While the rest of the world breathlessly rushes on in the great CGI arms race to see who can put the next (and perhaps last) generation of make-up artists and puppeteers out of work, the Japanese film industry has remained a final bastion of practical special effects, particularly in the yōkai sub-genre—films about monsters, spirits, and every mean manner of beastie from Japanese folklore and fakelore. Like more traditional tokusatsu cinema, the artificiality of yōkai effects has always been a selling point, not a detriment, creating a creative wildlife reserve where actors in rubber suits, silly masks, and rubber appendages can run wild. Consider two yōkai films playing at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival: Yudai Yamaguchi and Keith Amemiya’s Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch and Takashi Yamazaki’s Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura. Both feature an abundance of real humans in real monster outfits interacting with real practical effects. And while both films liberally use CGI, it’s never for the sake of verisimilitude, instead favoring creatures as ostentatiously artificial as any Takashi Murakami superflat exhibit.
Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch is essentially a 92 minute anthology film featuring vignettes of famous yōkai updated for modern sensibilities. These range from the truly disturbing to the truly forgettable. But the best involve re-imaginings of the umibōzu and kamaitachi, the former the vengeful spirit of a drowned monk turned sea monster that smashes any boat whose crew mentions its name, the latter a cruel killer with sickles for limbs that flies on heavy winds. The umibōzu is here depicted as a Sion Sono wet-dream: a rotund kaiju head straight out of a 50s Roger Corman cheapie with human hands for teeth and the heads of crazed women for eyes. Meanwhile the kamaitachi gets the Lolita treatment, being reinterpreted as a psychotic young girl complete with pretty bows and ribbons who terrorizes construction workers with slice attacks so fast they can’t be seen. The film feebly attempts to string these stories together with a framing story about two young women haunted by a rokuroku, a witch with a stylish red kimono and a not-so-stylish 10 foot long prehensile neck. The rokuroku lives in a haunted hotel—in room 666 natch—and torments victims until they barter for their freedom with foolhardy promises, usually involving the lives of other people. The film seems to imply that the witch’s return to collect on the women’s promises is responsible for the sudden surge in yōkai activity comprising the rest of the film, but it’s largely unclear. What’s worse, the lore behind the titular yōkai is spotty and poorly explained—think Sadako’s curse in the Ring films if she didn’t bother with the video tape or seven day warning and just killed you whenever she felt like it. One can’t help but wonder how much better Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch would have been if it had abandoned the pretense of a larger narrative and embraced its anthology roots as the Japanese answer to V/H/S (2012) or The ABCs of Death (2012). It’s not a particularly good or consistent film, but there’s enough creativity and originality in the monster designs to charm even the most jaded genre aficionado.
Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is a significantly more successful film, even if the presence of traditional yōkai are downplayed to make room for the original monster designs and cosmology created by famed mangaka Ryohei Saigan in his Kamakura Monogatari series. The film follows middle aged writer and spirit sleuth Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) and his significantly younger newlywed bride Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) as they move back to Masakazu’s hometown of Kamakura. Akiko is stunned to learn that in Kamakura yōkai, spirits, ghosts, and humans co-exist (relatively) peacefully. But she catches on rather quickly after a visit to a late night Monster Market where she buys “spirit mushrooms” that severe the link between one’s soul and body with even the smallest bite. The next ninety or so minutes are, much like Rokuroku, essentially an anthology of Masakazu and Akiko’s misadventures with the otherworldly denizens of Kamakura, including a murder mystery involving spirit possession seances, an 800-year old jinx spirit, a particularly dapper female psychopomp right out of a Neil Gaiman comic, a Death God Bureau to which the newly deceased can petition to become ghosts or yōkai, and an evil monster from the film’s version of the afterlife that wants Akiko for its eternal bride. The last fourth of the movie is a more traditional fantasy-romance movie where Masakazu travels to the world of the dead to rescue Akiko from her fiendish suitor. Visually, this afterlife borrows a bit too liberally from the spirit railroad sequence in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and the stacked-block architecture of the Land of the Dead in Lee Unkrich’s Coco (2017)—but the idea that Masakazu’s hyperactive imagination can warp his ghostly surroundings to his will is delightfully novel. The film’s main problem, however, is its near interminable length. Two hours may not sound like much, but the film’s heavily episodic pacing gives one the impression they’re watching a television miniseries nearly twice as long, making the over-long finale where Masakazu and Akiko swear their undying love for each other in the face of adversity over and over again exhausting instead of cathartic. But again, much like Rokuroku, viewers who come seeking to immerse themselves in a strange world of magic, monsters, and practical special effects won’t be disappointed.