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  • Ravi Swami

"100 Spook Stories / 100 Monsters", Dir: Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968

Halloween is almost upon us and thanks to a recommendation from a friend I signed up with Arrow Distribution's streaming service which contains a number of less well-known Japanese genre films, such as this oddity centered on the Japanese folk mythology of "Yokai", or spirits of various types which have been documented in Buddhist scroll artworks, the inventiveness of which anticipates contemporary "Manga".

Arrow's title is "100 Spook Stories" (Japanese: Yōkai Hyaku Monogatari) and it is variously titled depending upon the region and is one of 3 films that culminate in "The Great Yokai War" (2005), which attests to the popularity of this quite short-lived genre that, I think, never quite fully exploits the bizarre imagery and back-stories to the bizarre menagerie of creatures that feature in the films.

"Yokai" appear to fall into two categories - nature spirits of various types, such as the "Kappa", an amphibious semi-human creature, or animate household objects, such as the odd umbrella creature featured in the poster for the film, which anticipate ideas in animated films by the Fleischer Brothers and others in America.

Plot-wise it treads a very similar arc to Daiei's (the film's production company) "Daimajin" series, also directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda - a wicked warlord imposes his will on peasants, although here the character, played by the same actor in a similar role as in "Daimajin" (Daiei seemed to have a stable of actors who moved from film to film), is determined to destroy a villager's temple in order to build a more profitable brothel and tries to forcibly evict the tenants from their homes, and then suffers the inevitable consequences from avenging spirits, in this case the "Yokai" instead of a giant stone idol brought to life.

I'd been curious about these films for some time after seeing images in Japanese magazines several decades ago and it's only now that we can actually see the films, thanks to distributors like Arrow Films.

The story kicks off with a village storyteller who entertains the villagers with ghost stories after a short prologue involving his own experience following a terrifying encounter with a monster in a forest, and ends with a religious ceremony to ensure that the terrified villagers are not troubled by "Yokai", an aspect of S.E Asian culture that finds common ground in India for example, according to my mother who mentioned similar village tales about ghosts and the supernatural.

Of course the wicked landlord is skeptical of such superstitions and wants to ensure that Yokai or villagers will not obstruct his plans. In a similar fashion to "Daimajin", the villagers have a champion in the form of a "masterless samurai", an itinerant young man, who comes to the aid of a village woman who is "traded" to the landlord with the promise that demolition of the temple won't proceed, but of course this is just another ploy to frustrate the villagers attempts to stop the landlord having his way.

The broker who sells the village woman to the landlord has a son who might be described as a half-wit or simpleton - pejorative terms for what would now be termed "special needs" and may at the time have provoked laughter - and is a bit of an embarrassment to himself and his wife. However, he sees the umbrella creature and befriends it even though his father thinks he is just making things up, and he proceeds to paint the paper walls of his room with drawings of the "Yokai", which then magically come to life in the form of some quite interesting animation combined with live-action.

Quite how this was achieved would be interesting to discover and reveals how visual effects work when you don't quite know how they are done - especially in this case since the animated line drawing seems to be something between straight drawn animation and puppetry - anyway, it does the job and is quite magical.

The film succeeds in terms of the spooky visual effects and lighting design and there are the characteristic Daiei touches of great production design while keeping its' ambitions aimed at a mass audience that would include children, unlike the masterpiece of "Kwaidan", for example, and I'm looking forward to watching the remaining two films available on Arrow Channel.

"100 Spook Stories", Dir: Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968

Arrow Channel.

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