Written by Jonathan Wojcik
YO-KAI WATCH: SHADOWSIDE: SERIES & YO-KAI REVIEWAs you should well know by now, I've really liked a lot about Yo-Kai Watch, the little Pokemon Competitor that Almost Could, for its combination of snazzy character design, spooky-fun atmosphere and ridiculous, juvenile humor.
And for a while, the children of Japan were very much on board with me here. Yo-Kai Watch's Jibanyan managed to even briefly dethrone Pikachu's popularity for the first time since the electric mouse's original debut, and ratings for its anime series similarly overshadowed the long-stagnating adventures of Ash Ketchum and his constantly rotating selection of friends...but not for long. Originally released to modestly strong sales the same year as Pokemon X and Y, Yo-Kai Watch would go on to crank out three full generations of core games, more than 600 monsters, nearly a dozen spinoff and crossover games, 214 anime episodes, a mountain of toys and three feature films entirely within the three short years it had until the release of Pokemon: Sun and Moon, at which point poor Yo-Kai Watch took a pretty steep tumble, and hardly a year later, teased its last-ditch, all-or-nothing attempt to recapture that initial spark...
Even the glorious Dark Yo-Kai Watch I reviewed last year amounted to fairly little before it was swept under the rug, along with much of the Yo-Kai World, for the drastic retooling that is Yo-Kai Watch: Shadowside. Set thirty years in the future, our former protagonist Keita has lost all memory of Yo-Kai or any ability to interact with them, his children and their friends have taken on the mantle with a new set of technomystical watches, and the Yo-Kai themselves have been transformed into oftentimes darker, edgier new forms by forces never adequately explained.
Even the original anime ends rather unceremoniously, and the movie intended to "bridge the gap" already picks up after the three-decade time skip. Kind of a mess of a movie, I might add, too preoccupied with showing off the next wave of toys to let its storyline breathe or its characters display any believable emotion.
Hey, I'm sorry, alright!? I honestly didn't want to be so negative here. As much as I sincerely enjoyed the pure goofball comedy of the original show, the lack of any real stakes or character development were certainly getting repetitive enough that I was pretty intrigued by the promise of a more dramatic shift, and as we'll be seeing, they didn't even set aside all of the lovable silliness. Not by a long shot! There are plenty of positives to go over here, and we're going to explore the show's new tone and feel through a selection of the first Yo-kai featured in this "reimagination"...
...Right? You can't go wrong with that? RIGHT!?!
Apparently, they felt we could.
See, every Yo-Kai in this new series has both a Shadowside and Lightside form, which is an interesting gimmick and will no doubt make for a fun game mechanic, but Slimamander spends almost all of his time in his "lighter" form, a bumbling cyclops in tights who regards himself as a "knight" defending his "princess" and will take any opportunity to brag about his sexy bod.
I'm not even actually against this idea in itself. It's apparently just the form Slimamander "wants" to have, and it's a lot of fun to have that duality going on. This vain, buff muscleman is all the funnier knowing that he's got a slimy eyeball snake hiding inside, which I'm not sorry at all for wording that way, and said eyeball snake is all the more endearing knowing that it wishes it were Johnny Bravo, but by even fifteen episodes in, we probably saw all of fifteen seconds worth of Slimamander or "Micchy's" true, monstrous self.
This is seemingly because the writers decided it would be super funny if the sexy buff man stepped in to assist with a battle, talked a big game, and got himself knocked into the sunset before he could ever do anything, and if you watch any anime at all, then you could have already guessed that theythink this joke is even funnier if they repeat it in as many episodes as they possibly can.
HE. DESERVES. BETTER.
Meanwhile, Jibanyan's new shadowside form hearkens back a little to the comedically frightening Red J of the original series, but trades the uncannily human qualities for a design that's much closer to a big, menacing, bipedal kitty cat, and I think it works well. You might recall that Jibanyan was the Yo-kai reincarnation of a kitten who was killed by a truck and devoted his afterlife to "fighting" trucks at the same intersection, repeatedly trying and failing to stop them with his tiny punches.
Needless to say, Shadowside Jibanyan does not lose his fights with motor vehicles, and the drivers are lucky to survive at all. It's almost a little bleak to see how much childlike whimsy this dead cat has lost, but there's something delightful in seeing such a badass grow out of such a tragic little gag character, and I admire their willingness to go that far at all.
