After finding success with Gamera, the Giant Monster in 1965 and their Zatoichi series throughout the decade, Daiei Film looked to create another franchise to tackle the dwindling audiences for Japanese films at the time. Their idea was to fuse the kaiju genre with that of the period chanbara (or samurai) movie, both of which were proving successful for them in the aforementioned series. The result was the Daimajin trilogy, three films released in quick succession throughout 1966.
Unlike the Gamera and Zatoichi franchises, the Daimajin series never went beyond those original three films (other than a 2010 TV series reboot) and wasn’t enough to save the studio, being among their last major productions before they declared bankruptcy in 1971.
Though never becoming a cultural icon like Godzilla and, to a lesser extent, Gamera, Daimajin is still quite well-loved among the kaiju community and Arrow Video are giving it the limited edition Blu-ray box set treatment. I’m a relative newbie to the whole genre, but have enjoyed what I’ve seen so far, so cracked open Arrow’s set to see what it had to offer.
Brief reviews of the three films follow, as well as my thoughts on the extra features and AV quality.
Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda
Screenplay: Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring: Miwa Takada, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Jun Fujimaki, Ryûtarô Gomi, Ryûzô Shimada, Tatsuo Endô
Running Time: 84 min
The first Daimajin film, simply entitled Daimajin, is set in a remote village in the province of Tanba. Whilst the local villagers hold a ritual to attempt to pacify the mountain God Daimajin, who they believe has caused recent earthquakes, chamberlain Ōdate Samanosuke (Ryūtarō Gomi) uses the event as a distraction whilst he kills the local lord (Ryūzō Shimada), seizing power for himself.
The lord’s two children are thankfully whisked away by the honourable samurai Kogenta (Jun Fujimaki) and kept in hiding, to prevent Samanosuke from killing these rightful heirs to the lordship.
We then move forward ten years to when son Tadafumi (Yoshihiko Aoyama) has turned 18 and is still in hiding with his sister Kozasa (Miwa Takada). As they hear of the suffering the villagers are facing at the hands of Samanosuke, Tadafumi becomes determined to reclaim his place as lord and put an end to Samanosuke’s reign or terror.
Tadafumi and Kogenta’s attempts fail though, so, in a desperate plea, Kozasa calls to Daimajin for help. Kept dormant under a giant stone statue, the God is stirred by the plight of his loyal worshippers and wreaks his own brand of vengeance on the wrongdoers.
I enjoyed this a lot. As mentioned, I’ve been having fun during my recent delve into the world of kaiju and I’ve long been a fan of samurai movies, so this worked a treat for me. Most of the film actually fits the chanbara mould more than the kaiju one. Daimajin only makes a proper building-smashing appearance in the final twenty minutes or so. Prior to this, we’re kept engaged by a standard but solid story of deception, honour and standing against oppression, with a few swordfights and such to keep genre movie fans satiated.
Also keeping me interested was the craft on display. One of the things I love about classic Japanese cinema is how beautifully made it generally is. Even populist entertainment like this is treated with care. Shots are artfully composed, the production design is first-rate and Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube’s score is appropriately powerful.
The special effects are also very good for the time. Having Daimajin only appear in full force in a few scenes towards the end allowed the filmmakers to take their time over the effects and get them right, using a mixture of techniques to achieve the appropriate levels of scale and destruction. Also, due to Daimajin taking the form of a huge stone warrior rather than any sort of weird creature, the fact that he’s performed by a man in a suit is far less artificial-looking than in most of the other kaiju films of the era.
Overall then, though it may be a little light on the traditional kaiju action for some fans, the period setting and chanbara aspects make for a refreshing spin on the genre. Being a huge fan of samurai movies, it certainly played to my tastes and I enjoyed it a great deal.
Return of Daimajin
Director: Kenji Misumi
Screenplay: Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring: Kôjirô Hongô, Shiho Fujimura, Tarô Marui, Takashi Kanda
Running Time: 79 min
Return of Daimajin (a.k.a. Daimajin ikaru) follows a similar storyline to its predecessor. Two villages, Chigusa and Nagoshi, surround a lake that helps both stay content and prosperous. However, the jealous lord of a neighbouring village that is struggling uses a peaceful festival as a diversion to come and take control of the villages and lake.
