I love Tokusatsu. Whether it’s television shows like Super Sentai and Ultra-Man, or films like Godzilla, there’s something about the Tokusatsu genre that just grabs me as being wonderfully weird and delightful in ways that other special effects projects don’t. One series that I’ve been eager to watch for a number of years, but have never been able to find outside of Japan, are the Yokai Monsters films. A trilogy of movies from the end of the 1960s, these period pieces see monsters from Japanese myth and legend punishing evildoers. Luckily for me, and everyone, Arrow Video have brought these hard to find gems to Blu-ray.
The first film, Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters (1968), sees a corrupt land owner plotting to tear down a local shrine and halfway house; a plan that will see people down on their luck thrown out onto the street. Even worse, he intends to build a brothel on the site of the shrine to increase profits. To celebrate his plot, and to attract a powerful ally and investor, the land owner holds a Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai ceremony, where tales are told about various monsters. However, he fails to perform the proper cleansing ceremony at the end, allowing the monsters to come to life. Angered that the land owner is hurting people, and that he intends to desecrate a temple, the Yokai set out to punish him.
Despite the title of the film indicating that the movie is about monsters it’s actually a very human-centric film, with a major focus on the wickedness that people are capable of, and how far evil men are willing to go for power and wealth. The Yokai, for the most part, are a minor part of the film, and don’t appear that often. The first time we see them is as part of the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai ceremony as we get to see the stories that are being told. However, once they do start to appear they’re treated as frightening entities, there to haunt and punish those doing wrong. Although there is one umbrella monster who befriends the landowners son and treats him well too.
The second film, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968), is a very different type of movie.If the first film is a horror story this is more of an adventure film, and at times feels like it borders on having been made with a younger audience in mind. The story begins with the accidental release of the monster known as Daimon, a creature from ancient Babylon. Upon arriving in Japan, Daimon comes across a local lord, who he kills. Having drank his blood, Daimon is able to transform into the lord, and uses his power and position to begin terrorising the area. Fortunately, the local Yokai become aware of what’s happening, and decide to band together to combat the demon.
The first film almost treats the Yokai as a supernatural force of nature, there to punish humans doing wrong, but the sequel sees them as entities that exist alongside humanity, who will come together to help defend people if the need arises. Because of this the Yokai get a much bigger focus, get to develop personalities, and are the real heroes of the story. This is a big part of why the film feels like it’s been geared more towards children, and the brightly coloured and strangely designed monsters feel like friends of humanity, more than something to be feared.
The third film, Yokai Monsters: Along With Ghosts (1969), is much more in line with the first film, with the titular monsters going back to being a vengeful force that barely appear in the film. The plot focuses on a young girl whose grandfather is killed by a local gangster. Having been told to seek out her father in another town the girl sets out to find him, but is persued by the criminals who believe she may have taken a document that could implicate them. Along the way the girl is aided by a wandering samurai, as well the occasional ghostly Yokai, who target the criminals.
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This film feel like an odd entry in the trilogy, in part because it seems to take a few steps backwards by being more like the original and making the monsters a small part of the narrative; but also because all of the creatures that appeared in the previous two films are absent. The film doesn’t have the visually distinct creatures like the Kappa, Kasa-Obake, or the Rokurokubi. Instead, the Yokai in this film look like wizened, half decomposed people. It’s creepy, yes, but it doesn’t feel like the films that came before it.
Whilst that might be the end of the Yokai Monsters trilogy, it’s not the last film offered in this collection, as Arrow have also included 2005’s The Great Yokai War, directed by Takashi Miike. Billed as being a loose remake of the second film from the trilogy, it’s very much its own thing and feels more like a fourth entry in the series rather than a retread of what came before; especially as it also draws from the GeGeGe no Kitarō manga as well.
It centres on a young boy named Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), who discovers that the world of Yokai not only exists, but that he is the Kirin Rider, a chosen warrior who can help to stand against the evil demonic force that is changing Yokai into mechanical monsters , and who plans on destroying the human world. Teaming up with a group of Yokai, including the Kappa and a beautiful water spirit, Tadashi sets out to save the world from the demon.
The Great Yokai War is very much an early 2000s Japanese fantasy movie. It has a big, world destroying villain, brightly coloured costumes and people in monster makeup, and slightly awful looking CGI that stays charming enough to not be completely off-putting. Much like the film it’s taking inspiration from, this feels much more geared towards an audience with younger viewers in mind, both because of the child hero and because of the odd humour that happens throughout. Whilst it might not be the best of the four films on offer here it is one of the most charming, and has a lot about it to enjoy.
As well as the four movies, the new set comes with a specially filmed documentary called ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’, which goes into the history and culture of Yokai and features some experts on the topic. There are also original trailers for the trilogy included too. The most extras come with the fourth film, due in part to it being the most recent. There’s a full length commentary track by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, as well as various shorts and behind the scenes interviews and event appearances from the cast and crew. Whilst I’d have liked to have seen commentaries included for the original trilogy as well, their absence doesn’t detract from the overall quality. There’s also a 60 page collector’s book with writing about the film, some postcards featuring brand new art, and a fold-out poster guide to the monsters.
If like myself this is a genre that you enjoy, and a series you’ve wanted to see for a while, this box set is an absolute must get. Packed full of wonderful moments, laughs, and some fantastic effects, it’s the perfect set for any Yokai fan.
Yokai Monsters Collection is out on Blu-ray on 18th October from Arrow Video.