January 21, 2008

GEGEGE NO KITARO (2007) the live-action movie

(2007, Japan)

A disappointing adaption of Japan's much-loved spooky cartoon hero

Japanese region 2 NTSC DVD (Fuji)

This is based on my favourite old anime, that's been running since the 1960's. The stories are jam-packed with Japanese monsters, ghosts, and goblins both old and new. (For more about the many anime series, see my extensive beginner's guide, here.)

Of course I was really looking forward to this new live-action feature film, thinking it might be on the same scale as The Great Yokai War (2005), which also featured some of Kitaro's friends.

Basically, Kitaro (also spelt Kitarou) has returned from the dead (along with his father) as a powerful ghost in the form of a young man, and uses his powers to keep the peace between the human and the spirit worlds.

When a multiple haunting strikes an apartment block, Kitaro investigates and meets teenage Mika and her little brother. Their father has accidentally found a magic stone that could give a gang of shape-shifting foxes unlimited power. Can Kitaro save their father from the greedy foxes, without upsetting the higher echelons of the yokai hierarchy?

There's some exposition for newcomers, but the bizarrest creatures may still confuse... his dad is a huge eyeball with a tiny body, there's a man running around with nine foxtails, a lardy blubber monster, a gigantic straw sandal demon... but really all creatures that are only scary for 5 year olds.

The film is very faithful to the manga and anime stories, except for Kitaro himself. He's now both grey-haired and teenaged (instead of brown-haired and ten years old). I suppose grey hair suits his being 350 years old, but doesn’t remind you at all of his usual appearance. You can also glimpse the actor’s left-eye behind his hair in several scenes - it's supposed to be an empty eye socket.

Pop star Eiji Wentz doesn’t act like Kitaro normally does, far less confidently and brave than his cartoon counterpart. It’s a tough role to fill, but the rest of the cast seem to be more lively. Besides being made old enough to be caught in a love triangle (between Mika and his friend Cat-Girl), he's now a slacker who has to be thrown out of bed in the morning.

Unlike The Great Yokai War, not enough money has been spent on the background monsters. In crowd scenes, like at the yokai nightclub, several extras with inanimate masks are too visible for too long, looking exactly like what they are. The quality and intricacy of the CGI FX is also inconsistent. Some are highly detailed, like the beautiful location composite paintings, but the unrealistic movements of the umbrella monster, set a low benchmark early in the film. It may have been an attempt to be less scary, and even funny/cartoony, but it's shoddy compared to the rest of the film. Especially when compared to the complicated and extensive Rokurokubi FX (the snake-necked woman), and the entrancing vision of the Fox Queen.

Also impressive is the full-size outdoor set of Kitaro’s lakeside house, which is bigger than usual, almost too much of a desirable residence for a poor, homeless boy.

The success of the film is that the regular characters, Kitaro's crew of friends, are faithfully recreated. Yo Oizumi, as the unreliable and smelly Ratman (‘Nezumi Otoko’), delivers a fantastic comedy performance, though he's sadly missing from the second half of the movie. The beautiful Rena Tanaka plays a likeable Cat-Girl, breathing as much into her role as possible, but like in the anime, she's very underused.

The plot elements are all familiar from a dozen different old Kitaro stories – a desecrated shrine, greedy humans, quarreling yokai, even a flying ghost train. It succeeds in creating an alternate world, where even the human characters appear to be stylised, carefully made up to look like artist Shigeru Mizuki's original stock characters of salarymen, police detectives and careless businessmen.

But I felt the film kept losing its momentum. The flat direction constantly drops the pace and lost any possible drama. Even the action scenes were short and faltering, providing little more than money shots for the trailer.

I'll probably enjoy it more a second time around. But the good news is that the film was such a hit in Japan, there's now a sequel well on the way. Hopefully this time, they’ll keep all the marvellous actors, lose the umbrella, and pick up the pace.

The Japanese DVD editions (three of them) all have very good English subtitles. I think I saw that the rights have been picked up in the US, but have not heard confirmation of an actual release.

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