Greetings from the Edge!
This week, we’ll be turning back the clock a bit to take a look at the first of director Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s Yokai trilogy, the 1968 Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters, a mixture of samurai drama and fairy tale with a definitely creepy undertone. The Yokai series would become far more light-hearted as it went along, but this first installment has its roots in horror and traditional Japanese ghost stories. It stars Jun Fujimaki as Yasutaro, a ronin ( masterless samurai ) who may be more than he seems, and Ryûtarô Gomi as Hotta-Buzennokami, a corrupt official seeking to tear down Edo’s small shrines to make a fortune on land in the capital.
We open on a traveler telling a Yokai story in the classic 100 stories tradition. Ghost stories are told, and after each story a candle is put out until the final story is told and all the lights extinguished. Then a new candle is lit and a small ritual to ward off curses is performed, because if the full 100 stories are told and the ritual isn’t carried out, a ghost is likely to appear to the participants. This sets up the background of our story as we proceed to a bustling lower-class neighborhood in old Edo. We soon learn that the local small shrine is going to be pulled down to make room for a brothel and the old shrine keeper is savagely beaten when he objects. The residents of the adjacent tenement are also told that they will soon be turfed out, and while they care for the old shrine keeper, he dies from his wounds.
We learn that a local magistrate has tricked the tenement owner into his debt and is pressuring him to give up his building or repay the debt in full now. Hotta, a corrupt official in charge of shrines, has concocted a scheme with the magistrate to shut down the shrines to small spirits and sell or convert the land for profit. After inviting over a storyteller to perform the 100 stories, Hotta shuns the curse removal ceremony to pass out bribes to his guests in its place. Murder and deceit follow, and the restless spirits of the displaced shrines soon seek recompense for themselves and the humble souls that honored them.
It’s not really fair to compare special effects from 1968 to today’s, but I have to say that with the use of atmosphere and tone, Yokai Monsters does a damn good job. From funny little yokai like the Kasa-Obake ( Umbrella yokai ) to terrifying floating heads the size of small buildings, I was very impressed. In fact, the matte work on some of the scenes was better than a lot I’ve seen from the early ’90s. The use of shadow and angle covers a multitude of sins in the effects department, but I feel this is more to be applauded than anything else. Sometimes the old tricks are the best tricks.
I wish more of the movies I review on the Edge had the same attitude to effects that Yasuda does, however as the director of the famous and long running Zatoichi series you’ve got to figure he knows a thing or two about putting together a movie whether it be action, drama, or horror.
As part of the finale, the yokai parade through the streets insubstantially and, with the use of rear projection and slowing the film subtlety, it adds a really creepy feeling. While the later films in the series take on a more carnival attitude, this first installment plays with the idea that the yokai function through illusion and trickery, leaving you wondering if they exist at all. Are they just the symptoms of guilt, the imaginings of fevered minds, or are they striking back at those who would destroy them?
Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters mixes Japanese period drama with traditional ghost stories, a little social commentary, and comedy. The actors are doing their level best, although it’s clear from the start that they are going to be taking a back seat to the cast of creepy creatures and mysterious ghosts.
I was surprised to see that there was actually a lot of restraint in the first episode in the Yokai trilogy. Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters has as much mystery as it does special effects and I found myself caring about the human characters inhabiting the doomed tenement. Especially the tenement owner’s daughter after Hotta sets his sights on her.
It was also nice to see interpretations of Japanese spirits like the kappa, long-necked woman, tengu, oni, and others. Let’s hope the same quality of effects artistry carries over to the other two films in the trilogy.
I really enjoyed Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters and if you like Japanese movies, samurai films, or traditional effects, I’d give it a try. However, if you’re not into any of those things, I don’t know if it’s really the film for you. Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters can be a little slow in spots, it doesn’t fit firmly into either the horror or the drama categories, and if you only want the flashiest of special effects, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re curious to see the origins of films like The Ring and The Grudge, you might just get a kick out of this little piece of Japanese movie history. So I’m going to give this one a recommendation with those provisos. It’s not for everyone but if you give it a try, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised… and remember to keep a light on, my friends.
Nerdy Speculation Corner: Warning, may contain both spoilers and dangerous amounts of geekery!
I really liked how the Yokai got Hotta and his minions to do themselves in. It was a little more mysterious than I expected and with the bad guys being absolute S.O.B.’s ( Wow, they were real world level bastards. ), they more than deserved it.
I’m still not sure if the Yokai were supposed to be real, but Yasutaro’s reaction at the movie’s end does hint that he did indeed see the two faceless yokai impersonating Hotta’s minions. So, maybe?
Also, I know the effects are dated today but if I had been a kid in the ’60s, I think I’d have been in for a few weeks of nightmares after seeing this movie.
Come back next week when I’ll be continuing the Yokai Monsters series with the second in the trilogy, a more light-hearted affair than the first of the Yokai movies and the most popular of the three. So much so that it got a remake in 2005 under the title of The Great Yokai War. So join me then for something a bit less spooky and a little more kooky as we take a looky at Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare!