[The following review contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Daiei’s 100 Monsters (currently available on one of the discs in Arrow Video’s comprehensive Yokai Monsters collection) is the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house ride. From the stylized painted backdrops of blood-red skies and silvery crescent moons to the ghastly green tint of the moody lighting, the visuals positively ooze atmosphere. The music, too, is delightfully spooky, with a soundtrack composed primarily of thundering drums and an eerie theremin. And the creature designs are, of course, absolutely sublime. While the special effects are rather primitive by today’s standards (a lot of flimsy rubber puppets, unwieldy papier-mâché masks, and obvious wires manipulating inanimate objects), the performers behind the eponymous ghouls and goblins—which include such iconic mythological beasts as hirsute oni, long-necked rokurokubi, and the comical kasa-obake (hopping anthropomorphic umbrellas)—make up for these technical shortcomings with sheer enthusiasm, parading and cartwheeling and tumbling across the frame like circus acrobats; the audience can’t help but be enraptured by their infectious energy.
Like much of the studio’s output, the film is also a competently crafted (albeit somewhat formulaic) period drama. Set amidst the rampant political corruption of the Tokugawa shogunate, the story revolves around a group of ambitious government officials conspiring to demolish the ramshackle tenement houses neighboring a dilapidated shrine in order to construct a high-class brothel. Naturally, this would displace the already impoverished residents, but the suffering of a few measly peasants is beneath the concern of the greedy elite. Fortunately, a mysterious swordsman with a keen sense of justice soon emerges to stand up for the oppressed locals—and whenever his efforts fall short, the yokai are only too happy to intervene in his stead.
Yes, this is yet another work of horror fiction in which the “demons” are actually benevolent, with humans serving as the true villains. And, as usual, the theme is both compelling and relevant. The relatively mundane conflicts of the various subplots—tradition versus modernization, spirituality versus worldly desire, the insatiable avarice of the ruling class versus the contentment of those in comparatively humble circumstances—enrich the overarching narrative, grounding the paranormal shenanigans by juxtaposing them with more relatable, recognizable, universal experiences.
And that’s 100 Monsters in a nutshell: a “disposable” B-movie that boasts more genuine substance, insight, and personality than many “prestige” pictures. If that ain’t quintessential Daiei, I don’t know what is!