a.k.a. Kujira Gami
company: Daiei Motion Picture Co.
director: Tokuzo Tanaka
cast: Kojiro Hongo, Shintaro Katsu,
Shiho Fujimura, Takeshi Shimura,
Kyoko Enami, Kichijiro Ueda,
Koji Fujiyama, Bontaro Miake
producer: Masaichi Nagata
writer: Kaneto Shindo
cinematographer: Setsuo Kobayashi
music: Akira Ifukube
special effects: Chikara Komatsubara,
Takesaburo Watanabe and Hiroshi Ishida
production design: Shigeo Mano
disc studio: Kadokawa Herald Pictures Inc.
and Daiei Video
release date: May 26, 2006
retail price: 4,725 Yen
disc details: Region 2 / NTSC / single layer
video: 2.35:1 / anamorphic / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic Japanese
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Plot: A small fishing village is terrorized by a seemingly unkillable whale. Shaki, whose family has been all but destroyed by the creature’s rampage, becomes obsessed with killing it. Meanwhile a brutal drunkard comes to the village, intent on killing the whale himself . . .
This is a classy production from the early ’60s Daiei Motion Picture Co. and perhaps the first excursion by the company into the realm of giant monsters. Clearly influenced by John Houston’s epic 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this period production forgoes the rampaging reptilian behemoths so popular in genre cinema around the world at the time. Instead it focuses on that first great sea monster, which man sought to conquer upon setting out across the open sea – the whale.
While similarities between screenwriter Kaneto Shindo’s (writer and director, Onibaba, Children of Hiroshima, working from a story by Koichiro Uno) screenplay and Melville’s novel are slim, the basic themes of life, death, obsession and revenge remain, as does the ethereal, almost supernatural constitution of its menace. The creature has all the outward attributes of a Right Whale, regularly hunted along the coast of Japan at time the film was set, but possesses a uniquely monstrous disposition, and the title of the film, Kujira Gami (literally Whale God), points in no uncertain terms to the nature of its sea-dwelling antagonist.
Whale God introduces its title beast right out of the gate, as a fleet of fishermen from a small seaside whaling village track their prey against menacing skies, unaware that it is they who are hunted. In the turmoil of the struggle between man and beast an elderly member of the crew (the grandfather of Shaki, played by Daiei contract star Kojiro Hongo) is drowned – so begins the familial curse of the whale god. Shaki’s father and, years later, older brother (Koji Fujimura in a very brief appearance) are both killed in their respective attempts at avenging the death of the old man, leaving only Shaki to carry on in their stead as his mother, obsessed with the whale, slowly dies. The young man is driven into depression and alcoholism, waiting for the day when the whale that destroyed his family returns.
Meanwhile, the wealthy head of the town’s whaling industry (the legendary Takashi Shimura in a hefty supporting role) is growing tired of losing men to the beast, and promises his only daughter (the beautiful Kyoko Enami) to whoever can kill it. Shaki jumps at the opportunity, but so does the ferocious Kishu (Shintaro Katsu), a stranger to the town. Kishu makes a job of intimidating the townspeople, attacking other fishermen in the local tavern and raping a young women (Shiho Fujimura) who is in love with Shaki. 9 months later the young woman gives birth to Kishu’s child, but it’s Shaki who offers his support, marrying her and acting as father for her child.
There’s an interesting religious angle to Whale God, something that is difficult to fully explore for someone with such a limited understanding of Japanese (the otherwise exceptional Kadokawa / Daiei DVD of the film is woefully bereft of subtitles). The majority of the fishermen keep to traditional faiths, joining each other in intricate rituals celebrating the livelihood that bonds them together. Standing out among the crowd are Shaki, a Christian who worships in the small chapel of the local missionary and is married in a Christian ceremony, and Kishu, who appears to be not so much a-religious as anti-religious. Kishu’s vendetta against the whale is obviously motivated by his own greed and ego, and it’s no surprise when his effort to kill the creature turns into an exercise in unintended self-sacrifice.