Shadowside Komasan is a bigger and meaner dog, of course, but without the more extreme transformation exhibited by Jibanyan, it doesn't feel nearly as impactful. It would have been amazing to see the dopey little country dog morphing into this fearsome beast, perhaps retaining no memory of the events, which would have fit in with the show's sense of humor and made for some interesting commentary on the reboot itself.
Whoa. Whoa. This goes farther than I ever expected them to go with that "darker and edgier" angle. Who would have thought that playing up this phantasm's sweet potato aspects would end up being the creepiest part, with tiny "bites" taken out of his disquietingly long, tapering cranium?! Coupled with his enormous jaws and needle-like teeth, he even comes out with an accidental(?) anglerfish-like feel, and he has the strange new ability to, apparently, dessicate living things with his breath. I guess the idea is that he now goes around causing famine, or something? It doesn't quite tie in with his own hunger. We don't even get to see him actually eating anything.
It's definitely darker and scarier than most of the storylines this series has pulled before, but the novelty sort of wears off before they can go anywhere memorable with it. Even when three of the Onimaru, Og, Tog and Mog, turn out to be quasi-friendly little creeps and make a heroic sacrifice, it all comes and goes with relatively little passion compared to the sometimes genuinely eye-misting first film.
We don't get to see Boureibanchou's lightside form in the episode, for some reason, but it's currently known from the summoning medallions you'll be able to collect for real, and it's a little closer to the spirit of Roughraff and his evolved forms.
...We discover that the bicycle itself is the Yo-Kai, made entirely of bone and merely generating the rider as its primary offensive method!
On another note, there's a running gag in this show that when the kids first catch wind of a Yo-kai's activity, they speculate on what kind of monster it might turn out to be. This isn't always terribly exciting, but sometimes their imaginations would make absolutely killer Yo-kai of their own, and it's really a damn shame if they never intended on canonizing any of them. Look at this thing! It's HIDEOUS! It's magnificently hideous!
...But as it ultimately turns out, Charlie is just the tsukumogami of an abandoned bicycle, and this was the point at which I knew they hadn't abandoned the completely cartoonish and cheerful designs of their past, though it does call into question why so many other designs were changed at all.
Nonetheless, Charlie is a truly charming character with an immediately appealing design. I love how they turned the spokes of the front wheel into cartoon teeth. I don't think I have ever seen a cartoon bicycle whose mouth was in his wheel like that, which just looks great together with his single headlamp eye!
Instead of any particular Shadowside form of his own, Junior has the power to shape shift into just about anything he wants, though usually into monsters from a Yu-Gi-Oh style card game the little specter is obsessed with. In his debut episode, he takes on the form of a human child to challenge other players for a convoluted but charming reason I'm not going to spoil, but once again, he has the kids guessing wildly about what sort of Yo-kai would make people play cards with them.
Their final conclusion, before actually meeting Junior, is that they might be dealing with the ghost of a mother who couldn't stand her son's gaming obsession, and the visual they conjure is remarkably terrifying. Dig those eyes!
Early in the episode, the kids offer two theoretical Yo-kai of note, and I love both the design of this scarecrow and all the surrounding vegezombies. This feels like a Yu-Gi-Oh illustration.
The next theory isn't bad either; a moldy mummy mutant!? Simple and straightforward, but I'm liking the idea of an otherwise conventional mummy design speckled with little pom-poms of green mold.
So who's the REAL Zundoumaru? Uhhhh...
...Yep. We got weiner jokes. How are they going to dub this? Are they going to meticulously erase the spigot dick in every frame, the old-fashioned 4kids way?
This is also the first time we get to see a new Yo-kai's "light side" form before we ever see its shadowside form. Jinta is alive because human children have spend generations thinking of him as a person, but especially one little girl who sort of treated him like an imaginary boyfriend and protected him from the pranks and vandalism of less respectful students.
Another great "theoretic" Yo-kai here, too, when the kids only know that someone or something has been spying on children at school. I think this is one of the first times I've ever heard a spider monster suggested with no legs. I love that. I would love SO much to have just a round, furry spider-face-ball as an actual Yo-kai.
