The 1960s were a time of flux for the Japanese film industry, with the postwar cinema boom finding itself at odds with both lavish import epics and that old Hollywood nemesis – television. Of the prosperous studios of the time it was Daiei who made the biggest gamble towards competing with the West abroad and the tube at home, going so far as to invest in and implement large-format film equipment as a means of differentiating themselves from their domestic competition. It was a bold move that elevated the expense of practically every picture Daiei produced, but one that failed to pay off. By the middle-60s a financial disaster was already brewing at Daiei and in 1971 the company collapsed outright. While the Daiei story doesn’t end there – the studio would see resurrection under Tokuma Shoten in 1974 and survive until 2003, when it was absorbed entirely under the Kadokawa banner – it was certainly the end of an era.
In this context Daiei’s Daimajin films, a series of three high profile special effects vehicles produced back-to-back in 1966, takes on renewed significance, not just as one of the more interesting diversions of the decade’s kaiju boom, but as one of the last gasps of the grandeur that had marked the studio’s postwar career. “Great Films are Daiei Films” the ads said in a pun on the company name, and for a time at least they spoke truth. The production of the first Daimajin (titled simply enough Daimajin [大魔神]) proved particularly ambitious, with Daiei’s Kyoto studio undertaking the project simultaneously with Daiei Tokyo’s production of the A-list Gamera sequel Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon (Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon) – the two films would premiere as a much-publicized double bill on the April 17, 1966.
Penned by Tetsuro Yoshida, a regular contributor to Daiei’s jidaigeki fantasies and chanbara actioners, and directed by studio veteran Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Daimajin plays for the most part as a straight period drama, albeit with an important fantasy twist. The vile Samanosuke, a drifter taken in and made chamberlain by the kind Lord Hanabusa, rises up against his master and takes the feudal lands of Yamanaka Castle as his own. The elder Hanabusa and the majority of his confidants are murdered, but household samurai Kogenta escapes with the lord’s two young children – daughter Kozasa and son Tadafumi – and takes shelter with his aunt, a priestess of the local mountain god. With Samanosuke ever vigilant the priestess leads the usurped to the only safe haven around, the forbidden holy mountain of her god, where the surviving Hanabusa’s rest uneasily, praying for a day when they might reclaim their kingdom.
In the meanwhile Samanosuke consolidates his power, striking bargains with surrounding warlords and raising an army with which he hopes to conquer Edo. His citizens are forced into slave labor building a monstrous fortress and taxed to the point of starvation and homelessness. Gatherings are forbidden, and much to the priestess’ horror the local faith falls by the wayside. In ancient times it is said that the mountain god did battle with the evil spirit Arakatsuma, whom he defeated and imprisoned in a giant statue of his own likeness – a great stone warrior. With gatherings banned the rituals to appease the mountain god and keep Arakatsuma, the dreaded giant Majin, at bay go undone, and as the years pass the god grows very, very angry.
Things come to a head in the tenth year of Samanosuke’s reign, when Kogenta and young lord Tadafumi are captured in their attempt to infiltrate Castle Yamanaka and slated for crucifixion. As though that weren’t bad enough, Samonosuke also murders the mountain god’s priestess and orders the guardian statue – now known as a Hanabusa safe haven and a rallying point for local rebellion – destroyed. But there are consequences for inviting the wrath of a god. Just as any hope for peace in the territory seems abolished the angered deity takes action, loosing the devilish, unstoppable Arakatsuma against Samanosuke’s fortress…
There was a decidedly DeMille-ian influence upon Daiei’s upper echelon productions in the ’60s, courtesy of that director’s recent VistaVision smash The Ten Commandments, and nowhere (except Kenji Misumi’s monstrous 1961 production Shaka, Daiei’s most direct answer to Western epics and Japan’s first 70mm film) is that influence more obvious than in the Daimajin trilogy. Indeed, strip away its distinctly Japanese sensibilities and the first Daimajin feels a lot like a thematic retread of DeMille’s swan song, complete with peasant-oppressing iron-fisted overlord, ill-advised heresy, and a climactic third act loaded for bear with Old Testament-style divine intervention (and for anyone doubting the DeMille influence, just wait for Daimajin part two!). In terms of dollars the end result was much what Daiei had hoped – a whopping success home, even if the international impact left something to be desired. Stateside Daimajin went unseen theatrically, and was instead integrated into American International Pictures’ television syndication packages as Majin, Monster of Terror.
Inspiration for the giant Majin himself, identified here for the only time in the series as Arakatsuma, came from Julian Duvivier’s 1936 film Golem (another retelling of that oft-filmed folktale), memories of which Hisashi Okuda carried with him until he became production director for Daiei Kyoto. In stark contrast to his simplified portrayal in successive films the giant Majin here is quite morally ambiguous, unleashing his monstrous vengeance not just against Samanosuke, but the oppressed villagers as well. Even his one demonstrably heroic act, the saving of lord Tadafumi from crucifixion, has a malign undercurrent, giving the impression that the Majin would just as soon have killed him, too. It’s a poetic device, not any personal sense of “mission accomplished”, that eventually ends Majin’s rampage and sends him on his way. Moved by the tearful pleas of young Kozasa, whose prayers raised the devil in the first place, the Majin’s spirit speeds off in a ball of light, leaving its physical form to crumble back into the earth.
