A wealthy businessman plans to have a shrine torn down so he can build a brothel in its place. Opposition from local villagers is silenced by bribery and violence, but it is not only the human population that takes exception to his plans…
Unusual spook shenanigans from Japan, courtesy of director Kimiyoshi Yasuda and the Daiei Production Company. This strange mixture of folklore and samurai film was successful enough to spawn a trilogy, with bizarre sequel ‘Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare/Yôkai daisensô‘ (1968) followed by the somewhat underwhelming conclusion of ‘Journey with Ghost Along Yokaido Road/Along With Ghosts/Tôkaidô obake dôchû’ (1969).
Caretaker Gohei (Jun Hamamura) is outraged when a group of thugs led by Jusuke (Yoshio Yoshida) turn up at his village shrine and announce that ownership has fallen into the greasy hands of businessman Tajimaya (Takashi Kanda). He plans to demolish the monument, along with the adjoining tenement house and replace them with a brothel. Hamamura objects and is beaten to death. This act angers masterless samurai, Yasutaro (Jun Fujimaki), especially when he learns that Kanda has blackmailing former owner Jinbee (Tatsuo Hanabu) so he can get his paws on the older man’s daughter Okiku (Miwa Takada).
Eager to cement his relationship with the local officials he has bribed, Kanda holds a celebratory dinner. Entertainment is provided by a storyteller (Shôzô Hayashiya), who tells 100 tales, including one that involves a fisherman’s wife who turns into a demon with a long, snake-like neck. When the stories are completed, tradition dictates a cleansing ritual to ensure that Yokai (apparitions) do not appear afterwards. When Kanda discovers that the mysterious Fujimaki has attended the dinner, the ceremony is forgotten and things begin to get seriously weird.
Kanda’s idiot son, Shinkichi (Rookie Shin-ichi) begins drawing a strange, umbrella creature on the walls of his room and is more than a little surprised when it comes to life and licks his face. Soon, the house is filled with strange, otherworldly spirits and Kanda and his associates find themselves lost in a world of illusion and terror. Meanwhile, Fujimaki is also waiting to dish out some righteous justice with the edge of his blade.
By far, the most accomplished aspect of this odd tale of ghouls and ghosties are the monsters themselves. Realised through a mixture of outlandish, full-body costumes and puppetry, they have a grotesque, old-world charm and the scenes of their eerie, slow-motion dances are the highlights of the film. These FX are about as far from modern CGI as you can get, but their very practicality lends them a wonderfully bizarre reality that makes them both effective and memorable. Unfortunately, they only arrive in numbers with about 20 minutes of the film remaining.
Up until their appearance, what we have is a relatively standard Japanese drama, with the forces of an evil tyrant opposed by a single, heroic swordsman. The fight scenes and competent but nothing special, and the human characters are drawn in broad, simple strokes that are never developed. It’s also unclear as to why the spirits enact their revenge. Are they angry because of the damage done to the shrine or the lack of the cleansing ritual after the storytelling episode?
Of course, it’s always tricky to comment on a film that’s a product of an unfamiliar culture and mythology. There are almost certainly aspects of the story that are lost in translation. However, the film is still an entertaining experience, and the Yokai themselves are intriguing and visually striking.
Director Yasuda made several entries in the long-running series of films featuring the blind swordsman, Zatoichi, which was one of the Daiei Studio’s most successful properties from1962 to 1989. Several of the cast who appear here featured in one entry or another. Fujimaki and Takada played the human leads opposite one of Daiei’s other big stars; the stone giant ‘Daimajin’ (1966) and Kanda performed in sequel ‘Return of Daimajin’ (1966) as well as in the sequel to this film: ‘Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare/Yôkai daisensô‘ (1968). Yoshida played the Eskimo Chief in ‘Gamera the Invincible/Daikaijû Gamera’ (1965).
A supernatural tale that may try the patience a little, but comes up trumps in the final act.