‘Yokai Monsters’ Pits Japanese Umbrella Spirits Against Vampires… Sort Of
A few weeks ago I was talking to Aaron of Awesomed By Comics, and he described a film as being like Sid and Marty Kroft making a Japanese horror movie for children, and then told me that it was something I had to see. And he was right on all counts.
Released in 1968, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare was the first in a series of three children’s movies released by the Daiei Company, best known as the producers of Gamera. It tells a story of Japan’s native ghosts and monsters banding together to fight off a one-man (one-thing?) invasion by an ancient Babylonian monster, and is so mind-bendingly weird that when it came time for the inevitable 2005 remake, it was directed by Takashi Miike, best known for Ichi the Killer and an episode of Masters of Horror that was considered too disturbing to be broadcast on Showtime.
And it’s actually even weirder than it sounds.As you might expect from the title, the story focuses on the yokai spirits of Japanese folklore, which were spirits attached to everything from backyard ponds to unattended umbrellas, and which I’m mostly familiar with from their fights with Usagi Yojimbo. Specifically, the ones in the movie were based largely on those that had been popularized over the previous decade in the manga GeGeGe no Hitaro, by Shigeru Mizuku, a World War II veteran who had to learn to draw with his right hand after his left arm was blown off by an explosion and eventually became lauded as a master of the art form.
This has absolutely no bearing on anything you’re about to see, but c’mon. That’s pretty inspiring.
As for the film itself, it’s set during the time of the samurai, but instead of opening on Japan, our story begins in far-off Babylonia, where a couple of grave robbers who have apparently never seen a movie before crack open a heretofore unrobbed tomb.
Unfortunately for them, that’s about the last thing they do, as their incessant hammering wakes up our villain for the evening:
This is Daimon, an ancient Babylonian monster who carries around a staff that features both an axe and a fire-breathing dragon head and wears a belt made of human skulls. The handy summary provided by the Netflix envelope refers to him as a “vampire,” and while that’s kind of true, it doesn’t even come close to describing him. Just believe me when I say, this dude is ultimate badass.
So badass, in fact, that after burying his would-be tomb raiders in rock, he thinks nothing of making the 5,000 mile trip to Japan, which he accomplishes by turning into a thunderstorm and wrecking a pirate ship just for fun.
Eventually, he makes it to Japan and we’re introduced to a bunch of samurai sporting what are hilariously obvious bald caps, even by the standards of late-’60s children’s monster movies. The guy in charge is Magistrate Isobe, and I have to say, he turns out to be a terrible samurai. For one thing, sensing that there’s something wrong while he’s out on patrol, he attempts to fight a thunderstorm with a sword. That’s not not planning ahead.
Eventually, Daimon reveals himself…
…and promptly kicks the living crap out of Isobe, breaking his sword and then causing him to somehow pass out just by waving his flamethrower menacingly at him. It doesn’t sound like much, but c’mon, be honest: If a seven foot tall demon lizard with feathers waved a flamethrower at you, you’d be lucky if passing out was all you did.
Daimon then bites Isobe on the neck, which is where the whole vampire thing pretty much starts and ends, because he also goes spectral and starts inhabiting his body. Then he heads on home, and in a tribute to how much Daimon just cold does not give a damn about pretending to be human, he a) kills his daughter’s dog with his sword immediately on entering his house, b) grabs a naginata and goes straight apestuff on the family shrine, and c) tells his men to burn it up and also to kill his daughter if she starts to get mouthy. Also, he bashes his steward’s head in with his flamethrower axe, and then creates a duplicate of himself that possesses him. And he tries to wear his Samurai helmet backwards.
The reaction of this from all of his men is basically to turn to each other and go “hey, does the boss seem a little weird tonight?”
