A cavalcade of creatures from Japanese folklore come alive in “The Great Yokai War: Guardian,” a hugely enjoyable fantasy-adventure directed by the famously prolific and supremely versatile Takashi Miike (“Audition”, “13 Assassins”). Starring amazingly talented child actors Kokoro Terada and Rei Inomata as brothers summonsed by peace-loving spirits to stop an angry demon from engaging in the time-honored Japanese monster movie tradition of destroying Tokyo, this smashing piece of young-adult entertainment should be a big hit in Japan, where it’s sure to get plenty of love from older adults as well. With its standout visuals and uplifting messages about trust, friendship and acceptance, “Guardians” should attract the interest of specialized overseas distributors following its international premiere as the closing-night attraction of Fantasia 2021.
Miike is most closely associated with extremely violent crime stories such as “Audition” and blood-soaked costume action-thrillers like “Blade of the Immortal.” Less well known outside Japan are his family-friendly hits such as “Ninja Kids!!!” and “The Great Yokai War” (2006). No knowledge of the first “Yokai War” film is required to enjoy this second chapter, which is directed with infectious exuberance by Miike. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking “Guardians” is the work of a talented and super-enthusiastic newcomer rather than a veteran who’s notched 111 directing credits since 1991.
Roughly translated as “strange apparition,” Yokai is the collective name for Japanese supernatural entities. Sometimes hostile to humans and sometimes friendly, these creatures are staples of comics, video games and movies (notably Studio Ghibli films), and have a strong presence in many other areas of Japanese culture and society.
Before unveiling the wondrous world where the Yokai dwell, Miike and scriptwriter Yusuke Watanabe (“Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods”) establish the film’s simple and powerful emotional terrain. Kei Watanabe (12-year-old Kokoro Terada, “Grandma Is All Good”) is a typical fifth-grader who wants to be accepted by his peers and fights with little brother Dai (Rei Inomata). They’re adored by widowed mother Reika (Nanako Matsushima) and remember their late father as a loving man who taught the importance of kindness and co-operation.
The film zooms into high gear and barely looks back from the moment Kei and Dai are whisked into a magical land inhabited by stunningly designed and costumed creatures whose carnival midway-like meeting place looks like the best theme park ever built. The boys are told by friendly, bubble-headed Yokai leader Nurarihyon (Nao Ohmori, who played the lead role in Miike’s “Ichi the Killer”) that destiny has brought them here. As the last descendants of legendary demon hunter Watanabe no Tsuna (Kazuki Kitamura), Kei and Dai have been nominated by peace-loving Yokai as their only hope of defeating Yokaiju, a mighty sea demon currently on a collision course with Tokyo.
It’s not just Tokyo in the firing line. In a gorgeously filmed and wittily scripted flashback, we witness a meeting of the World Yokai Summit in Beijing, with creatures including Yeti, Medusa and Frankenstein’s monster in attendance. A serious rift has occurred between pacifist Yokai and a rebel faction led by Inugami Gyobu (Takao Osawa), a big, hairy, demon biker dude who rides a flame-throwing motorcycle. He and tough sidekick Ibarakidoji (Sumire), a warrior with coiffure and wardrobe in the style of 1980s glam metal bands, want Yokaiju to stomp all over Tokyo, and much more besides. Ongoing discussions between pro-peace and pro-war Yokai are written with sharp satirical humor that pokes fun at the conduct of real world politicians and institutions.
Such debates about human-Yokai relations add another satisfying layer to a captivating story that finds Dai becoming separated from his brother and placed in mortal danger alongside supposed protector Amanojaku (Eiji Akaso), a horned beastie with a flip phone and a flip-flop attitude toward telling the truth. Right on cue, Kei finds a magic sword and instantly becomes one of the most adept and inspiring young warriors you’ve ever seen.
Kei’s action-packed mission to save his brother and restore harmony between spirit and human worlds is beautifully imagined and emotionally rewarding. The smile and determination on Kei’s face as he rides a magic dragon and undertakes the adventure of a lifetime is simply irresistible. It’s almost impossible not to be affected by the lads’ sincere appeals for everyone to settle differences and respect each other. There’s a lovely connection to the boys’ exalted lineage in the fetching form of Ms. Fox (Hana Sugisaki), a clever cookie who shared a special moment with Watanabe no Tsuna many centuries ago.
En route to the awe-inspiring conclusion, audiences will be delighted and entranced by Yokai such as slinky, ice-breathing dame Yukionna (Yuko Oshima), Hell Boy-like tough guy Shojo (Koji Okura) and Ubume (Sakura Ando), a long-haired lady with a baby who looks like she just emerged from the well in the “Ring” movies.
Although some effects work is wobbly and the pace slackens just a tad in the middle, “Guardians” wins through with the type of energy, imagination and pure storytelling joy that’s often lacking in highly sanitized and cautiously constructed children’s and young-adult adventure films made elsewhere.
Huge credit goes to Miike’s direction of the extraordinarily talented youngsters, both of whom perform like seasoned pros of character-driven action-thrillers. The entire cast appears to be having a ball, and the technical contributions of DP Hideo Yamamoto (“Hana-bi”), production designer Yuji Hayashida (“Tokyo Tribe”) and composer Koji Endo (“Blade of the Immortal”) are imbued with the same kind of “let’s put on a great show” feeling.