The lord kidnaps the Nagoshi lord Katsushige (Kôichi Uenoyama), offering an ultimatum to the villagers to hand over one of their protectors, Lord Juro (Kôjirô Hongô). Juro and his men attempt to fight back but fail, leaving the villagers to pray to Daimajin for help. The evil lord, therefore, orders Daimajin’s protective stone statue to be destroyed, smashing it to pieces and sending it to the bottom of the lake. However, that’s not enough to stop an almighty God like Daimajin, who resurrects himself to set things right.
So, Return of Daimajin is very much more of the same and I found this repetition a little disappointing, but, at the same time, I still enjoyed the film as much as the first one. It races through some of these familiar story beats, perhaps in a bid to prevent the audience from recognising them. This makes for slightly less satisfying storytelling but punches up the pace.
Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and Hanzo the Razor director Kenji Misumi also injects enough character into Return of Daimajin to keep it from being a total retread. It’s even more beautifully composed and shot than its predecessor and makes particularly good use of locations. Having Daimajin’s statue situated on a small island makes for some effective watery set-pieces too.
The religious symbolism is also amped up in this entry, complete with a sequence that pays tribute to (or rips off) The Ten Commandments. This makes for some striking imagery in an already handsomely mounted film.
Certainly then, in a number of ways, Return of Daimajin is more polished and effective than its predecessor. However, it’s too much of a rehash to rate higher. Nevertheless, the film is still tremendously entertaining and classily produced, so maintains a high standard for the series.
Wrath of Daimajin
Director: Kazuo Mori
Screenplay: Tetsurô Yoshida
Starring: Hideki Ninomiya, Shinji Hori, Masahide Iizuka, Muneyuki Nagatomo, Junichiro Yamashita, Tôru Abe
Running Time: 87 min
Wrath of Daimajin (a.k.a. Daimajin Strikes Again), the final film of the trilogy, once again sees innocent people oppressed by an evil lord. In this case, Lord Arakawa (Tôru Abe) is kidnapping local woodsmen from a mountain village and forcing them into slave labour at his sulphur pits, where he’s producing gunpowder.
The remaining elder members of the village are not strong enough to take on the lord and are afraid of travelling along the dangerous path that crosses the sacred realm of Daimajin. However, a group of four young boys are determined to save their fathers and brothers and bring them home, so they head off up the mountain.
Surprisingly, given the budget and treatment of the previous Daimajin releases, Wrath of Daimajin reportedly came out with little fanfare and was basically buried. Part of this might be due to the fact that the film had a disastrous production. A huge portion of footage from the location filming was scratched during processing so they had to go out and shoot it all again. Due to this, corners had to be cut to finish the reshoots quickly in time for the intended release date.
The unintended rush-job made of much of the production shows, unfortunately, with this third entry to the series not looking quite as carefully shot as its predecessors. Being made by the professional Japanese crews of the era means it still looks decent though and the effects work is still first-rate for the mid-60s.
Also, despite any artistic or aesthetic shortcomings, the film stands apart from the other two by taking a fairly different approach. Yes, we’re still watching a story of pitiful villagers being trampled on by a greedy lord, before calling to Daimajin to save the day. However, in centring around four children as the protagonists, Wrath of Daimajin has a ‘boys own adventure’ feel that I found refreshing and enjoyable.
The kids aren’t all the best of actors, with one particularly tragic scene handled in a rather lacklustre fashion. However, they add an innocent charm to the film and help prevent it from feeling like another carbon copy of the original, like Return of Daimajin.
The mountain setting also allows for some impressive uses of locations and a dramatically snowbound finale. The carnage in the climax is particularly good. A lot of this was shot on set, so wasn’t part of the reshoots, meaning it’s as carefully put together as before. It feels perhaps a little more extended than previous finales too, with Daimajin having to spend more time tracking down the antagonists.
