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Kitaro (2007)
Director: Katsuhide Motoki

review by Sarah Ash

Developers are trying to evict the residents of an apartment block and have resorted to underhand means to scare them away by employing the services of the repulsive Rat Man (Yo Oizumi), and his 'yokai' subordinates. Young Kenta (Ruka Uchida) and his big sister Mika (Mao Inoue) get caught up in the rumpus and are rescued by a grey-haired young yokai (only 350 years old), Kitaro (Eiji Wentz.) Unlike many of his fellow yokai, one-eyed Kitaro has a soft spot for humans. But matters take a turn for the worst when Kenta's widower dad unwittingly picks up a cursed stone (the Evil Stone) that Rat Man has been trying to pawn. Controlled by the evil force trapped in the stone, he steals it and gives it to Kenta, telling him not to breathe a word about it but just keep it safe - and is promptly arrested for theft. The worried children turn to Kitaro for help. Just in time, as it turns out, as the fox clan are in hot pursuit, determined to find the stone for themselves - and they will stop at nothing to get it.

Kitaro takes Mika and Kenta home to meet his 'family' including Sand Witch and the feisty Cat Girl (Rena Tanaki.) But their whereabouts are soon discovered as the Tengu police surround the tree house and arrest Kitaro for stealing the Evil Stone. The Miura children are plunged into a wild quest to save their father's life as Kitaro is ordered to bring back the Evil Stone by midnight or see his family suffer a horrible punishment.

What precisely is a yokai? We don't really have an accurate translation in English. 'Goblin' carries all the wrong associations with something small, malevolent, and pointy-eared out of Arthur Rackham, or worse still, Enid Blyton. 'Monster' is safer, but far too vague to cover the rich variety of creatures from Japanese folklore depicted in Kitaro, from the tengu (crow-demons) to the crafty kitsune (foxes) mingling with figures drawn from the Hyakki Yako paintings depicting nocturnal processions of bizarre imaginings, such as a walking umbrella, Mrs Spiral Neck, or One-Eyed Monk.

Gegege no Kitarô is a much-loved manga by Shigeru Mizuki which has been made into many animated TV versions, Playstation games, and now, this, the first of two live-action films. CGI comes to the rescue in helping to create some of the yokai characters such as Kitaro's father, Medama-oyaji, reincarnated as an eyeball on a Morph-type little body - but there are still plenty of live actors decked out in weird prosthetics, bodysuits, and foxtails. Kitaro's magical powers, such as transforming his hair into a shower of lethal darts, or summoning a kind of magic carpet called Flying Cotton, are convincingly animated. And the characters are brought to life with gusto, especially Yo Oizumi's unctuous performance as the wily, buck-toothed Rat Man.

This likeable and affectionate interpretation keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace, and, if it's a little too pleased with its grotesque yokai costumes, it maintains a good balance between humour and action. In fact, the only extra, apart from a trailer at the beginning for the sequel Kitaro And The Millennium Curse, is an overlong compilation of actors going out into the streets of Tokyo in monster garb to surprise unsuspecting passers-by and promote the film (the 'Yo Tube' featurette) a joke that soon wears pretty thin.

Kitaro should please children and adults alike, especially those who have a taste for the supernatural. The mingling of contemporary life and Japanese folklore works well (a mobile phone plays a significant role) as does the blend of action, humour, seasoned with a little dash of pathos. It's just the right sort of film for this time of year when the nights draw in...

Kitaro



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