Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (AKA Big Monster War)- 1968, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, Japan
Possibly the coolest thing Daiei studios ever did was it’s Yokai Monsters trilogy, three impeccably awesome monster flicks which highlighted a group of wildly diverse and creative Japanese folks spirits, from within the format of a period costume drama. These films are satisfying, fun, effective, and they feature peerless Showa era art direction, as well as Suitomation work which far exceeded the craftsmanship seen in better known Daiei franchises, such as the Gamera or Daimajin films. Seriously, these movies are inexcusably under-appreciated outside of Japan, and if I do one thing in my life which is both effective AND NOT blatantly immoral, let it be that I spread awareness of rad shit to people who don’t care. Yokai Monsters– if you’re reading this, it’s too late, I have already won.
“But just what in the hell is a yokai?” You ask, your Caucasian features twisted into a confused, pained mask of fair skinned befuddlement. Well, good friends, don’t be embarrassed, it’s not out of line for we non-Japanese folks to have no clue just what in the fuck a Yokai is, but there’s good news: I’m here to help you.
You see, ‘Yokai’ is, from what I can tell, sort of an umbrella term, under which a general class of Japanese spirits, ghosts, and bogeymen are grouped. They’re similar to the Western concept of a ghost in its quasi intangible, immortal nature, but yokai aren’t necessarily the spirits of deceased human beings. There’s an incredible amount of diversity in the yokai community, one of these dudes appears to be nothing more than a long strip of sentient paper which flys around through the air. Another is an umbrella with one eye that likes to lick people. It’s kinda just a big, spooky, ghoul grab bag that contains an endless aray of total weirdos, but as freaky as these critters are, they’re also damn neat, and an absolute motion picture gold mine. All three of the Yokai films feature a wide range of these spirits, and that alone makes them a must-see for fans of Japanese horror cinema.
THE PLOT~ When a terrible, Ancient, Babylonian Demon called ‘Daimon’ is accidently freed by foolish grave robbers, it flies across the globe and settles in Fuedal Japan, for no reason. Daimon, eager to get back into the swing of evil bullshit, kills and impersonates a local Lord, and in so doing, evicts Kappa, a water dwelling Yokai which had lived on the Lord’s property, presumably forever. Kappa is pissed, and he goes to tell all the other Yokai that some big, gnarly, foreign spirit is busting up shit in Japan, and he needs their help to make it right. Initially, all the other Apparations call bullshit on Kappa’s story, because he’s sort of like the Dave Chappelle of the Yokai kingdom, but they eventually come around and agree to help him. In the end, all the yokai are gathered for a massive conflict between the indigenous spirits of Japan, and this monstrous intruder, who just can’t play nice.
Also, sometimes the Yokai use profanity, and we all know that’s awesome.
The subtext should be pretty clear; this is a Nationalist, Japanese, knee-jerk reaction against foriegners, the outside world, and Western Influence. It’s also very possible that it’s specifically a religious statement, that is to say, Spook Warfare could be read as a Shinto-Centric denouncement of Christianity, an imported religion which had begun to gain popularity throughout Japan. Daimon is a Babylonian demon, but we may have just swapped one Middle-Eastern faith for another, making him a thinly veiled stand-in for Christianity all the same. His behavior and characteristics are also very much in line with the traditional European vampire, and at the end of the film, he is chased off by figures which are forever associated with an indigenous religion of Japan, so the argument that this is a big “You’re not welcome” sign pointed right in the face of people who straight up dig Jesus feels pretty sound. At one point, Daimon even goes after the children, and that’s when the Yokai REALLY get pissed. This is essentially the Yokai film equivalent of finding out that a missionary gave a pocket Bible to your ten year old, so now you’re losing your shit because Richard Dawkins is your god and you don’t want any of that stuff in your house.
That having been said, it’s not really as over the top as it sounds, and it’s hardly just cause for rounding up the neighbors and burning copies of Spook Warfare in the center of your cul-de-sac. This is just a little bit of Nihonen Xenophobia, and that’s a perfectly natural reaction for a culture to have when it perceives its natural identity to be challenged. Cut Japan a break on this one, and hopefully, they’d do the same for you. You’d be missing out on a great film otherwise.
Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare is great. All three of these films really straddle the line between monster movie and ghost story, they’re fun, imaginative, and feature some of the best costume, set, and prop design ever to come out of the Showa era. I couldn’t recommend them more.