If you still require evidence that Takashi Miike is a certified cinematic genius, look no further than his latest effort, The Great Yokai War: Guardians. Because this loose sequel to the director’s 2005 cult classic absolutely should not work. The plot revolves around a typical adolescent power fantasy: a cowardly ten-year-old boy inherits his ancestor’s magical sword and embarks on a quest to save Japan from utter annihilation—learning important lessons about the importance of brotherly love and the value of peace, tolerance, and cooperation along the way.
It is, in other words, what a cynic might describe as “kiddy.”
Many of the creature designs, however, are so horrifyingly grotesque that it’s difficult to believe that they were intended to appeal to younger audiences. One prominent supporting character, for example, is the ghost of a heartbroken mother cradling the bloated corpse of her stillborn infant. Heck, even Pennywise the Dancing Clown puts in an unexpected (and lawyer-friendly) cameo appearance as one of a handful of “foreign yokai.”
But somehow, against all odds, Miike manages to weave these tonally dissonant elements into a genuine masterpiece—an adventure that is earnest enough in its themes to be safe for consumption by children, yet subtly subversive enough to entertain adults. The fact that a sudden (and, within the context of the narrative, unprecedented) musical number—which, I might add, interrupts the climactic action sequence—can be simultaneously hilariously absurd and sincerely poignant is nothing short of miraculous.
Miike’s devil-may-care attitude certainly helps to alleviate some of the film’s technical shortcomings. Sure, the CGI isn’t exactly what you’d call “convincing,” but the sheer audacity of the visuals more than compensates for the obvious budgetary limitations. After all, when a movie serves up the image of none other than Daimajin (returning to the big screen for the first time since his own series ended in 1966) riding into battle atop an undead dragon, backlit by the silvery light of the full moon, who the hell cares whether or not it looks “realistic?”