So, though its production problems led to a film perhaps not quite as slick as the others in the series, Wrath of Daimajin gets by on its childhood adventure angle on top of the usual destructive joys of the genre. It tops off a consistently decent collection of films all around, which is rare for franchises like this, particularly ones that are churned out so rapidly.
The Daimajin Trilogy will be released on 26th July in a Limited Edition 3-disc Blu-ray set from Arrow Video. All of the films look decent. They’re a little on the soft side perhaps, but colours are rich and pleasing and I couldn’t see any damage. The grain looks natural too. Audio is also solid on the three films, with both Japanese and English language options available.
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the three Daimajin films
– Lossless original Japanese and dubbed English mono audio for all films
– Optional English subtitles – Illustrated collector’s 100 page book featuring new essays by Jonathan Clements, Keith Aiken, Ed Godziszewski, Raffael Coronelli, Erik Homenick, Robin Gatto and Kevin Derendorf
– Postcards featuring the original Japanese artwork for all three films
– Reversible sleeves featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Frank
DISC ONE – DAIMAJIN
– Brand new audio commentary by Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV
– Newly filmed introduction by critic Kim Newman
– Bringing the Avenging God to Life, a brand new exclusive video essay about the special effects of the Daimajin films by Japanese film historian Ed Godziszewski
– Alternate opening credits for the US release as Majin
– The Monster of Terror
– Trailers for the original Japanese and US releases
– Image gallery
DISC TWO – RETURN OF DAIMAJIN
– Brand new audio commentary by Japanese film experts Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp
– My Summer Holidays with Daimajin, a newly filmed interview with Professor Yoneo Ota, director of the Toy Film Museum, Kyoto Film Art Culture Research Institute, about the production of the Daimajin films at Daiei Kyoto
– From Storyboard to Screen: Bringing Return of Daimajin to Life, a comparison of several key scenes in Return of Daimajin with the original storyboards
– Alternate opening credits for the US release as Return of the Giant Majin
– Trailers for the original Japanese and US releases
– Image gallery
DISC THREE – WRATH OF DAIMAJIN
– Brand new audio commentary by Asian historian Jonathan Clements
– Interview with cinematographer Fujio Morita discussing his career at Daiei and his work on the Daimajin Trilogy
– Trailers for the original Japanese release
– Image Gallery
Stuart Galbraith IV’s Daimajin commentary focuses largely on the work and backgrounds of those involved. It’s pretty dense, so there’s a lot to take in but those with an interest in the history of Japanese cinema will enjoy it.
Kim Newman’s introduction is only short but gives a potted overview of the series, explaining its quirks and qualities. He talks about the whole trilogy so it’s probably best to save this for after watching all the films.
The special effects essay gives an enjoyable look at the various effects techniques used and some background on those involved.
Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes’ joint commentary on Return of Daimajin is rich with Japanese genre cinema history as you’d imagine. Having them talk together on the track gives it a conversational style to prevent it from getting too dry.
There’s a nice little storyboard comparison with that film too, which has the original storyboards on-screen beside the finished film. It sticks pretty close, as you might expect for such an effects-heavy film.
The Professor Yoneo Ota interview is quite enjoyable, though he was only marginally involved in the film, helping carry equipment around as a teenager. As such, his knowledge of the actual practicalities of the shoot are minimal, though he has some interesting things to say about the series of films in general.
Wrath of Daimajin contains my favourite commentary of the set, with Jonathan Clements. It’s filled with facts about the cast, crew and production like the others but, possibly because this film had a rockier history, the story behind Wrath of Daimajin is more fascinating and engaging than the others and Clements delivers it at a rapid pace. He also provides a lot of historical context from the period depicted and when it was made too. It all seems more focused on the film itself whereas the others make more diversions.
The feature-length interview with DOP Fujio Morita is superb too. He begins by describing his start in the industry then goes into detail on how the Daimajin films and others were made. There’s even some time spent in an edit suite looking at the footage whilst he explains how the effects were done (he was known as one of the best special effects cinematographers due to his careful, hands-on approach). The interview does get very technical so some might find it difficult to follow but I thought it was fascinating.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.
All in all then, it’s another wonderfully compiled set from Arrow Video that comes highly recommended.