Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kibakichi (2004)


Written by: Mugi Kamio
Directed by: Tomo'O Haraguchi
Ryuji Harada as Kibakichi
Nozomi Ando as Kikyo

Around the world, few warriors are more revered than the samurai. Around the world, few monsters are more feared than the werewolf (don't let the fact that making a decent movie about them seems to be a virtually insurmountable task fool you). Of course it's perfectly logical then that a werewolf samurai would be just about the most badass thing anyone could think of, right? Well, probably. Lay on, MacGruff....

For centuries in Japan, humankind and yokai lived peacefully side by side. As technology advanced and things like firearms were developed, humans found that they no longer needed the help of the physically superior monsters. The political climate turned ugly as it always does for a minority who suddenly finds it has outlived its usefulness, and a new government arose on a platform of human supremacy and issued a decree that men would use their new weaponry and far greater numbers to wipe the yokai from the face of the earth. The monsters were nearly driven to extinction, but a few survived by taking the forms of humans and hiding in remote places to avoid discovery.

Enter Kibakichi, a wandering ronin with a haunted past (I don't think there are any other kind, really). He arrives at a small village to take shelter for the night, and is greeted by the welcoming committee while crossing the creek at the outskirts of town. And by greeted I mean attacked, and by welcoming committee I mean a group of vicious kappa. He dispatches them easily enough with his sword and enters the village, which is run by a man named Onizo.

Kibakichi goes to a tavern for refreshment and the locals waste no time in inviting him to partake in their town's two primary businesses, gambling and prostitutes. He passes on the room with pay-per-screw, but gladly sits down at the gaming table. His winning streak quickly draws the attention of Onizo. The house is rigged, and Kibakichi has been winning against it without cheating. Onizo has been looking for someone possessed of great luck to be their champion. You see, as we already guessed and Kibakichi is about to find out, the village is populated entirely by yokai. They feed upon the destitute dregs of society, and the occasional criminal scum or political enemy of Yamayi-sama, a local official with big ambitions.

Kibakichi warns the yokai chief to be wary of the humans. He learned that the hard way when he invited some lost humans back to the village of his people for food and shelter. They returned with an army and slaughtered them all except two. One is Kibakichi, obviously. The other is a wolf woman named Anju, who has spent the entire time between the slaughter of the wolf village and now searching for Kibakichi to kill him. She does finally track him to Onizo's village, where she throws a boomerang at him, misses, gives up, and disappears. Not too terribly bent on revenge after all, I guess.

The flashback we get to the wolf village is interesting. All the other yokai have hidden themselves as traditional Japanese villagers. What we see of the wolves when they're in human form – their clothes and face paint, mostly – suggests an older culture like the Ainu.

The Ainu people are the indigenous population of Japan, located primarily in the northern and central parts of the archipelago. There are also some Ainu in Kamchatka and some nearby islands, but not nearly so many as are in Japan. There are still Ainu in Hokkaido today, although they have mostly disappeared from the main island of Honshu. Official census numbers of just how many true Ainu are still in Japan are fuzzy at best. The official estimate is something like 25,000, but due to centuries of intermarriage and people hiding their identities to avoid racial discrimination, it is thought that the true number is more likely pushing a quarter of a million.

Akira Ifukube, master composer of all the greatest kaiju movie scores, was from Hokkaido and from an early age was fascinated by the Ainu and their culture. He was especially interested in the rhythms and melodies of Ainu folk music, which bears some resemblance with Native American music. Many other points of their culture share similarities with other northern indigenous cultures such as the Inuit as well. In fact, far from being isolated in Japan, Ainu are also found in Russia. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine a great diaspora of ancient northern cultures thousands of years ago, crossing land bridges to spread out across the entire northern hemisphere, taking with them the songs and stories and clothing and art of the original group. Over time, these things all evolved to more naturally fit in with the new environments the people found themselves in, but still retain enough cultural DNA to be recognizable even across centuries and thousands of miles.

As is the sad lot of native cultures the world over, the Ainu were treated like utter dog shit by both the Japanese and the Russians. It was only in 2008 that the Japanese Diet passed a resolution recognizing the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan, and to end the racial discrimination of hundreds of years, ranging from forced poverty to slavery to genocidal slaughter both by active murder and infection with diseases like smallpox (we Americans don't have a monopoly on being horrible to the people we steal land from, after all). In a 2010 census of Russia, around 100 people attempted to identify as ethnic Ainu and found their enrollments rewritten to list them as either Kamchadal or just not having any specific descent at all. Basically, they were told they didn't even count as real people. They are still not allowed the hunting and fishing rights that Russia grants to all its other indigenous tribes in its northern lands.

