Fantasia 2021: The Return of In-Person Screenings and an Offering from Takashi Miike
Pandemic: Year Two. After a fully online presentation in 2020, Fantasia hosted a select series of in-person screenings in 2021 to complement its larger offering of online fare. Like so many, I had been cooped up working from home for over a year, much of that time with three kids also doing their school from home. Despite my continuing reticence around spending much time in public, it was the movies that first got me back into communal activities – especially with the kids in tow. And so my first order of business when perusing the Fantasia 2021 catalogue was to see if there was any kid-friendly programming afoot. What’s this? After suffering 2020 as Fantasia’s first year in two decades without a film from Takashi Miike (see my report from last year for more details on this), not only were they closing this year’s festival a new Miike film, but it’s also genuinely kid-friendly? Two birds with one stone!
Miike’s Great Yokai War: Guardians turned out to be an enjoyable romp through the yokai lore made most famous in animated Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) but which draws more heavily on the original film trilogy from Daiei studios. Miike first turned his hand towards this material in 2005 with The Great Yokai War, which was included in Arrow Films’ yokai boxset along with the three Daiei films. Sixteen years later, Miike’s follow-up was not a sequel, despite the open-ended conclusion of the 2005 film. Rather, Miike took this opportunity to reboot the story, much like the original trilogy also consists of three unrelated stories. For Miike, this approach has its pros and cons. What I liked best about the 2005 film is how it engaged with the social conscience aspect of the earlier films, the yokai monsters intervening into human misconduct, like the real-estate developer in 100 Monsters (1968) who threatens to turn a local community shrine into a brothel, or the gang of murderous thieves in Along with Ghosts (1968) who would rather kill a child than have the information he holds about their misdeeds come to light. In Miike’s 2005 film, we learn that human lack of respect for the natural world, epitomized by single-use disposable culture, has created an evil brand of yokai who are bent on destroying human civilization as revenge. They end up going to war with the good yokai who retain faith in humanity’s capacity to change their ways and address their contribution to the earth’s environmental problems. Given that film’s lack of full closure, I would have liked to see this environmental theme further developed in the Guardians film, especially in light of the dramatically increased anxiety around the environment in our present moment. Instead, the filmmakers opted to dial back the social commentary and revert to a more generic appeal to the kaiju films of the 1950s and 60s with a more generic threat of evil yokai bent on destroying Tokyo without clearly defined purpose – capped by the resurrection of a genuine kaiju classic, Daimajin, who is called forth by the good yokai to do battle with the threat to humanity. There are, of course, implied environmental themes at work here through the reference to earlier monsters like Godzilla who clearly represented the threat of nuclear disaster following World War II. By keeping these issues buried in subtext, Guardians may well better stand the test of time while missing the opportunity to speak more directly to its moment.
The Guardians film highlights the line between subversive outrageousness and the demands of mainstream fare that has informed all of Miike’s work in the years since his first yokai film. In Miike’s 2005 entry, there are moments where the more disturbing Miike shines through with content and imagery that is questionable for young viewers. In his commentary on the Arrow Films release, Tom Mes reminds us that 2005 was a very interesting time for Miike, having only recently shifted into big studio fare with specific genre demands that many have read as the end of Miike’s raucous period. Mes argues that this is a limited view of Miike’s work of the mid-2000s, oscillating as he did between commercial fare and some of his most highly experimental work to date, like Big Bang Love: Juvenile A (2006). For viewers in the know, this tension is clear within The Great Yokai War, particularly in the zeal that Miike shows for the rendering of the yokai characters themselves, much of it achieved through practical make-up and puppetry, and much of it genuinely off-putting in the glimpses they provide into the supernatural dimension that is said to live alongside of, and intersect with, human reality. In the original Daiei trilogy, these characters often appear silly, as with any rubber suit fare. But these films are anything but silly in their desire to call out the ways in which human civilization has lost touch with the traditional beliefs in the natural and supernatural realms in the pursuit of modern satisfactions, and Miike re-installs some real scares in his rendering of, what is at heart, a kid-driven film. For me, Miike’s triumph in the 2005 film is the way that he preserved the often ridiculous design of the creatures, like the umbrella and rubberneck yokai of the originals, while updating their capacity for practical expression without automatically giving in to computer generated rendering. And sometimes the results are rather shocking, which throws me into the conflicting realities of my upbringing as son of a German immigrant who regaled her children with tales of Krampus and Der Struwwelpeter as warnings to maintain our good behaviour for fear of grizzly corporeal consequences. I didn’t find these stories amusing as a child, but they may well have been responsible for my current love of horror cinema. As a parent, my question is whether or not this trade-off is worth replicating in my own kids. Should I spare them the horrors of older folklore in favour of a more sheltered childhood experience? How do I assess the potential harm of denying them the opportunity to incorporate these horrors into their adult consciousness later? Miike’s original yokai film puts these questions front and centre, straddling the lines of acceptability rather deftly.
