The legendary blind samurai Zatoichi must face his strongest enemy yet in this mock film trailer.
AKA Big Monster War; Yokai Monsters Vol. 1
DIRECTED BY: Yoshiyuki Kuroda
FEATURING: Chikara Hashimoto, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Akane Kawasaki
PLOT: Japanese folk spirits (yokai) unite to fight off an ancient Babylonian vampire who has assumed the form of a local human magistrate.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Spook Warfare makes the List it will be for the bizarre monster designs (including a floating umbrella with a lolling foam rubber tongue) and for the way it tosses in random genres so that it ends up like the work of a Japanese Sid and Marty Krofft filming a Hammer horror script in the style of a samurai flick. One thing that’s holding it back from making the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies, however, is that it’s part of a series of three films, and we haven’t considered its two siblings yet. (A clip from the second movie, 100 Monsters, made it into Sans Soleil, which seems like it should earn that installment bonus points).
COMMENTS: After a scary, serious opening involving the accidental disinterment of an ancient evil from a Babylonian ruin, Yokai Monsters seems primed to turn into a children’s movie when fifteen minutes in we meet Kappa, a delightfully Muppet-esque duck-turtle hybrid clown with darting ping-pong-ball eyes and a lillypad head. But as the film continues, we get truly frightening images of vampires feeding on victims with gouts of flowing blood, dog assassinations, pantsless children chased by armed guards intent on feeding them to demons, and arrows to eyeballs. Interrupting those bloody sequences are the uncanny/cute yokai (mischievous supernatural creatures who roughly analogous to Western fairies or goblins) doing slapstick gags and paraphrasing scenes from Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Japanese children must have been terrified and enthralled by the spectacle; American kids, who didn’t know yokai from yogurt or Buddha from Buddy Hackett, could add bewildered to that list of adjectives.
The pastiche of tones and styles on display here results in memorable moments ranging from the deliberately delightful to the completely WTF. The cinematography is very good, whether we’re dealing with a storm at sea or quiet shots of Edo-era tea ceremonies. The special effects involving colored lights and kaleidoscope lenses are psychedelic-era standard and date the movie in a delightful way. Of course, since each yokai is uniquely conceived, the film’s most noteworthy feature are the dozens of monsters; here, the designers’ creativity exceeds the production’s ability to realize it. The monsters slide from the heights of imagination down a budgetary slope into the uncanny valley. The stiff rubber masks used for most of the creatures allow no expressiveness; the yokai’s leader, a heavy-lidded, football-headed green gnome, is incapable of blinking. The yoaki end up looking otherworldly, but that other world isn’t a spirit realm so much as it is a bizarro-world of discarded Jim Henson first drafts.
Although the production values are generally high, many of the film’s other features verge on earning a so-bad-it’s-weird designation. The demonic antagonist’s entire plan, after slumbering for millennia, seems to amount to little more than a scheme to eat a few Japanese children (though in his defense, perhaps to him a province full of kids is just part of a healthy breakfast before embarking on his real mission of world domination). The yokai’s motivation for saving humanity from the Babylonian interloper, on the other hand, is blatantly jingoistic: “If we leave the likes of him alone, shame will be brought on Japanese apparitions!” The strange plot machinations also result in some unusual dialogue that clashes against Western notions of sense: “you suck, Buddha!” cries a yokai imprisoned in a vase. The dizzying dialectic between good and bad filmmaking, disturbing horror and childish comedy, and Eastern and Western notions of storytelling give Spook Warfare the weird vitality to make it worth your viewing time.
In 2005, Spook Warfare was loosely remade with modern CGI as The Great Yokai War, in a rare family-friendly offering from Mr. “Ichi the Killer” himself, Takashi Miike. That film is somewhat entertaining, but lacks the gonzo madness of the original.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
FEATURING: Voice actors
PLOT: Masterless samurai Jubei joins with an ancient spy and a cursed female
ninja to thwart a plot by an old enemy to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate with the assistance of the eight Devils of Kimon.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not truly weird, though the Devils of Kimon are novel and bizarre to Western eyes. Ninja Scroll is, rather, a well-made fantasy adventure set in a magical feudal Japan, with gratuitous sex and violence that make it inappropriate for the age group most likely to be entranced by it.
