can make out, as children’s films. Well, I don’t know about that...
Yes, the monsters in this are much more friendly and helpful to the innocent, human victims in the movie but, there’s quite a bit of eye gouging and splashes of blood thrown about in this one which logically tells me that the ‘child-friendly’ angle is a bit of a misconception. Indeed, the UK release of this one by Arrow, as part of their four film Blu Ray Yōkai Monster Collection, carries a 15 rating. So I feel somewhat confused that a modern reviewer on the IMDB (no, I couldn’t bring myself to read the whole review... and I generally don’t read other people’s reviews of a movie before writing my own for fear of being somehow ‘infected’ with their words and viewpoint, anyway) starts off the review saying that he is not the target audience, these are kids films.
Hey ho... anyway, this does have a somewhat lighter tone than the previous film and starts off when two archaeologists accidentally unleash an Ancient Babylonian demon, Daimon, who quickly makes his way to Edo Period Japan and bites a previously benevolent magistrate on the neck like a vampire. What this basically does is inject the magistrate with the demon, who carries on disguised as the magistrate.. but as the totally bad guy version of him (we know he’s bad straight away when he slices the family dog up with his samurai sword). He basically drinks the blood of his bewildered servants to keep himself going and also injects clone demons of himself, with equal powers, into some of them.
However a kappa, water spirit (not looking completely unlike the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of a couple of decades later) who haunts the magistrates grounds, is ejected by the demon so he goes into the forest and rounds up as many of his Yōkai friends as he can to attack the demon. Well they take a couple of goes at it but, after most of them are accidentally trapped inside a bottle by a magical inscription, they call on even more Japanese apparitions to help them, when they are eventually freed. And they help the poor humans to defeat the Babylonian demon and his clones because, as they point out, they don’t want a foreign demon running around and causing evil chaos as it would give Japanese apparitions a bad name.
Many of the Yōkai monsters are back from the first film, including two of my favourites the Rokurokubi (telescopic neck woman) and Karakasa Obake (the playful, hopping on one leg, tongue dangling umbrella demon). Alas, the big, bear cyclops Tsuchikorobi is not in this one but, also absent is Kuchisake-onna, the giant headed incarnation of the slit-faced woman. I can see why she’s absent in this one though since, as I said, the film is much lighter and comedic tonally, so she might have been a little too sinister to include this time around.
There are no real striking shot compositions that I can particularly recall standing out but there is some nice, hand held and moving camera stuff when the buddhist monk who is trying to expel Daimon is shot in a much more dynamic fashion and lit with reds and oranges, presumably to add visual interest to what would be, otherwise, a pretty boring instance of a guy sitting down and chanting.
The film flows along in a much more coherent fashion that the previous entry in the series and you never once feel like the elements of this story could ever have been transposed with a standard chambara of the time, which was a problem with the previous one, which might just as well have been labelled Zatoichi VS The Demon or Sleepy Eyes Of Death Meets The Yōkai.
One of the highlights of this one would be a moment when, after Rokurokubi uses her growing neck to surround Daimon like a boa constrictor, I thought to myself, careful lady, he’ll tie a knot in your neck if you’re not careful. Sure enough, he does just this! Secondly, I finally got to see a real use for the Karakasa Obake, as a Yōkai new to this film (and who looks startlingly similar to some early sketches of the design for Yoda when The Empire Strikes Back was being made, if I’m not much mistaken) uses him as a proper, expanded umbrella to float up to the head of the giant version of Daimon so it can get close enough to stab him in the eye.
I have to say that, although this is not as quirky, in some ways, as the first film 100 Monsters (reviewed by me here) I think that overall I prefer this movie, although the constant engagement of the various Yōkai and, indeed, having them as the main, driving force of the movie tends to make them less special than when they were used more sparingly.
If you’re like me then this kind of cinematic genre is unmissable and I’d certainly recommend Spook Warfare to any scholar of 1960s Japanese cinema. It’s pretty entertaining and you even, thanks to Kappa, begin to feel almost emotionally attached to the various Yōkai and their plight. Once again, thanks to Arrow for putting out such a wonderful boxed edition of these movies.