Kibakichi (2004)

Starring Ryuji Harada, Shimizu Kentaro, Nozomi Ando

Directed by Tomo Haraguchi

Kibakichi is like a sandwich where the bread tastes better than the stuff in between. By that, I mean Kibakichi opens with a rousing swordfight and concludes with a wildly over-the-top battle sequence but everything in between isn’t nearly as satisfying.

The first thing you have to understand going into a film like Kibakichi is that it’s based around “Yokai,” an element of Japanese folklore that most Western audiences aren’t all that familiar with, if at all. Yokai are monstrous spirits that come in a variety of different guises. Being so fantastical in nature, many Yokai look comical in appearance, while others are just ferociously monstrous. Yokai films have been popular in Japan since the 1960’s and are currently seeing a resurgence. Yokai are so distinctly Japanese in nature and the films tend to be more than a little on the weird side, and that’s probably why they’ve never done well in the West like the giant monster movies have.

Kibakichi leaves out most of the outlandish Yokai stuff, but due to the budgetary restraints, some of the Yokai seen in the film look like the kind of creatures you’d have seen if Sid & Marty Krofft had made The Dark Crystal. Well, maybe not that fake looking, but they’re obviously people in monster costumes. Still, the only monster costume that really matters is the title character’s and it’s a knockout.

Kibakichi is a samurai Yokai werewolf. His human exterior shows no signs of his true werewolf form save for a mouth full of fangs and a wild hair style that looks like a hybrid of Tina Turner and the Feral Kid from The Road Warrior. With his mushroom hat, patchwork poncho, and stone-faced demeanor, Kibakichi himself is like a cross between a traditional samurai and a spaghetti western cowboy. That’s also probably the best way to describe the film too, only you’d also have to add the movie Nightbreed to the formula.

After a dizzying sword fight where he disposes of some bandits that made the grave mistake of trying to rob him, Kibakichi makes his way to a small gambling village that’s secretly a haven for Yokai.

Humans and Yokai once peacefully co-existed with one another, but you know how humans can be. Man declared war on the monsters and nearly succeeded in wiping them all out. The remaining Yokai have now taken on a human disguise and tend to live in close knit communities away from the humans. Despite all that has happened, some Yokai still seek peace and long to one day again live alongside the humans.

The majority of the movie takes place in this gambling village where some Yokai spider women (Easily the worst effects in the movie as they really do look like something Sid & Marty Krofft would have come up with) keeping killing off particular patrons. The motives for why they are doing so are rather interesting; it just takes forever to get around to it.

Most of the time spent in this village involves Kibakichi being introduced to far too many Yokai, most of whom are hard to distinguish between in their human forms. And every conversation usually ends up repeating the same theme of the Yokai either wanting to live in peace with the mortals and believe the town’s leader Onzio will help them achieve this or not trusting the humans and thinking Onzio is a fool. Personally, I found most of this section to be listless, repetitive, and even a bit confusing at times. I didn’t know who most of these Yokai were, didn’t care, and I really don’t understand why so much time went into introducing us to so many minor characters only to seem them quickly killed off during the climax.

My least favorite character of all is the human girl that was found abandoned and raised by a kindly, old Yokai couple. She’s introduced late, her character really warrants more depth and explanation than is given, and she continues my least favorite Japanese cinema tradition of the Japanese female that seems to be in a perpetual state of depression for no particular reason. This character is yet another one of those sad sack girls that does an awful lot of staring with mournful eyes, only occasionally giving us what seems to be a forced smile. I am just so tired of this damn stereotype. If Japanese cinema is to be believed, then all Japanese females fall into one of two categories: excessively giddy and hyper or needlessly downtrodden and sullen.

However, there are some good moments that break the monotony of the middle section. The human villains are introduced as they introduce Western gunfire as a means by which to finally eradicate the Yokai once and for all, and you really have to love the fact that even in a fantasy film set in 17th century Japan they still found a way to have people dressed up in black leather Matrix-wear. While virtually indistinguishable and more a case of style over substance, this leather clad quartet is still suitably slick and villainous for the proceedings.

We also get some insight into Kibakichi himself, something the movie provides very little of, preferring to keep the character as enigmatic as possible. The only other surviving member of his clan inexplicably shows up long enough to blame him for the slaughter of their village, vow vengeance, and then disappear altogether from the film. I understand there’s a sequel already that deals with her character pursuing Kibakichi, but I still have to question the purpose of introducing a character like this without it resulting in anything substantial other than a flashback where we learn how Kibakichi’s own longing for kinship with the humans inadvertently led to his own race nearly being extinguished. This is supposed to explain why he has such a love/hate relationship with the humans but the character is such a lone wolf (No pun intended) as it is that it really doesn’t add much to him. You, me, and everyone else watching this are just waiting impatiently for him to finally turn into his werewolf form and start kicking ass.

Fortunately, we get all that and more when the film finally pays off big time in the rip-roaring finale when the human villains show up guns a blazing to annihilate the Yokai village. And finally, after much delay, Kibakichi puts down his sword and bares his claws, transforming into one of the best looking werewolves I’ve seen in a long time. It’s clearly the actor in a suit under a lot of make-up but, man oh man, does it look outstanding. It puts the CGI lycanthropes we’ve been seeing in so many Hollywood werewolf films of late to shame. The last fifteen minutes of the film sees Kibakichi going from defending the village through swordplay to unleashing his true form and laying waste to the bad guys with plenty of blood-spraying geysers. At times it almost resembles a Rambo movie what with him being shot at and escaping from the explosions caused by the anachronistic hand grenades being thrown at him. He ends up running, tumbling, leaping through the air, charging across rooftops, and laying waste to the bad guys with much gusto. He even finds time for a brief superhuman wrestling match with a traitorous Yokai cyclops.

If the whole movie had the energy and imagination of the finale then Kibakichi would probably get the same kind of recognition that the films of Ryuhei Kitamura have received. As it is, it’s a nifty cross breeding of various genres that opens strong and closes dynamic, but requires some patience in between.

2 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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