In 1707, amidst the Tokugawa era, Mount Fuji spews forth hundreds of monsters that cause chaos across Japan. Samurai warrior Yoshiaki Sakaki (Hiroshi Fujioka) is the only man capable of stopping them because he wields the Vortex Sword, a cursed blade that slays otherwise invulnerable monsters but slowly drains its wielder’s life. But Yoshiaki dies in battle with an evil kappa (water goblin) and passes the sword to his brave daughter Sakuya (Nozomi Andô), who slays the monster but spares its infant son to raise as her own brother.
Six months later, Taro (Shuichi Yamauchi) has grown rapidly into a ten year old boy and journeys with his big sister after young Lord Yamato and his sagely minister (the inimitable Tetsuro Tamba, in seemingly every Japanese cult movie but best known for You Only Live Twice (1967)) task them to conclusively end this monster menace at Mount Fuji. Along the way, the pair spend the night at an inn run by a creepy wizard (actor/director Shinya Tsukamoto, of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988)) who is turning captive girls into marionettes, and discover an old hag (Moeko Ezawa) is really a hideous “Two-Tailed Cat Demon.” Ninja sidekicks Mashiragi and Nigarasu remain suspicious of demon child Taro, but Sakuya retains faith that her brother will prove his valour someday. But after Taro learns Sakuya killed his father, the Spider Queen (Keiko Matsuzaka) lures him over to the kingdom of Darkness.
Upon its release in English speaking territories, critics predictably compared this effects laden monster mash to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Sakuya, Slayer of Demons was actually an attempt by special effects creator-turned director Tomoo Haraguchi to revive the “yokai” genre. Daiei Studios’ One Hundred Monsters (1968), directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, is probably the best known of these fun, spooky movies aimed at children that drew upon a rich heritage of Japanese folklore and showcased an array of lovably outlandish creatures. Follow up films, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968) and Along with Ghosts (1969) were equally fine, although even their popularity paled beside that of Spooky Kitaro (1968), a series of magnificent anime movies created by the genre’s undoubted master Shigeru Mizuki. After Sakuya, yokai movies made a comeback on Japanese screens with the likes of Spirited Away (2001), Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War (2005) and finally a live action version of Spooky Kitaro (2007).
The original yokai gang, including old favourites like the umbrella monster and a little boy and girl meant to resemble the child heroes of Along with Ghosts, cameo in a delightful (if far too brief) scene that highlights the warmly nostalgic tone Haraguchi is after. Haraguchi is a practical effects man and while his use of traditional puppetry for this scene may jar with viewers who don’t get the gag, but the monster makeup and animatronics used to bring the kappa, the spectacular Two-Tailed Cat Demon and a band of undead samurai that creep out of the fog are truly outstanding. Expansive matte paintings, ingenious sets and a effects that recreate traditional scroll paintings lend a grandiose feel to what is a modestly budgeted production compared to Hollywood standards. The film maintains a nice balance of the cute, the creepy and kick-ass action, including a nicely unsettling turn from cult director Shinya Tsukamoto as the evil puppeteer and J-pop diva Keiko Matsuzaka as the seductive Spider Queen, who croons an eerie lullaby to lure Taro into her clutches. In some ways this is a fan-boy movie, underlined by its numerous in-jokes and by the presence of Hiroshi Fujioka, the actor who played one of Japan’s most popular superheroes in Kamen Rider (1971) as Sakuya’s father.
A handful of critics took issue with whiny little Taro and his whole plot thread, but in truth this is the heart of the movie. The kappa child is torn between the monster and human world, while Sakuya constantly ponders what it means to be human. When told how human blood can sustain her life force, she refuses to take a mortal life, but after a gang of mercenaries leave her no choice (in a cool effect their faces implode!) Sakuya ponders whether she is any better than the monsters she is fighting. Ultimately, the film concludes that being human means doing the right thing even when you’re lonely and frightened, which is perfectly in keeping with a children’s film.
The story is slight, but lively and rattles along at a brisk pace offering plenty to entertain. And while Sakuya’s ninja friends contribute little beside occasionally urging her to ditch Taro, they do sport an eye-catching array of Tokugawa era James Bond gadgetry, including Nigarasu’s rocket-launching glove and Mashiragi’s cool bazooka. Hiraguchi unleashes an effects tour de force when the Spider Queen grows giant sized and rains lightning and fireballs upon a load of exploding miniatures. Stay tuned for the end credits featuring Sakuya practicing her sword skills while Taro dances along with those goofy yokai.