Review: Daimajin (1966)

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Daimajin is just one of those movies that is near and dear to my heart.  As such, it’s somewhat difficult for me to review it objectively, but I’m going to give it a go.  The Daimajin films (there are three total) are currently available on blu ray for the very first time here in the US, so maybe my review will get a few more of you interested enough to at least give them a chance.  After all, it’s not everyday you see a mashup of samurai epics and giant monster movies

The three films, Daimajin, Return of Daimajin, and Wrath of Daimajin, were all shot in 1966 by different directors and then released several months apart.  There’s been some confusion over the years regarding the titles of the three films due to their being mistitled in various video releases, but now all of that’s been straightened out and the films can be viewed in their hi-def glory on the new blu ray set from Mill Creek Entertainment.  Thankfully, they did a better job on the subtitles here than they did for their otherwise excellent Gamera release.

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The first film, Daimajin, is about a small village that happily lives under the watchful eye of the local samurai lord.  The lord is kind to the villagers and indulges their belief that an ancient Kami (a Shinto god of nature) is lying dormant in one of the nearby mountains and must be appeased by a yearly festival.  During one such celebration, some of the lesser samurai decide to usurp the old man’s rule, murdering him and all who are loyal to him in the name of advancing their own ambitions.  The two children of the lord and his chief retainer get away and eventually hide in the shadow of the Daimajin statue – a 20′ tall haniwa that’s partially buried in a cliff face.  Ten years pass and the new lord becomes more and more cruel as he exploits the villagers.  Finally, the time comes for Daimajin to intervene.

This is one of those films that gets it all right.  The story makes you root for the children and hate the samurai warlord.  Daimajin remains passive for most of the film, despite the urging of the children and their Shinto priestess caretaker.  By the time he’s finally moved by the young girl’s tears and takes action, we’re chomping at the bit for him to kick ass.  This is an extremely satisfying revenge picture.

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Veteran director Kimiyoshi Yasuda works wonders with this fable.  He draws the audience in close like a master storyteller sitting beside the campfire.  His cinematographer, the great Fujiro Morita, makes the most of a limited budget by composing most of his effects shots in camera.  This is especially impressive on blu ray as there are no matte lines to contend with and no generational drops in quality from optical printing.  Yes, some of the effects are a little cheesy to modern eyes, but I believe they carry more weight than do many modern CGI effects fests.

The cast is all very good with the exception of the children in the early part of the film.  It’s an ensemble piece, with actors that will be familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the Japanese films of the 60’s, especially those of the Zatoichi series.

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The music, by Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube, is among the best of his 260+ scores.  He bridges the gap between the very real world of feudal Japan and the fantastic world of the giant Majin with grace and power.  I actually own the soundtrack to this film and can tell you it has complexities that are beyond what many of Ifukube’s contemporaries were cranking out.  Yes, he also phoned in a few scores in his time, but this isn’t one of them.

I could go on and on, heaping praise on this picture, but I think you get the idea.  If there is a down side to the film, it’s the fact that the giant Majin is a guy in a rubber suit.  Some viewers will never get past that, but if you can, this is the king of the kaiju movies.  Very highly recommended!

 

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