Nor is it a surprise when Shaki, his nobler goal of killing the beast to honor his dead relatives (whose collective sea-side grave site he visits often) firmly in mind, succeeds where Kishu failed, mercilessly striking out against the whale amidst gushes of black blood and salt water. After the fight is through Shaki lies prostrate atop the massive harpoon-studded corpse, victorious but physically broken. Whale God‘s ending is unexpectedly surreal, the dying Shaki opting to spend his last few hours alongside the remains of his vanquished foe. The final image, of the young man lying in a coffin with the massive disembodied head of the whale sitting just beyond, is among the most memorable of the film, though this reviewer will need a translation to decipher what it all means.
The considerable language barrier isn’t enough to keep one from appreciating the technical aspects of Whale God, a gorgeous production with a strong emotional base that’s evident even without understanding all the words. Photography by Setsuo Kobayashi (Blind Beast) is stunning. Captured in all the glory black and white scope has to offer, I doubt the film would have resonated nearly so well if it had been produced in color. Director Takuzo Tanaka won’t be a terribly familiar name, best known for directing a handful of the Zatoichi and Sleepy Eyes of Death films, but his handling of the Kaneto Shindo source script is superb. Akira Ifukube offers up another stunner of a score (one of nine he would compose that year alone), with themes reminiscent of his work on both the earlier Children of Hiroshima and the later Daimajin series.
The cast is a veritable who’s who of big-name Daiei talent, headlined by Kojiro Hongo (best known in these parts for his frequent work in the Gamera series), Shintaro Katsu (the blind masseur himself, who is a sight to see seeing for a change), Kyoko Enami (of Gambling Woman fame), and Akira Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Gojira). Of all of them, it’s Katsu’s brutal Kishu makes the most lasting impression, lumbering about town looking for fights and proving nearly as much a monster as the whale.
More a drama than a special effects film, Whale God still boasts some impressive enactments of Japanese whaling techniques not seen since the end of the 19th century (all simulated, mind you). The special effects team headed by Chikara Komatsubara and Takesaburo Watanabe appears to have been well funded, and makes good use of a huge wave pool and a full-size mock-up of the monstrous whale’s head. The final confrontation between it and the human cast is both exciting and disturbing, and I wonder just how many gallons of stage blood were expended in the filming of it.
Unavailable in the States in any official format (Animeigo, save me!), Whale God receives a fine DVD treatment from Daiei Video and Kadokawa Herald Pictures Inc. The scope and progressive transfer does justice to the exceptional production design, offering a nice level of detail and a variable amount of visible grain. Contrast is healthy but, as with a good number of Japanese DVD transfers, a little flat. Damage is relatively minor, though it’s obvious that no real effort went into cleaning up the image for its digital debut. The single layer encoding seems a bit slight for a film of 100 minutes, but I noticed no obvious deficiencies. Audio is well rendered in a Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic track, though I must lament again the lack of subtitles.
Supplements are pretty routine but welcome all the same. Relating to the film, we get the original theatrical trailer (non-anamorphic and sourced from an earlier transfer for laserdisc), a gallery of still images, and a healthy collection of cast and crew biographies, all in Japanese of course. Also included is a brief background and filmography of Daiei’s special effects films, with trailers for several of them (including the early color sci-fi Warning from Space). Not really an extra but too bizarre not to mention is an optional female voice-over, which soothingly guides you through the menu selections and operations for the disc. I don’t recall encountering anything quite like it before.
The Kadokawa / Daiei DVD is going to be a tough sell for stateside film fans given its lack of subtitles, high retail price tag, and regional encoding issue, though its the best option out there until an enterprising English-friendly company makes a move (I suggest emailing these guys with the suggestion). I’m of the opinion that the film is worth putting up with all of that, though I realize that I’m a little eccentric in that respect. Whale God comes highly recommended, with high hopes that an English-friendly release may someday become a reality.