No wonder the yokai chose to hide as ethnic Japanese rather than Ainu, and also why Kibakichi is so leery of trusting the humans again despite Onizo's wishes. As an Ainu werewolf, he's got two major strikes against him! Not all the humans are evil, of course. Kikyo is Onizo's adopted human daughter, whom he took in as an orphaned child and raised as his own. Onizo seems to think Yamayi-sama will keep his word because he knows that yokai and humans can live in harmony, with Kikyo as his evidence. We wouldn't have much of a movie if Onizo was right, though, would we?

Yamayi-sama is not only planning to wipe out the yokai village to gain favor with the Emperor, but to mount a full-scale coup once he has an in at the capital and take over the entire country. Through connections in Europe, he has recently come into possession of an arsenal the likes of which has never been seen in Japan before. Grenades, firearms, and the crowning glory, a Gatling gun, will put him at the top of the food chain no matter how many swordsmen come against him. His men need practice with the unfamiliar weapons, though, and what better way to get it than blowing away a few dozen monsters who have outlived their usefulness?

In the end, Onizo's idealistic nature results in the massacre of nearly his entire village. Yamayi-sama rolls into town tossing grenades hither and yon, and cutting people down like ripe wheat with his Gatling gun. Monsters they may be, but they are not fighters by any means. Even the terrifying-looking spider women masquerading as prostitutes to dine on unwary johns are only ambush predators. They have no real offensive weapons, especially in the face of a hail of bullets and shrapnel.

I'm sure some of you are saying, “Hang on a minute, didn't you say this was a movie about a samurai werewolf?” Indeed I did, and it's about time for Kibakichi to get fuzzy. He's not your standard Western-style werewolf, though. Full moons are not required. His wolf powers are more of the Incredible Hulk variety, where extreme emotional responses bring out the beast. Seeing fifty or sixty of what pass for friends in Kibakichi's solitary and haunted life blown to pieces in front of your eyes would be pretty extreme and emotional, no?

In wolf form, he's somewhere between Waldemar Daninsky and the upright, long-snouted creatures of The Howling. He's still bipedal, furred all over and with great big sticky-upy ears, but with a flat human face that still shows the actor's features, albeit under a good deal of latex appliances that make him look more snarly. When he starts mowing down Yamayi-sama's men, the scoundrel decides the only way to fight big ugly fire is with more big ugly fire. He somehow has a yokai of his own under his control – a great big cyclops thing, that really gives Kibakichi a workout. They have a wonderfully kinetic fight, throwing each other through walls and demolishing entire buildings, before Kibakichi finallly puts paid to the other beast. Kaiju fans will note that in wolf form, Kibakichi uses the Toho King Kong roar, while Cyclops uses an amalgamation of Titanosaurus and Megalon roars. They don't even bother to pitch shift them to try and hide the theft.

Finally it's only Yamayi-sama and Kibakichi left standing, and our hero has a hell of a time trying to outrun both the Gatling gun and a barrage of grenades, until he ducks in under the hail of fire like a star quarterback dodging tackles, and swipes Yamayi-sama's head off with one powerful blow of his mighty claws. If the arterial spray (there are quite a few of those in this movie) wasn't enough for you, he was about to throw another grenade when he was beheaded. Corpses not being renowned for their muscle control, his dead hand drops the pinless grenade and gets blasted into Jell-O before his knees hit the dirt.

Those coming to this movie looking (like I was the first time) for a bonkers horror/action movie with a sword wielding wolf man kicking ass for 90 minutes are going to be disappointed. However, if you're in the mood for a solid if generic samurai movie, interspersed with the occasional horror trappings, and featuring an extremely satisfying climactic battle with monsters, swords, explosions, and machine guns, look no further.

If you still need more, there is a sequel, but it looks like it had about half the budget for monster costumes and sets as this one did. It's got maybe a little more arterial spray, and a few decent character moments, but overall it's pretty boring and the final battle is every bit as stupid as this one is fun. 

Now go see what trees my furry fellows are barking up:

Checkpoint Telstar - The Bat People
The Terrible Claw Reviews - Sssssss
The Tomb of Anubis - Romasanta
Web of the Big Damn Spider - Summer School
Las Peliculas de Terror - The Beast Within

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