Genre: Live-Action Children's Classic Yokai Tale
review in one breath
This is a live-action version of the VERY long-running and beloved Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro series developed by classic yokai-guru Mizuki Shigeru. The entire gamut of odd monsters and traditional Japanese yokai appear here in this humorous and humanitarian tale. This is undoubtedly aimed at younger fans, but will prove entertaining to older audiences as well, especially those already familiar with the exploits of Kitaro or with a curiosity regarding Japan's traditional cosmology of strange creatures.
Here's a fun, light-hearted tale brimming with traditional Japanese youkai, based on the inter-generationally beloved Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro series originally created by Mizuki Shigeru in 1959. Shigeru's original manga ran from 1966 to 1970 in Shonen Magazine. In 1968, it was adapted to a television anime series. The television anime has run, off and on to the current day in at least five new series, with the latest version released in 2007. The film we are reviewing here is the first live-action version and its (live-action) sequel (GeGeGe no Kitaro 2: Sennen Noroi Uta) is due to be released in 2008. Also later this year, a new highly stylized anime series will make its appearance. The storyline has also been the basis of several recent video games.
It is hard, perhaps impossible to find a U.S. parallel to the trans-generational impact this simple manga series has had. Japanese children and adults alike are all intimately familiar with the characters of Kitaro, his Eye-Ball father, Cat Girl and all the rest. Here in the West we certainly have comic book or cartoon characters which have survived more than one generation, but their degree of familiarity cannot be said to compare with that of Shigeru's Kitaro characters. Unlike most if not all similar Western comic characters, Kitaro's tales and exploits provide a consistent humanitarian and family-based message, which made them educational as well as entertaining, a characteristic which undoubtedly endears him in the public's nostalgic eye.
The series' theme song melody and lyrics are perhaps embedded in two generations' memories. Here's a more traditional version of the tune (appearing in a recent PlayStation video game release):
And for fun testimony to its ubiquitousness, here's the theme song performed by the head-banging glam-goth metal band SEIKIMA: (Just observe the audience's thrasher response to this (ghostly/supernatural) *cartoon* theme. This otherworldly series is simply embedded in past/contemporary Japanese minds.)
The film is directed by Katsuhide Motoki who is also directing the upcoming sequel. The lead role of Kitaro is played by pop-singer Eiji Wentz. The decision to cast Wentz, based undoubtedly on his mainstream popularity among Japanese youngsters/adolescents, has been criticized by some due to his less than flamboyant acting. It is true that his range of depicted emotion is far less of a "range" than simple binary, but given the story line's implicit emphasis on Kitaro's isolation and existential loneliness, this less-than-vibrant depiction actually works in his favor. BUT the vast gap of personality between Wentz's Kitaro and the beloved predecessor is admittedly undeniable.
The plethora of traditional Japanese folk monsters (youkai) appearing in this film will undoubtedly come across as both bizarre and somewhat too-cutesy to Western audiences unfamiliar with Shigeru's legacy. Reviewers faced a similar conundrum when trying to hail the merits of Miike Takashi's Great Yokai War (2005), another film based on Shigeru's long-running monster legacy. (And in fact, Great Yokai War is based on a very specific original episode in Shigeru's Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro manga.) The problem stems from the fact that these characters and scenarios are SO familiar to japanese audiences that the directors feel it unnecessary to provide a basic introduction. And so in the initial scene of this film, for example, we follow a group of small children intent on contacting and enlisting the help of "Kitaro" through a well-hidden post office box deep within the woods at the foot of an ancient sacred tree. In other words, the film hits the ground running and feels no compulsion to explain who Kitaro is, how the children know of him, and what his reputation is. For Western viewers unfamiliar with the character, this can prove either confusing or aggravating or both.
So here's a little background:
When only an infant, both Kitaro's parents had died, leaving him abandoned at their graves with no one to care for him. From the underworld, his father, seeing the plight of his abandoned son, returned in the form of a youkai to watch over him. Specifically, the father returned as a talking Eye-Ball. As a youkai, the father was able to introduce young Kitaro to the host of other youkai of traditional lore, resulting in Kitaro occupying the very unique position of standing between the natural world of humans and the supernatural world of Japan's traditional monsters.
In Shigeru's hands, this basic scenario allowed him to explore and personalize many of Japan's local youkai, depicting them with various personalities; some innocent, some malevolent. Through the Kitaro character, Shigeru was able to vividly imagine and depict the colorful world of Japanese folk lore. Throughout his tales, Kitaro was a consistent advocate of humans, striving to convey their emotions and good will to a distrustful and suspicious youkai population. At the same time, Kitaro would introduce to humans the almost wide-spread good nature of his monstrous friends. Thus since 1959, Shigeru's Kitaro character has been demystifying and humanizing the things which otherwise simply go "bump in the night".
When an unscrupulous yakuza intent on redeveloping land currently occupied by an apartment complex asks his henchman to scare the occupants out, he has no idea that ghouls from the underworld would do his bidding. One after another, residents of the high-rise flee from ghastly apparitions warning them of the consequences of staying. One young boy Kenta, seeing this encroachment of ghosts and believing whole-heartedly in the legend of Kitaro, the good-natured mediary from the spirit world, ventures far into the woods to deliver his request at the foot of an ancient sacred tree.
Meanwhile, demolition work at a neighboring site inadvertently unearths an ancient Shinto Fox shrine resulting in the theft of an ancient (Evil) Stone with supernatural powers. The theft of the Stone not only awakens the slumbering Fox Deities who voraciously seek its return, but sets in motion a monster-filled power grab by those who wish to wield the Stone's power to their own gain.
If left to its fate, this Stone will undoubtedly wreak the same violent havoc it has for centuries. The fact that it subsequently falls into the hands of young Kenta is no small detail. Thus with every malevolent god scouring the living world to find this powerful amulet, Kitaro finds himself in the center of Kenta's unwanted dilemma.
In terms of exposure to the pantheon of traditional Japanese folk goblins, this film offers a rather rare experience. This is not to say you will find this scary or suspenseful in any way. You will find, however, a rather unique introduction to the vast cast of strange characters populating the recesses of the Japanese collective consciousness. At some (very) few and specific points, Western lovers of Japanese film will do well to abandon their learned expectations and simply receive what Japanese audiences are watching. Whether or not you like it afterwards is up to you, of course. But I encourage you to understand, in your evaluation of things, that not every Japanese film is intended to please non-Japanese audiences and that sometimes we are unknowingly inviting ourselves into something akin to an inside joke.
Version reviewed: Region 2 DVD (with English subtitles)
|First live-action version of the age-long Shigeru manga. Plenty of traditional folk ghoulies depicted for your viewing pleasure (and education).||Plenty of youkai battles, all depicted well within a young viewer's comfort zone.||One unexpected hug and subsequent blush.||This is the sole live-action version of Mizuki Shigeru's Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro series. See it if not only for the window into mainstream Japanese culture. The sequel is also on its way.|