Though well produced in terms of its drama the human element here is pretty formulaic, and ultimately just a narrative means-to-an-end to draw audiences in to the real star of the show – its ace special effects production (advertising proudly proclaimed Daimajin as “Japan’s first full-scale special effects samurai spectacular!”). So important was the effects production deemed that director Yasuda is billed alongside special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda in the opening credits. Even today the effects for Daimajin are captivating, not only in their superior execution but in their considerable style as well. The Majin’s arrival is heralded by grim clouds and blood-red skies, and his reduced stature (around 20 feet) in comparison to the usual kaiju combines with a sense of vengeful purpose (and some tremendous large-scale model work) to lend his attack a potent immediacy. Contemporary critics took note, and the film’s standard-setting effects photography earned cinematographer Fujiro* Morita the Miura Prize from the J.S.C. in 1966.
*The supplemental subtitles for this release say “Fujio”, and I’ve no idea which is accurate. Online translators are unhelpful, though amusingly so, translating the name as “Shiro Moritani wealth”.
Daimajin has been available in America before, but never like this. Original television airings were predictably pan-and-scanned from the original ‘Scope ratio, and dubbed into English besides. ADV (now defunct) went a long way towards remedying both problems with VHS and later DVD releases of the film, sourced initially from the Japanese laserdisc masters and later from those prepared for remastered DVD editions. Though better, these releases were still imperfect, with unreliable translations and image quality that just doesn’t hold up to contemporary standards. Since the folding of ADV bargain-bin proprietor Mill Creek have taken up their stead, and contrary to what some might have expected they’ve done a hell of a job bringing Daimajin to Blu-ray.
Daimajin arrives in great form, sourced from the latest HD masters and progressive at the original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Rather than just ordinary 35mm anamorphic ‘Scope Daimajin was photographed using the same large-format VistaVision equipment that had earlier been put to use for Daiei’s epic Shaka, and the resulting image is of terrific quality. Detail is very strong where the photography allows, as in the close-up that follows this paragraph, and the filmic quality of the original elements is blessedly retained courtesy of a fine, unobtrusive layer of unbastardized film grain. Unlike rival Toho’s recent HD restorations of their tokusatsu properties, which can look quite pale and over-bright (more on that in our upcoming review of Destroy All Monsters), Daimajin presents with contrast and color that are each at lovely, natural levels. I’m unsure of what degree of restorative work was undertaken here but I noted no damage beyond a few wayward specks and scratches and the usual grit associated with the film’s practical effects techniques – in motion this makes for a wonderful presentation.
Where Mill Creek have been found lacking in the technical department on earlier releases (like their single-layered double features from a couple of years back) they leave nothing to complain about here. Daimajin is paired with its sequel Daimajin Ikaru (The Giant Majin Grows Angry, under the title Return of Daimajin) on a dual layer BD50, and while the encode is only single layer (the same is true of the Japanese Blu-ray releases) the support is more than substantial enough. Daimajin receives an average video encode in Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps, but artifacts are kept well at bay and the fine grain is well maintained throughout. Audio is provided in two flavors of DTS-HD MA 2.0, one being the original Japanese and the other being the same English dub that graced the Majin, Monster of Terror TV version. The original Japanese sounds precisely as it should, notably flat in comparison to modern mixes but significantly more robust than in past iterations – the lows of Akira Ifukube’s score (very similar to, if less bombastic than, his work on War of the Gargantuas the same year) have punch hitherto unheard. The big news, however, may be the quality of the English dub which, despite some additional flatness, sounds practically pristine. Optional English subtitles are included and, with the exception of some unintended humorous moments (“Gasp!”), are very well translated. Aside from its two co-features Daimajin Ikaru and Daimajin Gyakushu, Daimajin arrives on domestic Blu-ray accompanied by an interview / SFX discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r?)o Morita (28 minutes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer, both in HD. The two-disc release (2x BD50) comes housed in standard side-lock Blu-ray case and fancy slipcover, and retails for $24.98.
I came into this Daimajin triple feature Blu-ray fully expecting to find the plethora of minor faults that have plagued many of Mill Creek’s past Blu-ray editions, and to have to defend those faults with a low price tag. Instead I find one of the best genre releases of the year hiding in plain sight, offering domestic fans the same kind of quality the Japanese are charged six times more for. This isn’t just a recommended release, it’s unskippable stuff, and the best deal to arrive on the Blu-ray shelf in ages. I literally cannot recommend it highly enough.