Dir: Takashi Miike. Jap.2005. 124mins.
Announcing the production of the $30m The Great Goblin War lastSeptember, Kadokawa Group chairman Tsuguhiko Kadokawa said the film would'rival Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings in its worldwideappeal".
To make its chairman's wordsa reality, Kadokawa hired Takashi Miike, a director best known for hisfull-frontal plunges into depravity, madness and general weirdness such as Auditionand Ichi The Killer. It's as if Disney hired David Lynch to make alive-action version of Snow White, in which Grumpy inhales a suspiciousgaseous substance through a plastic mask.
Miike, however, has beenmaking mainstream films for some time now, including family-friendly superherospoof Zebraman. The result is a blenderisation and Japanisation of the HarryPotter and Lord Of The Rings films in which its central protagonistlearns the usual lessons about courage and friendship.
Yet despite falling farshort of the hyperbole, The Great Goblin War is a natural for overseasfantasy film fans, especially ones with a taste for the genre's Asianvariations - a large and growing cohort. In Japan it has been a solid hit withchildren, teens and young adults, grossing $14.6m in the first three weekssince its Aug 6 release. The film plays out of competition at Venice beforeheading for Toronto.
Takashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki)is a modern-day city kid living in the countryside with his divorced mother(Kaho Minami) and semi-senile grandfather (Bunta Sugawara). Timid and lonely,Takashi is miserable until a festival dancer in a Chinese dragon costumechooses him to be a Kirin Rider - a traditional fighter for peace and justice.
This, his friends tell him,is not a pretend title, but the real deal. His mission: climb a nearby mountainand claim a magical sword from its resident Great Goblin. As night falls, heboards a mysterious bus up the mountain and finds, at his feet a strangecat-like creature - the first and most harmless of the many goblins he willmeet.
Meanwhile, evil is abroad,unleashed by the wizard Kato (Estushi Toyokawa). Using discarded machinery andthe power of a vengeful spirit called Yomotsumono, he turns once harmlessgoblins into mechanical minions who wreak havoc on the human world.
He is assisted by a femalegoblin (Chiaki Kurimyama) with a beehive hairdo and a mean whip hand. Takashiopposes this pair with his yokai allies including one who resembles a NinjaTurtle (Sadao Abe) and one who looks like a long-haired samurai dipped in reddye (Masaomi Kondo).
Miike tells it all with an energyand invention bordering on the manic, as well as characteristic touches ofblack humour, but he can't disguise its derivative nature.
The Japanese goblins oryokai - come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and features - are more on thecuddly than scary side. The principal ones are also both eccentricallyindividual and impeccably traditional, as though they'd stepped out of an oldwoodblock print - or a comic by film advisor Shigeru Mizuki, whose classicseries Gegege No Kitaro made yokai popular with a mass readership.
Western fans of HayaoMiyazaki's hit animation Spirited Away will notice similarities incharacter designs - though Miike's are more grotesque, Miyazaki's morefreeform.
He and his effects peoplecreate a funny/creepy phantasmagoric world that is distinctively Miike, thoughthe animatronics and CG are a tad retro by Hollywood standards (think Gremlinsand the crowd scenes in Gladiator).
Also, his attempts to buildtension and suspense are less than inspired. Attitude, not talent, is the problem:Miike can't help winking at his material - and deflating his story in theprocess.
Keeping the movie frombecoming a campy cartoon is star Ryunosuke Kamiki. A 12-year-old prodigy, hepossesses a natural vivacity and thoroughly professional acting chops, keepingthe film on track, even when his director has an impish urge to derail it.
The ending, following atitanic CG battle, leaves an obvious opening for a sequel.
Japan Film Fund
Nippon Television Network