Miike’s Guardians reboot dials down the more disturbing elements of the yokai world to play more friendly to the child viewer of our safer space 21st Century environment. I was happy about this whilst in the theatre watching with my own young kids; at least in the moment I didn’t have to worry about possibly having to leave early if the film proved too intense. But the Miike fan in me couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed here. And there were other elements in the reboot that I found less satisfying as well. Of course my own gen-x snobbery did not care for the proliferation of CGI in the latest version, which came at the expense of some of the better practical work of Miike’s previous film. But there were still many joys to be had around the costuming and puppetry of the yokai themselves, particularly during one long sequence involving a council meeting of all the world’s yokai in which we learn that this class of supernatural species extends beyond Japanese folklore into the broader world of monster films, as evidenced by glimpses of Frankenstein’s monster and Medusa in attendance. But the temptations of the expanded expressive capacity of CGI proved irresistible, and some of the characters, like the rubberneck lady, became more digital than practical in their execution, as was the case for Daimajin himself. But to give credit where it is due, my kids love CGI and this is one aspect of the film that they were able to identify with in ways that they could not when watching the original yokai trilogy. Guardians certainly felt up to date, even if clearly lower budget than the Marvel fare they’re used to. And the more generic approach to social commentary also made the film more accessible to them, certainly compared with 100 Monsters, the first film of the original trilogy in which the yokai themselves were scarcely seen amidst rather lengthy forays into the serious drama of a village threatened by Japan’s post-war Americanization. It is safe to say that with Guardians Miike has committed to making a kid’s film, and has certainly understood his audience there.
I’ll conclude by noting that one remarkable aspect of Miike’s Guardians film comes in the conclusion to the film itself that, for some, may stand as a betrayal of the film’s own branding as The Great Yokai War: there is no war to cap the film’s conflict. After all the set-up of the impending doom threatened by the evil yokai and the gathering of forces on the good side, complete with the training of the young saviour child who will head up the battle and the summoning of the great Daimajin in support, the film stops of short of unleashing a full-scale battle across the screen. Instead, the film breaks out in a musical number that thematizes the ideological battle in play, and ends up turning the evil yokai conglomerate to stone, who then sprouts a tree in full sakuran bloom.
Miike is no stranger to musical outbursts, which I first encountered in his sci-fi Andromedia from 1998 that featured Japanese pop groups Speed and Da Pump and for which the film served, in part, as context for a couple of music videos several years before the director’s more generalized commercialization. And of course his Happiness of the Katakuris from 2001 was a full-blown musical executed to spectacular effect. In the Guardians film the musical number serves as the film’s main moment of social commentary, perhaps enough to offset its more generic narrative up to this point: it’s a call for a peaceful resolution to conflict, a plea for ceasefire before the fire has started, a nod to the continuing warmongering of the human species in general and the need to find non-military solutions to continuing conflicts across the globe. From a genre perspective, the musical sequence stands firmly within Miike’s long history of non-conformism in the face of generic demands. For some critics, this ends the film with a dull thud. For me, it was a breath of fresh air, long tired as I am with endless “epic” battles between computer generated characters for stakes that never really seem that dire. It is all the more remarkable that this approach maintains the kid-friendly atmosphere of the film, as so often Miike’s genre-bending comes with turns toward very dark material. In the end, perhaps Guardians offers a solution to the problem of today’s fantasy fare: we don’t need any more glorification of large-scale violence in films directed at children. Let’s all sing together, instead.
The film’s final moments find Daimajin quite unhappy with the proceedings; it seems he wanted a big fight, and is cranky about having been summoned from his sleep without the fulfillment of his generic function established by his own trilogy from Daiei studios in the 1960s. He’s about to take his anger out on the hero boy and his little critter friend, who plead with him not to repeat the appalling murder of another such companion in Miike’s 2005 film. Surprisingly, their appeals succeed. The power of song may not have won Daimajin over, but the earnestness of a child has. And this, finally, embodies the full spirit of Miike’s kid-friendly yokai adventure.