(Originally published October 2010)
It’s more than ten years old, watches as good as the day it was made, and is arguably still the best yokai stuff ever filmed. Sakuya: Slayer of Demons (Sakuya Yokaiden) has its detractors, but I am FIRMLY in the lovers camp and if you’ve never seen this sword-girl vs. monsters mash-up, I highly recommend it.
The story is deliberately simple (RARE for modern Japanese cinema) to make room for more monster action; young Sakuya (Nozomi Ando) is the female heir to a family of demon slayers, armed with a mystical sword that while able to kill any monster it touches also sucks the life energy out of the user every time it is used. After Mt. Fuji explodes, unleashing ten million billion angry demons, she wanders the land looking for trouble with her adopted younger brother, a kappa demon she’s charged herself with ‘rehabilitating.’ The episodic, manga-derived film features several encounters with various creatures of Japanese folklore until the final showdown with a kaiju-sized spider queen.
Veteran creature filmmakers Tomo’o Haraguchi and Shinji Higuchi made Sakuya after a successful run of Gamera flicks in the 90’s, and boring as those were, the kaiju stuff looked amazing. Here, they mixed the limited digital of the time with some really nice practical creature suits and miniature models to produce a pretty damn flawless composite. This is a great example of SMART craftsmanship that rests on decades old techniques to hide the limitations of the requisite new technologies, technologies other Japanese filmmakers wear shamelessly on their sleeves with often embarrassing results.
The best thing they did though is create a fast-moving, short-running (under 90 min.) action flick for all ages PACKED with monster fights.
The first big monster fight is against an evil puppeteer who makes tiny human dolls from kidnapped girls, BUT WAIT-A-MINUTE! Swerve! He’s not the real threat, his grandma is actually a HUGE GHOST CAT!!!
I absolutely LOVE the fact that they built these big-ass suits! The cat is bigger than one of those old iron Mayor McCheese jungle-gyms we used to play on before McDonald’s had been sued by every family in the U.S. and converted their playlands to disease-ridden ball pits.
But perhaps the most endearing scene in Sakuya is the mid-film cameo by the cast of Daiei’s 60’s Yokai Monsters trilogy in updated new suits. They shot this is an absolutely amazing dreamy quality, with advanced digital enhancing creature designs based entirely in nostalgia. It’s just great…
The climax sees a wounded Sakuya, a traitorous brother desperate for redemption and the rattan bazooka-weilding ninja battling a tarantula queen who grows to Godzilla size. The combination of models, exploding full-sized sets, kabuki-influenced costuming and digital finishes is absolutely off the hook. In a lot of ways it looks better than anything Takeshi Miike did in the excellent-in-its-own right Great Yokai War five years later with more money and more hard drives.
So yeah, seek this one out. It has all sorts of grey market releases, maybe a legit one somewhere…
In the meantime, for your sins, endure another shot of the creepy yokai blue-head baby thing! AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!