COMMENTS: There’s no scroll, and the main character, Jubei, is a ronin (former samurai now for hire as a mercenary) rather than a ninja; but, accuracy of title aside, Ninja Scroll is an average fantasy adventure with some shocking scenes and startling artwork. Jubei is an archetypal wandering folk hero, helping out the less fortunate out of a sense of duty to mankind rather than avarice. His eventual companions are a more interesting lot: a withered, gnomelike spy from the court of Tokugawa who’s willing to go to any lengths to trap others into working for him, and a virginal ninja woman under a sexual curse who’s even more of a loner than the ronin. The story, often the red-headed stepchild of anime, is a strong point here. The intrigues between the various feudal factions and the character’s backstories are richly detailed, yet free of plot holes and surprisingly easy to follow (although Jubei’s code of honor can be difficult to penetrate at times). Even if you don’t catch all the intricacies of the plot on a single viewing, the basic strands—a quest for vengeance on a wicked old enemy, a succession of monstrous antagonists to defeat, reluctant companions with crossed agendas, dilemmas of honor and loyalty—create a familiar heroic context for the tale that makes it easy to pick up the gist of things. The animation style is naturalistic rather than stylized (that is to say, the characters don’t have huge round eyes and bizarre hair hues). As is frequently the case in amime, which tends to be cheaply produced, the animation is not fluid— most of the time, it’s almost a series of stills, with characters standing stock-still, moving only their lips. But the frame rate picks up dramatically for fight sequences, and excellent editing creates a sense of movement that makes the fight scenes thrilling. There are points where the animation overcomes its budgetary limits and becomes magical, as when Kagero stands in the eye of a swirling cyclone of bees and rose petals. The Devils, partly drawn from Japanese mythology, are as grotesque a gallery of rogues as you could hope to find outside of the Mos Eisley cantina, and a good deal nastier. There’s a giant with stone skin and a taste for rape, a snake-woman who stashes a spare serpent in an unusual hiding place, a dwarf who births wasps from the hump hive on his back, and one Devil is even a homosexual with the hots for the archvillian. The frequent sexual content is sometimes erotic—the nude tattooed snake woman—but mostly gratuitous, as when one clan master delivers his directives while delighting himself inside a village geisha. The violence is also extreme; monster rape, daggers in eyeballs, showers of blood, limbs torn off, and a man whose head is repeatedly bashed into a bloody pulp. The strong (falling just short of ‘extreme’) content adds some cachet to the fantasy film for a certain age group (evidence that this ninjas vs. monster tale isn’t just “kid’s stuff”), but it serves little other purpose. The truth is that the younger, and more male, you are, the more likely you are to groove to Ninja Scroll’s beat. It starts out as a five-star spectacle of awesomeness in your teens and early twenties, but you can expect to subtract a full star for every decade of life that passes until it flattens out and reveals itself as nothing more special than a darn good adventure yarn. And the world could certainly use a few more of those.
Animator/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri was also responsible for the anime standout Wicked City (1987) among others. The British censors understandably cut some of the rape scene for the original UK DVD release, but unexpectedly also removed two scenes with shurikens (throwing stars), apparently believing they constituted “imitable weaponry.” The cuts were restored for the 2004 release and the movie is now uncensored.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For those more accustomed to Anime or Japanese cinema in general you really won’t find anything new or ground breaking here… Yet it remains a solid entry essentially on all counts.”–Nakadai, Infin-tropolis
DIRECTED BY: Lance Mungia
FEATURING: Jeffrey Falcon
PLOT: In an alternate post-apocalyptic past, Elvis has died, and samurai musician Buddy races to Lost Vegas to make his claim the King’s throne—along with every other rock-and-roll outlaw prowling the wasteland.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: From the plot synopsis alone it should be clear that Six-String Samurai‘s weirdness isn’t in doubt. Although it has an excellent chance to make the List down the line, something in me resists putting it on after the first ballot. The mix of action and absurdity in Six-String Samurai is tempting, like a dish at a fancy restaurant that sounds mouth-watering on the menu; but when you order it you discover that, although the individual ingredients are of the highest quality, the flavors don’t quite blend properly. It’s satisfying and too good to send back, but you had hoped for much more.
COMMENTS: This is my second review of Six-String Samurai; a younger me reviewed the film when it first came out, in 1998. With time, wisdom, and more weird movies under my belt, has my assessment of changed since then? I reprint that review below, with my contemporary observations to follow.
“The mainstream Las Vegas Review-Journal gives it one star. The alternative free weekly City Life gives it four stars (out of five). My interest is piqued; the kid in me wants City Life to win out, but my internal cynic is betting heavily on the Review-Journal. Reading the plot synopsis—after nuclear war in 1957, Elvis, King of the City of Lost Vegas, has just died, and every guitar-picking, sword-wielding outlaw of the Wastelands, including Buddy Holly and Death himself, is heading to Vegas to claim the throne—it’s easy to guess that this will be a polarizing film. But, once you get past the “I’m just hip enough to get this/I’m so hip that I’m way past this” dichotomy, it turns out that Six-String Samurai is a fairly engaging, sporadically irritating piece of entertainment. Although it plays like an assignment from a class in postmodern film making—write a script which will serve to distance the author from charges of Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)