Hello there, and welcome to this final edition of Your Japanese Film Insight. It’s been quite a run, hasn’t it? Over the past two years we’ve highlighted numerous directors like Sion Sono and Mika Ninagawa, superb actors in their prime like Meiko Kaji, film trilogies that serve as crowning achievements like the Human Condition trilogy, and much more. We even recently conducted a 2-part interview with Adam Torel from Third Window Films.
While it was never intentional, I often chose to steer clear of the more conventional choices for discussion with only a few exceptions, since it felt more important to highlight works that have often been overlooked than it was to shout about movies that have become poster children for the Japanese film industry internationally. It would be easy to discuss the work of Yasujiro Ozu or Kore-eda Hirokazu, but I’d prefer to discuss films like Party ‘Round The Globe from Hirobumi Watanabe; movies that deserve a spotlight they have yet to receive.
With that in mind, having covered the kaiju genre in great depth across a five-part retrospective, let’s conclude this column’s time at OTAQUEST with a look at another Daiei Films kaiju trilogy that was overshadowed by its turtle companion from the same studio. While not perfect by any means, the Daimajin trilogy is a unique series of films within the genre that blends jidaigeki period filmmaking and a unique production cycle with an interesting giant creature that helps it to stand apart as a unique addition to the history of this storied filmmaking tradition.
Taking the Kaiju Formula to Feudal Japan
As we approached the middle of the 1960s, Godzilla was firmly established as a pop culture icon after going toe-to-toe with the mighty King Kong, without another character or studio able to match it for either domestic or worldwide dominance. The closest any studio got to matching the dominance of Godzilla was Daiei with Gamera, whose ‘Protector of Children’ characterization may not have resulted in the best films, but did earn the creature notoriety, particularly with younger audiences.
Other attempts at capturing this magic were one-off films or never reached the same level of commercial success as these two heavy hitters, with the exception of characters made for the small screen like the iconic Ultraman that helped birth modern tokusatsu TV as we know it. Creating new characters was hard, and while Daiei was enjoying ample success with Gamera, they wanted to try something new. For all this creature eventually defined itself as a defender of children in later films, its origins and concept were heavily derived from TOHO’s 1954 Godzilla to the point of even initially being revived through a nuclear blast, with its turtle design clearly inspired by its predecessor.
Daimajin was a chance to create something unlike what was being released by other studios, inspired heavily by the 1936 Czechoslovakian film Le Golem as well as the outline of a creature set to feature in a later-unreleased Gamera concept, Gamera vs Space Iceman. Rather than go for a modern setting, the film was set during feudal Japan, a setting that allowed for the team to bring in Shinto beliefs and feudalism into the mix while taking advantage of new-for-the-studio blue screen technology to assist in capturing the 4.5-meter spirit on film.
The result was something unique to that which came before it: whereas most kaiju films were typically set in the modern-day and used destroyed cityscapes as a way to capture the scale and ferocity of their titular creatures, this looked to the past. Each film in the Daimajin trilogy is centered on a different fictional Japanese village in Tokugawa Japan that is usurped by a lord (either an invader or a usurper) that enslaves the villagers to increase his wealth and power. Each of these villages holds a belief in the Majin and prays that the wrathful spirit kept within the giant statue held in the mountains won’t be unleashed upon them, and will instead protect them through both good times and bad.
As the villagers pray for salvation from their deity, the spirit is unleashed when it is threatened by the new rulers, exalting its wrath to punish their hubris and repay those who believed in them. Interestingly, the spirit isn’t shown to hold any affiliation or affection to the village it is protecting once it has been unleashed, often appearing more like a malevolent figure that can shift allegiances and acts as a genuine threat even after its so-called heroic deed.
This tone is just one more thing setting this film apart from its competition since, in many ways, this isn’t a kaiju film. Rather, it may be more accurate to refer to this film as a jidaigeki film first and foremost with kaiju elements sprinkled in, with Daimajin absent for much of the trilogy’s screen time in all but symbolic terms.
