Blu-Ray Review: Arrow Films’ ‘Yōkai Monsters Collection’

There’s a reason Arrow’s Yōkai Monsters Collection includes a documentary called ‘Hiding in Plain Sight.’ Pop culture is full of yōkai monsters. The problem isn’t that Western audiences haven’t been exposed to them. It’s that they might not know it. According to the documentary, modern yōkai include Pokémon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Studio Ghibli’s films come up, as well, in the essay booklet. There’s even a yōkai that resembles a Teletubby, with a TV for a belly, though that might just be conjecture on this reviewer’s part.

As easy as it is to cite examples of yōkai, it’s harder to come up with a definition for the term. All of the essays in the booklet take a stab at it. Jolyon Yates writes, “Yōkai can be a broad term for all supernatural beings and monsters, or Japanese creatures in particular,” while Stuart Galbraith IV writes:

“Yōkai are derived from Japanese concepts of animism and religions like Shinto that believe god-like spirits reside not just in animals but in all things, from trees and rocks to plants and buildings… and even paper umbrellas.”

Other than the documentary, the bonus features for the original trilogy are light, while Takashi Miike’s The Great Yōkai War (2005) comes with a ton. It is fun to watch the trailers for the original trilogy because all of the monsters get credited alongside the actors. The downside of that is the actors wearing the costumes don’t get recognized (Miike’s film is better at that, and Galbraith IV’s essay is able to identify some of the people) but imagine being a kid and having to question whether the monsters are real because the trailers keep up the façade.

Arrow’s packaging continues to be the best, in terms of looks and keeps the disks safe (because I’m sorry Criterion, but as great as your releases are, there’s been way too much concern lately with packaging that looks cool but isn’t practical). The cover art by Yates is included as a double-sided poster, where one side has the art, and the other side has the art with all of the yōkai briefly described. They’re recognizable from the films, too, so it’s easy to identify your favorites. There are also four postcards (one for each movie) with new art by Yates on one side and the film posters on the other.

Starting with Kimiyoshi Yasuda‘s 100 Monsters (1968), the film gets its title from the One Hundred Stories gatherings that would occur in Japan during the Edo Period. Given that the film begins with a One Hundred Stories event gone right, it only follows that another one later on will go wrong. That one is hosted by the same greedy people who want to knock down the local tenement house and shrine and Tetsurô Yoshida (who wrote all three original yōkai films) makes them a truly treacherous bunch. They can’t even be trusted to keep their word, and it falls to the yōkai to exact justice. That’s what’s so great about these monsters. They’re no less violent and tricky than other monsters, but they only target people who have done bad things. Also, they can look like everyday objects – think The Brave Little Toaster meets Black River (a Japanese film that’s currently streaming as part of the Criterion Channel’s Japanese Noir collection). Yōkai don’t feel like fantastic beings. They’re part of the landscape – spirits you could run into the same way you might run into a squirrel, and that’s what makes 100 Monsters so exciting.

Yoshiyuki Kuroda‘s Spook Warfare (1968) works both as a yōkai film and a vampire movie. Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto), the vampire in question, has killed the Lord Magistrate (Takashi Kanda) and is now posing as him to kill more people. Daimon’s ability to disguise himself as the Lord Magistrate makes for a fun play on vampire compulsion. It’s also revealed that yōkai can see through the disguise, which comes in handy.

Tone-wise, Spook Warfare is a little sillier and more geared for children (the yōkai talk more in this film, too), but despite being physically outmatched by Daimon, they never give up and have each other’s backs. Raffael Coronelli‘s essay offers some interesting insight on how Buddhism is incorporated into the film.

Yoshiyuki Kuroda and Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s Along with Ghosts (1969) has less Yōkai and they’re more sinister looking, too, but the same rules apply. As long as you heed their warnings, they’ll leave you alone. Miyo (Masami Burukido) is trying to find her father after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now there are men chasing her because they think she has a document. The reveal of who her father is delivers a nice payoff and Miyo may be young but she’s not trusting, which makes the people who earn her trust deserving.

Finally, The Great Yōkai War is about a young boy named Tadashi (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) who gets chosen to be the next Kirin Rider. That means he’s been entrusted to act as guardian of the peace. However, that’s hard to do when there’s a villain named Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) who’s been turning yōkai into vengeful, mechanical creatures, that look like CGI Terminators. Whether you enjoy The Great Yōkai War depends a lot on your tolerance for cute, furry fuzzballs (in this case a yōkai named sunekosuri). Unlike the yōkai in Spook Warfare, too, the yōkai in Great Yōkai War don’t have the same sense of justice. True, the yōkai in Spook Warfare couldn’t be killed, which made for an advantage, but they didn’t have to be tricked into thinking they were attending a festival to stand up to Kato. There’s no reason the film had to go The Polar Express route, either, and have adults not be able to see yōkai once they get older. Also unnecessary: the sexualization of some of the female characters’ costumes. Tom Mes (who’s written two books on Miike) provides the commentary, and what’s neat about the interviews is instead of the camera staying on the person speaking, their voice is heard over behind the scenes footage of the stunts and some of the makeup applications.

Yōkai Monsters Collection is available on Blu-Ray now from Arrow Films.

There’s a reason Arrow’s Yōkai Monsters Collection includes a documentary called ‘Hiding in Plain Sight.’ Pop culture is full ofCOMICONRead More

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