Back to the real Jinta, however, his shadowside form is as terrifying as you would expect, and pulls out its own wooden organs to use as bludgeoning weapons! I think the name is supposed to be a reference to Attack on Titan, which was an alright anime until it turned out to be little more than a slightly reframed mecha series and its creator a slightly reframed butthole. I doubt this cross-reference carries any deeper meaning than "another thing exists with skinless giants in it, and it's popular," but it does mar poor Jinta at least a tiny smidge.
The true Lucky is just a goofy little dog who died before his master could achieve his dream of doing stand-up comedy. Now the dreaded "dog man" appears to attack people who are making bad puns, but he's actually attempting to do comedic "straight man" reactions to their terrible humor, and really just can't control his own strength. It only makes sense if you've seen classic, two-man Japanese standup, in which one person says ignorant, obnoxious or unfunny things and the other person expresses outrage about it. It's also...really, really not that funny to me, and seemingly not that funny to even most Japanese people, given how many anime I've seen in which this routine is treated as something obsolete and boring.
That apparently doesn't stop it from leaking into everything else, however. If you've ever seen just about any comedy anime, or anime with any comedy in it, you've seen other characters react to every joke with the same cartoon rage faces, pratfalls, and over-explanation of why that joke was absurd. That is literally just what this standup style is.
Yes, it's pretty much JUST a big venus fly trap, the simplest a plant monster could ever possibly be, and even the eyes placed so nicely within the "jaws" is something I've seen a few times before, but there's a classic appeal here and a plant monster niche that was sorely missing from the series up to this point.
That said, the kid's speculative version of a split-faced woman is SO much more elaborate, it really might have been wiser to switch the roles of the two designs, or at least utilize them as slightly different monsters.
Light side Pakkun, meanwhile, is admittedly really cute, but not as cute as it could have been if it looked even more like a little fly trap, and it reeks of another committee-driven mascot design. It turns out that she never meant to actually harm anybody, even when she swallowed people whole in her shadowside form, but did so to shield them from the threat of an old, crumbling building and scare them away from the area. I guess she's like a shark; her jaws are just the only way she knows how to engage with the world around her.
Robonyan was also canonically gay for a bigger robot, which may not have been a respectful joke, no, but some people understandably enjoy any and all gay robots, and I don't think they have ANY intention of exploring how a roomba is going to get it on with Karakuribenkei.
Shadowside Robonyan is a generically "cool" humanoid mecha, but I like it more knowing it transforms from a vacuum cleaner. It still doesn't have anything to do with Robonyan, however, nor anything to do with cats at all, but at least this is amusingly lampshaded in the show itself.
Light side Honmaguro isn't all that striking, either. I love humanoid fish, but my standards for them are just slightly higher than this guy. Again, a sushi chef who's also a fish Yo-kai could have gone a lot more interesting and bizarre places, especially for this series. I already don't totally remember the plot here, either.
MUSHBARBERNow we're getting somewhere again! This one inspired rumors of a "Ripping Joker" who presumably stalks and attacks young women in the streets, but we already know this show is not going to feature a serial killer. Instead, this freaky saw-toothed clown uses his gigantic "scythes" to simply cut people's hair...but only ever into what Japan calls a "mushroom cut," which long ago fell out of fashion.
Mushbarber's light side form is the ghost of an actual, dead human barber, who was laughed at for his own mushroom cut as a child but kept it well into adulthood, all the way up to getting killed in a traffic accident and reincarnating as a barber-pole mushroom man. A dorky design, but in a very fun way, and I like the wide, yellow eyes surrounded by the purple. We still have no idea how this lightside/shadowside thing is actually going to work in the upcoming game for the Nintendo Switch; the kids in the anime can summon these Yo-kai in whichever form they choose, so will they always have the form you prefer, or will they actually change during battle? How mechanically different are they going to be? I'm pretty eager to find out, myself.
I want to say I like his exaggerated, ghostly human form, except we do see flashbacks to when he as alive, and skin tone is literally the only difference. He already looked like this.
Meanwhile, his shadowside form is a giant cave cricket that's also some sort of furnace. It's...a pun. I think. It's a convoluted Japanese pun because this guy was also a potter before he was a manager and cave crickets have a name in Japanese that means something like "furnace horse" and...never mind. This is an odd one, but at least it's a new insect one.