See, while Godzilla and Gamera and the various other creatures of this era are active threats that make their presence known through their destructive power, Daimajin is a statue and revered icon in stasis until the very end of each film. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important figures in the tale being told, more that their existence isn’t an active one within the world of these films. When we do see the character appear, their actions are far more vengeful and ruthless, calculated as opposed to an act of nature. This only becomes more apparent through the design of the character, with the suit for this spiritual god featuring holes that allow us to see the angry, seething eyes of the actor portraying them, Riki Hoshimoto.
Yet aside from this intimidating appearance at the end of each film, the ‘threat’ of Daimajin is exerted heavily upon the antagonists, with the hope they give the villagers being seen as a threat to their claim for power. Conflicts we see mostly take place between the oppressors and the oppressed and within the confines of the standard power dynamics of the village in which they are set. While the first two films are very similar in structure and content, these both lean heavily into the tropes of samurai films of the era, something that makes sense considering that directors Kenji Misumi and Kimiyoshi Yasuda each directed numerous Zatoichi films, with Misumi being in charge of the first Zatoichi movie and much of the Lone Wolf and Cub saga.
In each of the first two movies, Daimajin doesn’t make an appearance until the final 15 minutes, where their actions send the evil lords away from the village in fear. The result is a story more heavily grounded in the human characters as we focus prominently on a small group of people representative of the village and the lords that have taken control, tending towards a more tense, slow-burn experience.
You see filmmaking tropes being utilized that are more common to jidaigeki movies and the filmography of these directors in charge, as opposed to more typical kaiju films. Static cameras conveying scale, landscape and context are prominent, with a grander scale being emphasized in the second film through extreme close-ups on the faces of the villagers as they pray to Daimajin when contrasted against wide shots of their forced work.
The third film is a stark contrast from the first two both in character and tone. Here, the same basic concept of an oppressive lord invading a village and forcing the villagers to work remains, but this movie instead takes the form of an adventure film centered on child protagonists as opposed to the older cast of the previous films.
While this final film is an interesting departure and genuine attempt to do something different with the Daimajin formula, this shift feels inconsistent in execution. With the antagonistic lords ruling over the film de-emphasized over the story of this small group of kids seeking help for their problems, the adventure these children are on never feels urgent with the purpose for their journey barely factoring into the story. The introduction of child protagonists places the films more in line with the Showa Gamera films also produced by Daiei, yet the slow-burn horror elements and heavier aspects of the first two films remain in the horrifying fates these children face on their self-proclaimed mission.
There’s a somewhat stark tonal dissonance between coming-of-age story and forced maturity before their time emphasized in its shifting tonal consistency, with the film as a whole not quite being able to thread the needle between youthful adventure and harsh reality movies like Stand By Me effortlessly accomplished.
Even if this final movie in the trilogy fails to reach the heights of the movies that came before it, this doesn’t take away from the achievements of the series as a whole. In an ambitious project for the studio, all three films were produced simultaneously, were each movie releasing just a few months apart throughout 1966, sharing a similar cast and staff. All three screenplays were put together by Tetsuro Yoshida, with many similarities in the movie’s main theme and soundtrack to that of Godzilla a result of both franchises sharing work from prolific composer Akira Ifukube.
Much of the set and production assets were also shared between the films, most prominently with the identical statue icon for the mountain spirit and Daimajin costume; the only key difference between these films is the person sitting in the director’s chair. While this does have drawbacks in making these films completely independent stories with inconsistencies in the mythology behind the Majin spirit and its status as a protector, this costly-to-produce and ambitious trilogy would only have been possible when produced in this manner, with the large blue screen and other props being made specifically for this trilogy.
