“Daimajin” and its two sequels intrigued me because they’re among the only Kaiju flicks that are also period pieces, taking place sometime during the feudal era of Japan. That’s right- giant monsters vs samurai! HOW HAVE I NOT SEEN THIS!? The trilogy was created by Daiei studios, whose most infamous contribution to the ‘giant monster’ genre was the Gamera series, known for its intense cheesiness, shoddy production values and being disturbingly violent for kids films’. Yet “Daimajin” has a much more respected reputation amongst Kaiju fans, even though it’s nowhere near as well known, so I decided I had to experience this…But is the trilogy worth the hype?
(Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda)
(Written by Tetsurô Yoshida)
(Starring Miwa Takada, Yoshihiko Aoyama and Ryûtarô Gomi)
The nefarious Samanosuke (Ryûtarô Gomi) successfully performs a coup on his benevolent Lord, becoming a tyrant who enslaves and brutalizes his people. Yet Kozasa (Miwa Takada) and Tadafumi (Yoshihiko Aoyama), the true heirs of the land, slip through his fingers thanks to the intervention of the loyal vassal Kogenta (Jun Fujimaki). They hide at a sacred temple deep in the woods, in the shadow of the statue of Daimajin, a deity they all worship. The peasants believe their god will bring them justice, which annoys Samanosuke, who decides to profane Daimajin. Unfortunately, the Warlord is about to realize that he’s dealing with forces far beyond control, as he’s not the villain of some sort of samurai revenge tale…He’s the villain of a Kaiju flick…and Daimajin is very, very angry with him. “Daimajin” kind of bored me throughout its first hour. Despite being directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, who helmed plenty of Zatoichi entries, the choreography is awkward at best, silly at worst. Characters will be slashed to death, but the kills are so bloodless that it took a few moments for me to realize that they were being cut. I guess this doesn’t really matter, as the action in minimal, which is fine as this is intended to be a period piece drama- contrary to popular belief, most ‘samurai flicks’ aren’t based around sword fighting. Yet the human characters were just so dull, with the cast never being able to inject any kind of charisma or personality into their roles. Even the movie itself doesn’t seem to give a shit about our protagonists, as the narrative diverts attention from them onto a peasant named Mosuke (Gen Kimura) and his son Take (Shizuhiro Izoguchi), whose dilemmas were slightly less boring. The antagonists didn’t capture my interest either, even though they spend the entirety of the movie committing one atrocity after another. I’m not sure why the villains failed to liven things up, but either the heroes were too flat for this conflict to ignite or the baddies were just too generic themselves to stand out. The acting was merely OK, but to be fair, the characterizations are so standard that there wasn’t much material for the performers to work with. There were a few really good moments though, such as when Take enters the haunted forest (ominous and creepy), but I thought “Daimajin” was a subpar period piece drama…at best.
And then it becomes a f@cking awesome Kaiju movie…and I mean f@cking awesome!
“Daimajin” is definitely a novelty amongst its kind, as I can’t think of any other Kaiju stories that take place in feudal Japan, ignoring the ‘lost film’- “King Kong in Edo”. There is a unique dynamic between the monster, the sets it destroys and the people whom it terrorizes, as you just don’t see samurai charging giants that often, nor do you usually see miniatures entirely comprised of ancient architecture being demolished. In fact, Daimajin is a notably distinct Kaiju, as he’s technically a god with his own arsenal of powers. He uses them sparingly, as his physical strength and stone body are enough to overcome most challenges, but there’s not another ‘giant monster’ like him. Daimajin is not just some rampaging beast, for he’s an angry deity capable of thought and feeling. The design is simple, being reminiscent of a stone warrior in armor, but his facial features are menacing. The filmmakers build up to his arrival masterfully, with the ominous clouds and the orange matte paintings functioning as eerie backdrops. The direction is surprisingly moody, with the thunderous foot steps making me both a little nervous and excited for what was coming. Akira Ifukube’s score is foreboding and very reminiscent of his work on “Godzilla“, building up Daimajin’s presence long before he comes to life. The effects are phenomenal, with the optical framing, miniature work and human puppets looking very convincing, even by today’s standards. There is a lot of detail in these visuals, making them appear more authentic and jaw dropping. Daimajin is relatively small for a kaiju (I’d guess around King Kong’s size), so larger miniatures had to be constructed, which gives the SFX wizards more room to flesh out their effects. It’s often assumed ‘bigger is better’ when it comes to giant monsters, but when their size is emphasized, that means the miniatures will be a lot smaller, cheaper and less impressive. Even “Godzilla” never delivered such an incredible spectacle throughout his tenure in the 1960’s and 1970’s, despite him being the poster child for the genre, although this is probably because “Daimajin” poured all of its money and resources into the final 15 minutes…But what a finale! Every complaint I had about the first half was immediately forgotten about as it ended so strongly.
