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The Forgotten: A Halloween Bestiary

In a special Halloween edition of The Forgotten, David Cairns looks at monsters and critters in Japanese cinema (and Clive Barker).

From Japan, where they may not have Halloween, but they probably don't need it.


Images from the 1968-69 Daiei Studios series of films about the yokai, which might loosely be translated as monsters or goblins. The appeal of the films being that, like Clive Barker's misbegotten but somewhat fondly remembered Nightbreed, there are more monsters on display than you can shake a stick at, and for once the monsters are actually the good guys. 


Well, in two of the films, Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters and Yokai Monsters: Along with Ghosts, the critters are heroes, protecting sympathetic humans from the depredations of villainous ones. In Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare, the Japanese demons do battle with an imported Babylonian vampire beast who has used sorcery to take the place of a local magistrate. Although allowing even more screen time for the monsters, this patriotic approach to the genre is actually a little less interesting than the more human-centred yarns.

(Incidentally, the iconoclastic Takashi Miike directed his own, typically excessive version of the yokai movies in 2005, where the strange varieties of lifeform paraded before the astonished audience are so weird and numerous that a kind of stoned bedazzlement sets in: reality seems to recede further with each fresh apparition.)


Attractions include the monster who can receive live images on his capacious beer gut, a kind of bellyvision; an umbrella monster who seems to communicate in a combination of sign language, inhuman gibberish, and licking; the very, very disturbing lady with the long neck, and another girl who looks normal except for the monster face on the back of her head, made even more alarming by the small but elongated arm reaching out of its nostril.

The aforementioned Mr. Barker once said "I will go a very long way to see something I haven't seen before," and I find myself in sympathy. Exploiting freaks of the imagination is certainly more innocent than exploiting real flesh-and-blood freaks, and when the deformed and misshapen beings are nevertheless sympathetic characters, the whole thing starts to seem very commendable. In fact, the movies, though occasionally gory, seem intended for older children, although this is a little hard to judge.


Along with Ghosts also features one really good scene, in its childish way. A little girl has been reunited with her ne'er-do-well gambler father, but now both of them are menaced by a vicious gang boss. Toying with them, he offers to play dice for the father's life, and the child innocently agrees. What neither kiddie nor gangster know is that the dice were carved from her mother's bones, and have an interest in turning up a winning combination. The innate suspense and the sheer poker-faced shaggy dog aspect of the situation lead to a sustained, unusual and entertaining gambling sequence. Also, in our cynical age, it's kind of nice to see real innocence pitted against depravity, and winning. In this context, the monsters are the most innocent characters of all. Mythic monsters, when you think about it, embody childhood and innocence.


***

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

 

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This entry reminds me – the reason why I usually don’t feel inclined to watch horror movies.
Oh, these are barely horror movies. They’re a notch up in scariness from Godzilla, I’d say. From the studio who brought you Gamera, whose adventures were a little more gory than his lizard counterpart at Toho…
My favorite part of Spook Warfare is when some Buddhist artifact forces the monsters to disappear from their rescue mission, and one of the monsters goes, “Buddha, you suck!” Also, I want a pet umbrella monster.

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