Unfortunately, despite this genuine attempt to bring something new to the kaiju formula and despite its success internationally under various names, the high production costs in comparison to its success (the first film earned 100 million yen at the box office while costing a similar amount to make) ensured that no further films were produced in the years that followed until the character’s revival for TV in 2010. Daimajin is set to return once again in The Great Yokai War: Guardians from Takashi Miike, with the movie hitting Japanese theaters on 13 August before acting as the closing film for next month’s Fantasia Film Festival.
Even if the series was overshadowed by its reptilian rivals and wasn’t quite the success its original creators had wished it to be, this unique take on kaiju and jidaigeki sensibilities remain a unique selling point for the franchise even 45 years on from its initial release. While Daimajin’s place as a lead character in their own franchise may be gone, they sure haven’t been forgotten.
Film Flashback: Daimajin (大魔神, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1966)
Of these three films, the original Daimajin where it all began is the best of the trilogy when it comes to capturing this unique blend of jidaigeki filmmaking and kaiju, while also establishing the mythology and threat of this colossal spirit in the most effective manner.
It’s this first film that feels most focused when it comes to exploring the power dynamics and religious beliefs of the era while weaponizing it for the revival of the colossal titan spirit. This is a film more interested in exploring the control the feudal leadership exerted over the Japanese people in Edo-era Japan at a time where religion and belief in an otherwise independent and peaceful village are juxtaposed against an exploitative ruling class seeking resources and labor, with Daimajin acting as a physical manifestation of this idea.
Indeed, the spirit’s strength and the protection it the only thing this village can hold on to when their old leader was usurped by a subordinate and forced into brutal slavery, building up to Daimajin’s eventual appearance in the third act to an air of unadulterated terror. Though there is an argument that can be made where this blend of two distinct genres allows neither to develop to its fullest capacity in this or any other Daimajin film, this movie most closely ties the politics of the era with the spirit’s might and power.
Within its moodier palette compared to other films, opening on the death of the current head of the village at the hands of one of his own and ending with blood-red skies and the attack of the terrifyingly angry Daimajin, this film criticizes the greed and exploitation paramount to the era and the betrayal that kills the village chief and sends his family into hiding. We witness the brutal control of this new ruler first-hand, more than willing to enact executions or punishments in front of the village to exert control through fear.
This direction for the film stands out among its peers within the genre at a time when Showa-era kaiju films following the original Godzilla took on a far brighter and more cheerful tone. The closest comparison that can be made between this film and other kaiju movies would be with the broodier Heisei Gamera films which came later. Even then, these were movies set in the modern day and not in historical times like this.
The direction taken allows for Daimajin to feel like an appropriately powerful god-like figure that enacts its wrath in terrifying ways. Despite being produced simultaneously this trilogy features rather mixed special effects work, with the second film featuring some of the weakest effects out of the three films. Although the final film may be the weakest in terms of story and overall content, it does feature the best special effects, but the effects in this opening film are nonetheless impressive.
As Daimajin invokes their wrath upon the new leader of the village for their actions, we watch this goliath tear buildings and gates from the ground and crush them with his hands, with believable scale and realistic rubble adding to the effect. While it’s still easy to notice the blue screen in the HD remasters of the film due to the primitive nature of the effect, it remains a practical effects showcase for the time that is still able to impress today.
Even if this film, and indeed the full trilogy, fail to reach the heights seen by the best Godzilla films of the era, Daimajin doesn’t deserve to be forgotten in the way that it has. With a new spotlight being given to the character in 2021 by Takashi Miike and a stunning remastered release from Arrow Video, this year is a perfect time to revisit this forgotten icon.
Daimajin is available as part of the newly released The Daimajin Trilogy set from Arrow Video.
Thank you for reading this latest and, for now, final issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. The support for the column over these past two years has been heavily appreciated.
You can find a complete list of all previous articles in this series and the films recommended as part of this column over on Letterboxd. You can also follow my further discussions of Japanese films and more on my Twitter account @socialanigirl!