A period drama with a good helping of traditional monsters offers entertainment for the whole family…
Yokai Monsters: One Hundred Monsters is the first in a trilogy of films focusing on Japan’s mythological creatures known collectively as Yokai. These weird and wonderful beings come in numerous shapes and sizes; from tiny to gargantuan, from spellbindingly gorgeous to categorically hideous, from mischievously benevolent to absolute evil. In the director’s chair is Kimiyoshi Yasuda, the man behind five of Daiei studio’s long-running Zatoichi film series, as well as the first of the Daimajin kaiju-trilogy. In One Hundred Monsters, Yasuda has had the chance to showcase his talents in both drama and monster film departments and as a result, we get a reasonable mix of traditional period drama and some excellent tokusatsu action.
The film opens with traditional Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or “Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales” ceremony, during which a hundred stories of the supernatural are told and after each one, one of the hundred candles lighting the room is put out, until all of the lights are gone. After this, a small purification ceremony is performed to make sure that the spirits mentioned in the stories will not come back to haunt the participants. While not directly linked to the main plot, this works as a nice little introduction to the story that is about to unfold.
We move on to old Edo where a greedy landowner Hotta-Buzennokami (Ryûtarô Gomi), with the help of an equally and corrupt magistrate, has hatched a plan to tear down a local shrine and a tenement building attached to it, and use the site for building a brothel. To rally more support for his heinous plan, Hotta decides to host a Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, inviting local bigwigs to participate. However, being the foolishly arrogant man that he is, he chooses to skip the purification ceremony that is supposed to bring the evening to its end and instead just simply bribed his guests with expensive tokens that supposedly offer protection from any spirits that might still be lurking around. Of course, such measures are not going to be enough, especially is you are planning to tear down the very place where people may offer homage to some of these spirits and so, Hotta alongside his corrupt pals, finds himself haunted not only by angry locals but forces of a more supernatural kind.
With a title like One Hundred Monsters, one might expect a complete 80-minute monster fest, but this is not quite the case. Different types of Yokai do appear all throughout the film, but it’s only in the very end where the parade of beasts, demons, ghosts and ghouls really takes place. The effects are largely done using actors in costumes or puppetry and to my mind work wonderfully well. The unquestionably rubbery and stiff look of the suitmation adds to the charm of the film and suits its mood perfectly. There are also genuinely creepy scenes, like an encounter with a yokai called rukorokubi; a woman with an infeasibly long neck, as well as some more comedic moments such as a wonderfully executed animation sequence featuring the umbrella monster kasa-obake. The magic of the tokusatsu effects is supported by surprisingly decent cinematography and especially the scene featuring the monsters marching away from the village, is something that is going to stick in my mind for a good while. Perhaps slightly clumsy by today’s standards, but still ever so bewitching.
However, the focus of the story is very much on the human drama and as such it’s a very traditional good versus evil storyline with greed and corruption as the driving force. While Daiei has in the past been responsible of period masterpieces like Rashomon (1950) and Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953), One Hundred Monsters does not quite reach the same heights of well-crafted drama. That’s not to say that the story isn’t enjoyable. It may be slightly simplistic, but still keeps you involved and interested. Performances are solid all around and Ryûtarô Gomi especially shines in the role of the greedy Hotta, making the character truly unlikable. It’s not completely fair either to compare One Hundred Monsters to films like Ugetsu, as it is essentially a children’s film. To Western viewers it might seem a bit too heavy going for the younger audiences and does contain some rather dark plot points, such as indication of rape, but those things aside I could easily see some young monster enthusiast getting very excited about this film, as well as it’s sequels: Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (Yōkai Daisensō, 1968) and Yokai Monsters: Along With Ghosts (Tôkaidô obake dôchû, 1969).
Yokai Monsters: One Hundred Monsters is a lovely watch to audiences of all ages. It might not be a complex character study with epic storylines, but still a very entertaining tale that manages to balance drama with the supernatural elements in a harmonious manner, offering little something for the fans of period drama as well as those who are there just for the monsters.