Light Side Ikarin is just a little baby-sized version of the same design, which is cute, though it could have used more of a twist. It turns out to be the yo-kai of an actual squid who was left for dead on a beach by a couple of cruel humans, only to be rescued by a kind child who swam it out to sea. Unfortunately, it tried to wait for that child to return again, and wound up drying itself out completely in the sun.
You expect something pretty inhuman to be the source of these tentacles, but as it turns out...
...It's a dog man. A dog man in a trenchcoat with big, giant hands, and his fingers are tiny, toothless dog mouths whose tongues are the lamprey-like, face-snatching tentacles.
You might think I'm disappointed that it isn't something stranger, but this is such a monstrously bizarre thing for an anthropomorphic dog to do that I like it even better than I would a more obvious, alien tentacle creature.
But, so far, we've got a yo-kai that involves faces and being a dog. If you're already a fan of the series, you might be wondering if this ties in to anyone we know.
...But, not quite. The Light Side form of Face Eater is Shibumenken, more of a loose shoutout to Jinmenkin/Manjimutt (the "human faced dog") than a direct counterpart or update. In this case I do wish it was something a little weirder than just a handsome dog man, but I guess it provides even more contrast to the weirdness of Face Eater, and it's pretty funny to boot.
The light side form doesn't differ much, either, besides looking even closer to a real cicada and bearing the hilarious name SemiCOLON.
So now, we've seen that Shadowside already has a top-notch selection of monsters and spirits. Absolutely NO complaints there, other than how boring its version of Komasan is, but unfortunately, that's not the only thing boring about it.
Yes, the original series was built on terrible puns, hare-brained movie parodies and toilet humor that at times wore very thin, but it also experimented with a wide variety of short segments and side-stories crammed into its runtime, and when the humor worked, it worked. You really never knew what preposterousness Yo-Kai Watch was going to throw at you, whether it was the worst fart joke you've ever witnessed or a brutally meta self-burn, and I'd say it was that very preposterousness already amplifying the emotional weight of its rare brushes with drama.
Our main characters, especially, were once genuinely fun to watch. Even billed as an ordinary, unremarkable Japanese kid, Keita was written with so many relatable childhood flaws and quirks that you couldn't help but enjoy his encounters with the paranormal, finding more irritation than wonder in Yo-kai antics and desperate to live his mundane life in peace. Interactions between Keita, Jibanyan and Whisper once elicited real laughs nearly every episode, but now, a Keita in his early forties is a seldom seen background presence with no memory of the good times, and that's pretty much this anime in a nutshell.
Its creature designs may have kicked things up a notch, but Shadowside's storytelling feels as though it's constantly erring on the side of convention, sticking with the atmosphere and pacing of a more typical monster-of-the-week series and sorely losing much of its original heart in the transition. They tried, to be sure, and you can almost feel the relief of the writers getting a shot at something more story driven, but the series simultaneously shies too much from the weirdness of its predecessor and from the edgier maturity it promised, all with main characters about as exciting as damp rags.
I have no doubt that the upcoming Yo-Kai Watch 4 on the Nintendo Switch will provide a chance for this new premise to truly shine, and graciously enough, it's confirmed to include both Shadowside and old-school series elements, along with characters from yet another, third new continuity to be explored in yet another upcoming movie, so it seems the direction they're taking is of a multi-timeline universe, each with its own signature atmosphere and Yo-kai.
Whether this new game will find the time and space to include all series Yo-kai has yet to be confirmed, however, and it's difficult to say if ANYTHING can save the franchise from certain doom. It already had difficulty taking off anywhere outside of Japan, far fewer people own a Nintendo Switch than own a 3DS, and anyone who buys only one game for the console is likely awaiting 2019's confirmed eighth Pokemon generation.
Now, if you want a great sequel-reboot of a youkai-driven anime, you can look no further than 2018's new Gegege no Kitaro, which even did some cross promotion with the Shadowside feature film. Finally telling some all new stories set in internet-era Japan, this Kitaro is rife with the heartfelt, character-driven humor, tense danger and ghostly horror that Shadowside's animated series seemed to have been gunning for before it ultimately wimped out, retreating into the safety of marketable conformity.
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