Fortunately for the slow-witted samurai, stately Isobe Manor is also home to a Kappa, who pops his head out of the water and discovers that thanks to what I can only assume is Yokai Vision, he can see through Daimon’s disguise:
Kappa attempts to battle Daimon for the honor of the household, but as he’s going up against an ancient Babylonian shapeshifting duplicating flamethrower thunderstorm vampire dragon wizard, that goes about as well as you’d expect.
Thus, Kappa gets ousted from his comfortable pond. Clearly, something has to be done about it, so he heads out to the woods to call a meeting of his local Yokai Union, which is where we get the real stars of the show. Not only does this scene give us the most accurate possible description of Daimon…
…but we’re also introduced to some of the classic yokai. Kappa’s running crew includes Abura-sumashi (“The Oil-Wringer,” whose appearance is drawn straight from Mizuku’s designs), Rokurokubi (the “Long-Necked Female Demon,” whose head moves around on what appears to be a flesh-colored boa constrictor with a kimono at the other end), what appears to be an ambulatory potato, and what I’m sad to say is an extremely off-model Two-Face.
Seriously, I sat through this whole dang movie and she didn’t flip a coin or rob the Second National Bank or nothin‘. Very disappointing.
Also, we’re introduced to what is undoubtedly the creepiest damn thing I have ever seen.
This monstrosity is Karakasa Obake, a member of a sub-set of yokai based on the idea that once objects are a hundred years old, they come to life. And apparently grow one eye, a giant lolling tongues and an affinity for sandals. Unlike the other yokai, Karakasa here is portrayed not by a guy in a suit, but by a marionette with rubber arms and legs, and it is just straight up disturbing.
Kappa explains his predicament to the assembled spirits, but since Daimon appears in neither the “Apparition Social Register” nor a children’s book of Japanese spirits (not to mention any other book ever), the yokai assume that Kappa has just had too little to drink and is in the throes of delerium. It’s always sad when a water sprite falls on the wagon, y’know? Either way, he convinces them to come back to Casa Isobe with him so they can see for themselves.
They do, and not only do they get the stuffing knocked out of ’em, they’re teleported away and forced to watch the movie on a bear spirit’s stomach (?!) so that they can see Shinpachiro, one of Isobe’s men, duke it out with Daimon. Of course, Shinpachiro has hit up the local monk for supplies and come away with a tiny little bow that gives him a crucial peice of knowledge.
You see, despite his fearsome powers, Daimon is not invulnerable…
…and his weak point is being shot in the face. But really, whose isn’t?
Unfortunately, while the yokai themselves would love nothing more than to help exploit this weakness, Shinpachiro’s second piece of demon-fightin’ swag was an ofuda — the paper talismans Sailor Mars used to throw around — that ends up inadvertently trapping them in a nearby vase.
Eventually, Two-Face and the Umbrella of Terror manage to convince Isobe’s daughter to let them out so they can help take Daimon down, as he has now spread his evil to another magistrate. Thus, in a fit of subtext, the yokai gather up every single spirit in Japan, uniting them into a nationalistic demon army so they can give this foreign invader what-for.
Which is about when Daimon grows a hundred feet tall.
Because apparently being a Babylonian shapeshifting duplicating flamethrower thunderstorm vampire dragon wizard who could split himself into a hundred invulnerable clones just wasn’t enough.
From my understanding of traditional Japanese folklore, I assumed this would be about when the yokai summoned their MegaZord to fight Daimon on his own terms, but instead, Abura-sumashi just grabs onto the parasol’s shudder-inducing rubber leg and just cold rides up on a gentle breeze and stabs him in the face with a pitchfork.
That is literally how this movie made for children ends.
As strange as the movie and its weird monsters might seem, when you get right down to it it’s no more bizarre than the fairy tales we’re all used to on this side of the Pacific, right down to our stories of cursed spinning wheels and hair-accessible towers, and really, the themes are just as universal. Like all good kids’ movies, this one teaches a lesson: No matter how big your problems are, you can get through them through self-reliance and banding together with your friends.
Also by stabbing things right in the frigging face.