RETURN OF DAIMAJIN (1966)
(Directed by Kenji Misumi)
(Written by Tetsurô Yoshida)
(Starring Kôjirô Hongô, Shiho Fujimura and Takashi Kanda)
I would normally begin my review with a brief description of the plot, but “Return of Daimajin” has a nearly identical story to its predecessor, so it seems kind of redundant to spell out a new one…Or at least that’s what I’m going to tell you, as I don’t want you to know that I had already forgotten the characters’ names and was too lazy to do any research to rectify this oversight. I was taken aback by how similar this sequel was, even though the first one had just been released…less than a year prior…I would even go so far as to describe “Return of Daimajin” as a remake, making this the fastest remake to follow the original…ever…Once again, we deal with a tyrant who overthrows the benevolent Lord, whose heirs flee to the statue of Daimajin. The villain oppresses their people and after a failed attempt to bring him to justice, a maiden’s tears awaken the giant stone god- who’s ready to crush all sorts of ass. Yes, the details within the story are different and the setting changes from the woodlands to an island off the coast, but it’s pretty much the exact same formula. Daimajin doesn’t even awaken until the final 15 minutes, just like the first film! Yet “Return of Daimajin” is often regarded to be the best of the trilogy, justifying its existence by improving upon the formula of its predecessor. Do I agree with this? Yes…
But also, no.
“Daimajin” struggled with bland characters, but “Return of Daimajin” has even…blander…characters, which is why I can’t remember any of their names. Literally, their personalities can be summed up as ‘hero‘, ‘villain‘, ‘maiden‘, ‘kid‘, ‘other villain‘, ‘villains’ henchman‘, ‘villains’ henchman’s henchman‘. This is bad, but I also thought the acting was better this time around. The actors had greater screen presence, elevating the very limited material that they had to work with. It also helps that this time around, the heroes are actually competent and there are times when I even started to wonder if they can emerge victorious without Daimajin awakening. In hindsight, “Daimajin” was an Atheist’s nightmare, as god is required for good to even stand a chance against evil. The protagonists had been unceremoniously defeated and it was only Daimajin’s soft spot for maidens that saved the day. For the sequel, good could’ve overcome the odds on its own had it not been for a few unfortunate circumstances, although these ‘benevolent lords’ still appear to be pussies considering how easily the villains overtake their lands. While one can argue that “Daimajin” had a superior script for cleverly defying our expectations with how badly its heroes fail their objectives, I prefer the conflict in “Return of Daimajin“, simply because it’s not so one-sided. Everything moves briskly and the sequel seemed faster paced than its predecessor, with the sword fights being A LITTLE better, but still kind of crappy. I did like the change in locale and it was interesting seeing Daimajin assist the characters, using subtler methods. The first “Daimajin” was more atmospheric though, where you felt the presence of the god even when he wasn’t on-screen. I thought it had superior build-up, giving us a more satisfying pay-off when Daimajin finally emerged. The finale is surprisingly different though, as it focuses more on Daimajin’s godly powers and less on the destruction of miniatures. Daimajin’s abilities are…let’s say, very biblical, and I wasn’t expecting these effects to be so good. They’re actually quite ambitious for a Japanese production, especially during this time period and they’ve aged quite gracefully. The cinematography is still breathtaking, the music is still…well, an Akira Ifukube score (they all sound alike, but they sound awesome!) and the backdrops continue with their unique color scheme. Whereas the first film emphasized ‘orange’, this one embraces ‘green’, so the visuals are still strange and alluring. I’d say “Return of Daimajin” is on par with “Daimajin”, better in a few ways, inferior in a few other ways, similar in many ways and yet…different in many ways too. I think preferring one or the other comes down to what kind of god-like mayhem you prefer-destroying miniatures or parting oceans. I do feel like the formula is getting stale though and hope that the third and final entry- “Daimajin Strikes Again”- crafts its own formula. “Return of Daimajin” is also known as “Daimajin ikaru“.
DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN! (1966)
(Directed by Kazuo Mori)
(Written by Tetsurô Yoshida)
(Starring Hideki Ninomiya, Shinji Hori and Muneyuki Nagatomo)
This time the ancient stone god lives in the snow glazed mountainside, which is said to be cursed. A warlord abducts abducts the men of a nearby village to use for slave labor, producing gunpowder from the sulfur pits. Four young boys decide to rescue their loved ones, but are forced to pass through Daimajin’s mountain…”Daimajin Strikes Again” is universally agreed to be the weakest of the trilogy and while this is true, sometimes my fellow reviewers make it sound a lot worse than it really is. I thought this was an OK kaiju flick, even if there are some cancerous flaws. Many have drawn derogatory comparisons to the Gamera movies, because the kids function as the protagonists this time around and Daiei is the studio that housed both franchises, but I don’t think that’s fair. “Daimajin Strikes Again” is very sombre in tone, occasionally even dipping into outright bleak territory. Even though children are the main characters, this is still an adults’ movie, whereas Gamera was directed the younger audiences and tended to be a lot more light hearted and silly. I’d actually say this is the most violent of the trilogy thanks to some surprise death scenes, one of which includes a character drowning in a lake of boiling sulfur. The writer tries to experiment with the formula a little bit, with Daimajin attacking a village during the opening scene, although it’s a little ambiguous as to whether the stone god is actually present, or if the villagers are attempting to make sense of a natural disaster. It’s a pretty awesome opener, especially as his apparent rampage takes place during a f@cking snow blizzard, one of my favorite film settings. There are some real interesting shots where the actors and the (very convincing) miniatures are seamlessly composited together. The backdrop is occasionally a vivid orange, a surreal contrast to the snow and I love how the filmmakers only give us glimpses of Daimajin, but show his destruction in detail. I actually liked this attack a lot more than the finale, when Daimajin returns to punish the wicked. Don’t get me wrong, his traditional 3rd act assault is still really well done, even though some of the special effects appear to have been recycled from “Return of Daimajin” (the villains arm themselves with guns, take aim, fire and…miss the GIANT target? WTF!). The snow storm gimmick provides a new aesthetic, the miniatures are still excellent, the color scheme is hypnotic and Daimajin FINALLY unsheathes his sword, so it’s a cool conclusion, but the opening stole the show.
