What are Yokai?

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Anyone familiar with The Disney Channel on cable may have noted a show called “Yokai Watch”. It is a series from Japan about a boy named Nate (how Japanese), who gets a watch that allows him to see and befriend Yokai, and call upon them in times of trouble. The show is often tongue-in-cheek, with some jokes that even adults can laugh at.

So, what is a Yokai anyway?

According to the series, a Yokai is a spirit who makes humans do things that are, generally, socially unacceptable. Whether it’s talking too much, bragging or having really bad gas, everything wrong with people can be laid at the feet of the Yokai.

For instance, if you find yourself spouting stupid and irrelevant trivia, you might be under the influence of the Poofessor. He places a dookie on your head and you start saying useless facts.

Guaranteed you won’t see this episode on the Disney Channel

 

But before we get into “Yokai Watch”, let me lay some history on you.

Yokai can be traced to the First Century in the folklore of Japan. Given the prevalence of ghosts and spirits in Japanese culture, it seems that Yokai would be natural part of it. These spirits can be mischievous or malevolent. They can be a force of good fortune or disaster. They can look like anything, from animals to humans to inanimate objects to something unearthly.

Print from the 1890’s

 

Yokai appeared in books and in artwork originally. Now, Yokai can be found in movies, manga, anime and toy stores. For our purposes, let’s look at Yokai in Movies and Television.

Ghosts and spirits have long been a staple in Japanese Cinema. From 1949 through the 1960’s, there are a myriad of Ghost Cats, Vengeful Spirits and Haunted Castles from studios such as Toei, Daiei and Shintoho. In 1964, Toho would produce one of the quintessential ghost movies, Kwaidan. It’s four stories are each a study in vampires, spirits and ghosts haunting the living. Considered a classic of Japanese cinema, the film is still available as part of the Criterion Collection and the original work from 1904, by Lafcadio Hearn, is still in print. (Thanks to Amazon.com)

In 1968, a trio of Yokai live action films were produced.

 

 

The “Yokai Monsters” trilogy was produced by Daiei Studios and told tales of Yokai interacting with humans, in order to help the oppressed of feudal Japan. The creatures shown were either people in costume or marionettes. The films can be a bit cheesy and amateurish, but it appears that they were directed toward a more juvenile audience. This could be part of Daiei’s makeup, as they would produce the Gamera series, in which children are a very important part of the story.

This series did not seem to take off and Yokai in film disappeared.

In 2005, another Yokai film surfaced from a somewhat unlikely source. Takashi Miike, who directed classics like “Audition”, “Ichi the Killer” and “Zebraman”, would try his hand at what essentially was a children’s film, “The Great Yokai War.”

 

In the film, a boy named Tadashi is chosen to be the Kirin Rider and charged with protecting all that is good and virtuous. Little does he know that he has been chosen by a Yokai to help fight in an impending war that could mark the end of the creatures, and maybe the world.

The film is full of creatures that are both CGI and live action. There is quite enough action and silliness to keep most children interested…and even some adults (like me, who loves the film).

Once again, the Yokai would slide out of the public eye. That is, until it became a videogame called “Yokai Watch.” I am one of those people who actually remember when there were no video games. I also remember saving my quarters so I could play Pong, one of the first popular video games, when I went to the arcade. Yes, you had to leave the house to play video games.

Pong. The first word in video games.

 

Pong came into being in 1986. I was in my mid-twenties. Today, I don’t have the manual dexterity to play games like “Yokai Watch.” Because of this, I am relegated to such games as “Big Band Hero” and “Tetris: Extra Slow Edition.”

In Japan, the game is very popular. As with many things, the idea came to make a TV series out of the game to keep sales flowing. Why do you think there are so many Pokemon series out there? It is called marketing.

Enter “Yokai Watch” the animated series.

Currently, there are two seasons available in the US. The third season is still in Japan. Totaling 179 episodes, each has three stories, which gives room for the creation of a lot of Yokai. The Disney Channel is the purveyor of this program. Given its wholesome image, there are a number of episodes, like the Poofessor story, that likely will not be found on the channel. They did keep the bathroom humor though. Considering the number of fart jokes in “Phineas & Ferb,” it would be hypocritical for them to remove Yokai that fill your bladder or make your #2’s smell like a landfill.

Yes, I am a big fan of bathroom humor.

 

As with most anime series, movies began to follow. “Yokai Watch – The Movie” came to America as a one-day event, showing at selected theaters throughout the country. It just so happened to be playing before my friend, HTG, and I were to see “Shin Godzilla.” So, it turned into a double feature.

Our hero, Nate, wakes up one morning with no knowledge of Yokai. This is not a prequel. All knowledge of Yokai and his friendship with them has been wiped from his memory. But, he does remember and travels back in time to save the Yokai, with the help of the creator of the Yokai Watch, namely, Nate’s Grandfather.

Surprisingly, HTG found the movie engaging. This was a breakthrough for him, as he has no kids, little knowledge of cartoons of the day, and tends to be a curmudgeon. Me, I like anything animated and this was a fun film. I should mention that the film seemed to borrow an element or two from other films. The villain in the movie bore a striking resemblance to the bathhouse owner in “Spirited Away”, and the headquarters for the villain was a factory, as it was in “The Great Yokai War”. But, there were many fresh ideas as well.

My favorite was the three-step plan for world domination:

  1. Distance Humans from Yokai
  2. Pick up Groceries
  3. Conquer Earth

How can you go wrong?

This film can be found on Netflix.

“Yokai Watch – The Movie 2” has not been shown commercially in the US, but can be found in its entirety on YouTube. It will likely not be seen on cable, especially on the Disney Channel. The movie consists of several independent stories tied together by a particularly evil Yokai, and ends with a battle royale between good and evil for the heart and soul of the Yokai.

Not so bad, you say.

True, on its face, it seems okay. Except that in the first story, this evil Yokai kills Nate! Yes, it’s the old remove-the-manhole-cover-and-let-the-kid-fall-to-his-death gambit. Nate, however, becomes a Yokai himself (shaped a bit like a dookie) and then breaks several important rules about being a Yokai and is sent back to his body to live again.

Still not something the average kid is ready for in a movie.

“Yokai Watch – The Movie 3” has not been released anywhere other than Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The trailer can be found on YouTube. The movie involves an all-powerful Yokai, who converts the entire cartoon universe into reality. There are human actors, real sets and CGI Yokai.

“Yokai Watch – The Movie 4” has recently released a trailer as well. It takes place later in time, as Nate is now a teenager and unable to see Yokai anymore. This concept is brought out at the end of the “The Great Yokai War,” which shows Tadashi as an adult and his Yokai friend trying desperately to be seen by him, but to no avail. Who says growing up has its advantages? (Likely release in Japan is December)

So, there you have an overview of the Yokai universe. Seems a bit more complex than that of the Godzilla universe, but causes less need for urban renewal. The next time you have bad luck, or act inappropriately, remember, it’s not your fault. Blame it on the Yokai.

Gotta Go!

 

If you are over 50, like myself, don’t try to blame the full bladder thing on them. It’s your body, not Yokai. Take my word for it.

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About Ernie Fink

Ernie Fink has been a fan of film, mainly in the genres of horror and mystery, in equal parts, for over fifty years. His love of horror in the cinema begins with "King Kong" and in literature with Edgar Allan Poe and Bernhardt J. Hurwood.  With mysteries, he skipped from the Hardy Boys right to Hercules Poirot, only to find John Rebus and Harry Hole waiting in the wings. He has been known to read subtitles extensively, and rarely leaves a theater until the lights come up.
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