If anyone tells you that you need something more than just a few cool monsters to make a great film, they’re spreading lies. Sure, over-the-top creature design works best when it’s paired with an intricate narrative structure, as is the case with John Carpenter’s immortal The Thing. It’s not a necessary combo, though. One of my favorite discoveries this past year, for instance, was the creature-laden Monster Brawl, which was essentially just famous monsters murdering each other in graveyard pro wrestling matches with little to no narrative embellishment. The monsters were impressive enough & the premise was silly enough for the movie to work on that bare bones formula. The sensation of watching Monster Brawl brought me back to the days of banging action figures together on the carpeted floor of my childhood home, imagining epic battles between fantastic monsters & superhuman muscle men.
That same childish exuberance for fantastic monsters is what won me over wholeheartedly in the late-60s Japanese film Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (aka The Great Yokai War). The second installment in a series of three Yokai Monsters movies released in just one year’s time (alongside One Hundred Monsters & Along With Ghosts), Spook Warfare was the most popular film of its trilogy, as it focused more on the personalities of the fantastic monsters at its core instead of the humans that live in their presence. For Japanese audiences, the film has a built-in historical context for each of its monsters, but for American audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Japanese folklore, the film’s oddball collection of “apparitions” read like psychedelic precursors to the work of such luminaries as Jim Henson and Sid & Marty Krofft. Where I see sentient umbrellas, (literally) two-faced women, and a ladies with snake-esque necks that stretch like Mr. Fantastic, native audiences see very specific legends from the jokingly-titled “Apparition Social Registry” with names like Kappa, Futakuchi-onna, and Kasa-obake.
I say “apparitions” instead of “creatures” because the “spooks” in The Great Yokai War are not quite monsters, but the ghosts of ancient monsters, which adds a whole other fascinating level of awesomeness to their peculiarity. To provide a conflict for these apparitions to combat, the film brings to life a “several thousand years old” monster from the ruins of Babylonia named Daimon. Daimon is a bird-like humanoid wizard prone to blowing himself up to kaiju proportions & possessing the minds of local magistrates in order to turn them into godless tyrants. Daimon is pretty bad-ass, but he stands no chance against the water-nymph bird-fish (who could pass for a bassist in the animatronic Chuck E Cheese band), his long-tongued umbrella, and the ghosts of a hundred of their closest friends. Besides the general disruption of peace & order the ghost monsters are insistent on putting a stop to Daimon’s evil deeds post haste because “Shame will be brought upon Japanese apparitions” if they don’t.
Perhaps the strangest detail about the ghost monsters in Spook Warfare is just how kid-friendly they look. I didn’t use the comparison to the soon-to-follow work of Jim Henson and Sid & Marty Krofft lightly. Many of the creature designs are just aching for plushie doll or action figure merchandise, a sensation backed up by the film’s broad physical comedy & the fact that they befriend children in the film. What’s strange about this is that so much of the film would be a nightmare for certain young audiences. Ghosts take shape from magical, colored mists in spooky swamps. Buckets of giallo-crimson stage blood is spilled in the film’s many brawls. Adult language like “damn”, “bastard”, and “hell” are liberally peppered throughout the script. This is all jarring at first, but when I think back to staging action figure battles on the living room carpet, that sort of violent crassness actually makes total sense. Children can often be goofy & violent in the same breath, so then it’s really no surprise that Spook Wars was somewhat of a cultural hit upon its initial release. Even as an (admittedly goofy) adult, the mere sight of the film’s gang of monsters was enough to win me over as a fan, effectively bringing out my inner child enough to sidestep any concerns with plot or general purpose. Sometimes monsters brawling really can alone be enough to make a great film & Spook Warfare stands as a prime example of that maxim.