The Great Yokai War – Guardians (2021) review [Japan Cuts 2021]

Introduction

Takashi Miike is a director of all trades. While that often means that such director is a master of none, this cannot be said to be true for Miike. While he has many genre classics, like Audition (1999) and 13 Assassins (2010), he always had a knack for bringing various genres satisfyingly together in a single narrative, like The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and First Love (2019). The Great Yokai War – Guardians, the sequel to The Great Yokai War (2005), is another one of his genre-blending films.

Review

One day, Nagano prefecture is hit by a devastating earthquake. Yet, this disaster is, despite its appearances for human beings, not natural at all. The destruction has been caused by a clumping together of angry ancient fossils from the Fossa Magna into a giant yōkai or yōkaiju. Not that much later, after a night-time visit to a shrine with some friends where scaredy Kei (Kokoro Terada) took a very strange red-coloured fortune paper, a yōkai appears in front of him.

Entering the yōkai world, he soon learns about his illustrious ancestor, Watanabe no Tsuna (Kazuki Kitamura), a famous yōkai hunter who fought to rid the yōkai world off its threatening and ill-willed Oni, demons. After receiving this short explanation from Nurarihyon (Nao Aomori), all yōkai suddenly ask him to help save their world and Tokyo metropolis by awakening lord Bujin, God of war. Just then, his naïve little brother, Dai (Rei Inomata), appears in this mysterious world, holding the red slip he took from the shrine. A misunderstanding ensues.

The Great Yokai War – Guardians (2021) by Takashi Miike

The Great Yokai War – Guardians is, in all meanings of the signifier, a family film. Yet, what truly makes it a film for the whole family, is satisfying blend of genres it delivers. Miike’s latest does not only give many scenes a subtle horror-flavour, but it is also rich on lighthearted comedy of the signifier and of the visual element, kaiju-action. And to top it off, it also delivers a surprising but very moving musical scene.

So, what’s The Great Yokai War – Guardians about? Simply speaking about family. The central thematical element of Miike’s narrative is what we would call ‘the weight of the fatherly request’. It is quickly made evident that the fatherly request – protect your brother! – has attained a certain weight for Kei. The weight of this request that keeps echoing in his mind is not due to the simple fact that his father vocalized this demand, but because this father has deceased. His words have become, in a certain sense, a will to his eldest son. To fail to heed his will when it is necessary, to fail to assume, when the time has come, his father’s will as his subjective desire, would be nothing other than a betrayal of his father’s love and authority.  

The Great Yokai War – Guardians (2021) by Takashi Miike

The echoing of the fatherly request in Kei’s mind reveals that rather than the bond between son and father, the bond between brothers forms the narrative’s main dynamic. In this respect, The Great Yokai War – Guardians does not only explore the difficulty to deal with or fully accept a little brother that looks up to his older brother, but ultimately shows that what binds brothers together is not blood, but love. Kei’s subjective trajectory is thus not only passing through his anxiety to find the necessary bravery, but to assume the desire to protect his little brother as completely his and let this desire be driven by his love for him.

Yet, Miike’s narrative is not only about these familial things. In the interactions between Kei and the yōkai, especially those who are against humans, not only because they ravish their own world but also endanger the world of the yōkai, the importance of friendship and the ‘healing’ and transformative power of kindness is sensibly highlighted (Narra-note 1).

The Great Yokai War – Guardians (2021) by Takashi Miike

The composition of The Great Yokai War offers a pleasant mix of fixity and cinematographical dynamism. While spectators might feel that this mix is merely for variety’s sake, closer inspection reveals that Miike applies dynamism is an intelligent yet subtle way. There are not only instances where the alternation between static moments and dynamic moments is used to create some compositional poetry or to heighten the tension, but cinematographical movement is also utilized to emphasize certain narrative elements or statements, e.g. “We humans live knowing nothing” (Music-note 1).   

While the special effects retain, at many times, a feeling of being CGI, the pleasing quality of these effects enable The Great Yokai War: Guardians to enhance the fluidity of its dynamic composition and to engage the spectator in the extremely interesting world of yōkai and satisfy him with a creative and often artfully composed visual spectacle. Yet, solely attributing the visual pleasure of Miike’s narrative to the quality of its effects, would be disingenuous. More than anything, what makes The Great Yokai War: Guardians so engaging and visually satisfying are the interesting designs of the yōkai – from make-up to the costumes, the set-designs that bring this hidden world of these supernatural creatures pleasantly to life, and the impressive set-pieces. In fact, it is the combination of these elements, together with Miike’s fine sense of composition, that allows the finale to become so exciting and rewarding.     

The Great Yokai War – Guardians (2021) by Takashi Miike

The Great Yokai War – Guardians delivers a pleasant and truly satisfying ride for the whole family. The pleasure of Miike’s narrative does not only derive from his composition, the rich designs of the yōkai, and impressive set-pieces, but also because it succeeds in delivering a heartfelt reminder of the the importance of brotherly love, friendship, and kindness.  

Notes

Narra-note 1: At the Yammit: World Yokai Summit, none of the international yōkai want to help protect Japan, despite the desperate pleas of Nurarihyon. In our times where international cooperation is more important than ever, such ‘selfish’ scene – “Japan is Japan. It’s none of our business.” – does not fail to leave a sour and rather ironic taste in the adult’s spectator’s mouth.

Music-note 1: While cinematographical movement helps in heightening the tension, the infusing of dramatic tension and chilling mysteriousness in the narrative is mainly function of the musical accompaniment.

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