My notes on Rokuroku (The Promise of the Witch), which screened at the Fantasia Festival.
Directors Yudai Yamaguchi (Meatball Machine, Yakuza Weapon) and Keita Amemiya (Zeiramu, Kamen Rider) are associated with a brand of gonzo, outrageous, kinetic Japanese cinema that blew up fast about ten years ago and probably burned out quickly … leaving behind a large body of work which is quite likely to provoke a ‘did I really see that?’ reaction in most audiences.
Here, they collaborate and don’t exactly tone down their approach – but do bring it to a traditional strain of Japanese fantasy cinema, riffing on the Yokai Monsters movies of the 1960s, which are themselves indebted to folktales. With their extraordinary casts of creatures – the long-necked woman, the umbrella goblin, the potato-headed thing, the turtle with a plate in its head, etc – and mix of spookery with lowbrow knockabout, these films stand in counterpoint to the more dignified tale-telling of Kwaidan, Kuroneko and the like. It’s a hugely fertile field, and the arch-auteur of J-gross Takashi Miike has already taken a swing at it in The Great Yokai War. Full disclosure: I used a lot of this material in my novel Anno Dracula One Thousand Monsters.
Miike stuck surprisingly close to the tone and look of the older films, but Yamaguchi and Amemiya reimagine the major yokai and go for a scruffier, cruder, nastier look – the frankly ridiculous umbrella goblin is genespliced with a typical Japanese girl ghost and becomes a one-legged, umbrella-sporting spectre in a bright yellow raincoat (in a mostly black-and-white anecdote) … and other famous yokai are given make-overs, mostly to make them scary as well as bizarre. Izumi (Miho Nakanishi), a dutiful young woman who helps care for her supposedly senile grandfather, is contacted out of the blue by Mika (Shiho), a childhood friend she hasn’t hear from in a long time – and who she isn’t exactly sure she likes. Both young women have glimmerings of suppressed memories, resurfacing in the form of flashbacks to a childhood exploit – breaking into a haunted hotel where they encountered the title witch, who is an extremely twisted, gruesome incarnation of the long-necked yokai woman. The meeting of the women brings it all back, but the yokai are manifesting all around in self-contained anecdotes of varying quality – in most of which venal, nasty or foolhardy folk have fateful encounters with grotesque spirits.
The haunted hotel itself lumbers through the streets like a kaiju creature invented by Terry Gilliam, a composite whale-shark with human hands for teeth looms out of the sea, a manic feathery girl monster with scythes for hands wreaks havoc, a young artist becomes obsessed with sketching a ghost girl (setting up a quietly tragic punchline amid a lot of noisier moments), a giant ogress squats on top of a building and blows people away with gusts of breath from her unnaturally wide mouth, and the supposedly mad old bloke who claims he sees monsters is proved right and comes up with a useful totem for defeating them. It’s a film that goes all round the houses tonally and plot-wise, and its monster effects range from imaginatively ugly in a good way to hideous in a cheap CGI hodge-podge fashion – but the relationship between the two young women, who are uncertain of each other, is strong enough to keep the scattershot picture together.