Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)
aka Yôkai daisensô (Big Monster War)
Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Written by Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring Yoshihiko Aoyama, Hideki Hanamura, Chikara Hashimoto, Hiromi Inoue, Akane Kawasaki, and Gen Kuroki
Yôkai is one of the Japanese terms for monsters, particularly ghosts or apparitions. Some were drawn from genuine folklore, but many sprang from the imagination of artists. Whatever their origins they’re the inspiration for a lot of modern Japanese entertainment, particularly comics and animation. The best-known designs for some of them are based on the suits created for Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare.
The premise of the film is that the ancient Babylonian demon Daimon (Chikara Hashimoto), released by a treasure hunter, settles in the Izu Magesterial Palace and assumes the identity of the magistrate. Noticing that the official’s personality has shifted from gentle thoughtfulness to unrestrained malice, his daughter Chie (Akane Kawasaki) and the samurai Shinhachiro Mayama (Yoshihiko Aoyama) set about removing the imposter. At the same time, Daimon has offended the palaces resident kappa (Gen Kuroki) — a combative water spirit that vaguely resembles a bipedal turtle — driving him from the estate’s pond. It’s a two-pronged assault on the invading demon, as humans and yôkai join forces to take back Izu.
The monsters are really the stars of this film, but while scores of them appear I want to talk about the handful that the kappa tries to enlist first. In no particular order they are: a rokurokubi, or “long-necked woman”, whose neck elongates as needed; a kasa-obake, an umbrella with one leg, one eye, and a tongue; a nuppeppô, essentially a short, ambulant lump; a futakuchi-onna, a woman with a second face on the back of her head; and an abura-sumashi, a squat man with a very large head. Not a single one (or even all together) can present a threat to the powerful Daimon, so it all ends with an impressive variety of Japanese monsters battling the foreign demon.
If that sounds nakedly nationalistic, that’s because it was intentionally so. Throughout the film, it’s made clear that Daimon is an affront to the honor of Japanese monsters. Indeed, his defeat is lauded specifically as a victory for Japanese monsters. This is a significant distinction in 1960s Japan. After Emperor Hirohito’s surrender ended the fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II, his country was aggressively transformed into a Western-style nation. While this brought prosperity to Japan, there was an understandable resentment of the cultural changes. Interest in the past surged, expressing itself in tales of samurai and eventually of yôkai. These and other historical elements were embraced as unique sources of national pride, so when Japanese monsters and a samurai save society from a foreign demon it’s not subtext; it’s text writ large for an audience regaining pride in itself.
Of course, there’s a thin line between national pride and nationalism. Two years after Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare came the bizarre death of Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a celebrated novelist and playwright who was considered for a Nobel Prize three times. He was also a vocal nationalist who founded his own militia in the late 1960s. In 1970, he and a few of his men locked themselves in the office of the Eastern Command of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. From the balcony, Mishima addressed the troops in an attempt to inspire them to launch a coup d’état — a call to arms that brought jeers from the soldiers. He then went inside and committed seppuku, with the bungled assistance of his fellows.
It’s worth keeping this in mind as we watch films like London Has Fallen. There’s a therapeutic thrill in seeing Gerard Butler defeat a conspiracy that stands in for the 9/11 attacks. Nationalism is a balm that can make for thrilling cinema, but it should be left to the movie monsters. Anything else ends badly.