Whereas the previous “Daimajin” flicks focused on royalty, particularly the high born ladies who make a connection to their god, this one is entirely about the peasants. The narrative actually becomes an adventure, surrounding the boys trying to survive in the harsh wilderness, while the most inept samurai ever try to catch them. Daimajin uses a hawk as his avatar, who watches over the kids. Throughout my entire viewing experience, I was wondering whether these child actors were actually being forced to go through these incredibly dangerous looking terrains- where wide shots reveal lots of jagged edges and long drops (should anyone fall). Either Japan had yet to establish any child safety laws or this is some masterful trick photography, but I sometimes found myself nervous for the the actors, while I sometimes wanted the characters to fall and die horrific deaths. The kids aren’t as annoying as Gamera’s little buddies, but the child actors are not very good. Their timing is often off, as if they’re forgetting what they’re supposed to do or say and they shout EVERY. SINGLE. LINE, with the dialogue being incredibly repetitive. One kid announces he’s hungry and someone responds with “Oh, I get it, you’re hungry“. Interestingly, these are probably the most defined characterizations of the entire trilogy and I can even remember all of their names- Tsurukichi, Daisaku, Kinta and little Suigi, although this might be because THEY’RE CONSTANTLY YELLING EACH-OTHERS NAMES, OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I did like little gangsta Suigi though, nonchalantly walking around with the blankest of expressions, popping arrowheads in peoples asses. You might say he’s a horrible actor, as he expresses no emotion even when he’s expressing emotion, but I say he is a Steven Seagal- and those of the Steven Seagal race don’t need emotional range, emotional range needs Steven Seagals. He is easily my favorite character of the entire trilogy, although I’m not entirely sure if it’s for the right reasons. The scenery is stunning and both the director and cinematographer put together a lot of eye popping imagery. Akira Ifukube’s score hasn’t changed, but it fits snugly into every scene. This never quite makes up for the fact that the bulk of the running-time is dedicated to the kids…walking…and climbing…and walking…and calling out each-others names…followed by more walking. Every shot is beautiful, but goes on too long and I grew so bored that even Daimajin’s awakening could never quite wake me up. Another problem is that the villains are at their most generic, being nothing more than place holders for Daimajin’s rampage. They’re so amazingly bland that Daimajin’s rise and destruction isn’t anywhere near as cathartic as it should be. “Daimajin Strikes Again” is badly paced, never being able to live up to its opening scene, but I’d still defend the movie. The filmmakers took some risks and brought the sophistication and class which accompanied its predecessors to the project. It’s the worst of a pretty strong trilogy, but is still worthy of its namesake. “Daimajin Strikes Again” is also known as “Wrath of Daimajin” and “Daimajin gyakushû“.
Violence: Each film is fairly grisly, with a lot of death, but usually only a few kills stand out as intense.
Overall: I’m glad “Daimajin Strikes Back” was the ending to the Daimajin saga though, as even though there are valiant attempts to try something new for each sequel, the formula is ultimately the same…and it has grown stale. I’m surprised they never tried to have the stone god take on something his own size, but the budgets were already apparently high, so maybe they just couldn’t afford to break out of Daiei’s comfort zone. “Daimajin“, “Return of Daimajin” and “Daimajin Strikes Back” are unique, much different from the masses (of Kaiju and Chambara flicks), but not much different from each-other. I’d recommend you watch them all if you’re into Kaiju eiga, but I’d also recommend that you leave some space between your viewing experiences, so you don’t immediately grow bored with them. In 2010, they dusted off the stone god for “Daimajin Kanon“, a Tokusatsu television series that lasted 26 episodes. It apparently takes place in a modern setting and CGI is used to bring Daimajin to life, so I have no plans on watching it, as it strips away everything that made the trilogy so interesting in the first place. But if they were to make another “Daimajin” movie, enough time has gone by that I would be interested, even if it’s another retelling. I just hope that if there are sequels, the filmmakers would both learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and remember what made them so memorable in the first place. Give me some samurai with my golems! Give me some practical effects instead of crappy CGI!