Review: The Great Yokai War and The Twilight Samurai

Japan Society is currently hosting an online retrospective celebrating the past twenty years of Japanese cinema, spotlighting a wide variety of films from dozens of esteemed directors—including Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sion Sono, and Shinya Tsukamoto. Obviously, considering the wealth of material available, I found the task of choosing what to watch to be absolutely daunting. Ultimately, I decided to wet my feet with a relatively light double feature:

  • The Great Yokai War: This was the perfect screening for a lazy Saturday afternoon—a cartoonish fantasy adventure about a kid hero battling grotesque monsters, demonic robots, and deranged wizards as a thinly-veiled metaphor for growing up. Takashi Miike has earned a well-deserved reputation for making subversive and/or transgressive movies (see: Audition, Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris), but in this case, he tackles the material with a remarkable degree of sincerity; this isn’t a cynical, mean-spirited deconstruction of a nostalgic genre, but rather an affectionate throwback in the style of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The central themes—tradition versus modernization, spirituality versus industrialization, the tragedy of mankind’s wastefulness (the conflict revolves around the personified resentment of discarded trash, a premise rooted in Shinto beliefs)—are simple, yet universal. The true stars, of course, are the creatures—a motley assortment of kappa, tengu, bakeneko, and yuki-onna realized through a mix of puppetry, prosthetic makeup, rubber suits, and jittery CGI. While the visual effects occasionally look a bit primitive and dated, they nevertheless radiate charm, evoking the works of Jim Henson, Tim Burton, and Ray Harryhausen.

  • The Twilight Samurai: I first encountered this critically-acclaimed period drama back in college, and it totally redefined how I viewed the jidaigeki genre. The protagonist, in particular, is extremely unconventional—a low-ranking samurai struggling to support his senile mother and two young daughters following the death of his wife. By day, he works in his clan’s storehouse, keeping track of inventory; after hours—when his colleagues are out frequenting the local bars and brothels—he fishes, toils in his small rice field, and crafts wooden trinkets to supplement his meager income. While the narrative features its fair share of swordplay and political intrigue, the film is, first and foremost, a love story, exploring “Twilight Seibei’s” budding romance with his recently-divorced childhood sweetheart. The overall tone is, in general, pretty warm and fuzzy (albeit occasionally melancholy and haunted by the specter of impending warfare)—which makes the inevitable arrival of bloodshed all the more impactful. Although I would have preferred a proper theatrical experience, I savored the opportunity to revisit this Yoji Yamada masterpiece.

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