Daimajin (1966) review

Introduction

Most people will know Daiei Film from creating, during the golden age of Japanese cinema, such beloved narratives like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), Yasuzo Masumura’s Irezumi (1966) and its highly successful Gamera series. Yet, maybe lesser known, due to the limited international exposure it received, is the Daimajin trilogy, three films that combined at the jidai-geki genre with the kaiju genre. Now, thanks to Arrow’s release of the trilogy, these films finally receive the chance to reach a wider audience (Extra-note 1).

[Daimajin was released by Arrow Video as part of the Daimajin Trilogy.]

Review

One night, Motsuki (-) and his family are startled by a tremor. His wife looks at her husband in a vain attempt to find some solace, but Motsuki, looking fearful around him, states that it’s the mountain Majin trying to break out. A second tremor follows. To ward off the evil Majin, the villagers start a Shinto ritual part of the prayer festival.

At Yamanaka castle, Lord Hanabusa (Ryūzō Shimada) eases his excited son Tadafumi (Hideki Ninomiya/Yoshihiko Aoyama) and calm his daughter Kozasa (Masako Morishita/Miwa Takada). He explains that the mountain god will not let the Majin come, and that this god will protect the village and the ruling clan from all evil. Yet, he does not know a coup by Samanosuke Odate (Ryūtarō Gomi) and Gunjiro (Tatsuo Endō) is brewing behind his back.

Daimajin (1966) by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Daimajin is, as the short introduction of the narrative shows, part period drama, with evil samurai trying to satisfy their insatiable thirst for power, and part kaiju narrative, with a large statue imbued with ‘Majin essence’ leaving a trail of death and destruction in its path. Given this rather unusual combination, it is highly interesting the explore if Daimajin, like so many Japanese monster films and jidai-geki films, has any kind of political meaning or not.   

To unravel the ‘meaning’ of the Daimajin, we need to explore the ‘samurai drama’ that unfolds before our big statue becomes possessed by the ‘evil’ kami essence. Samanosuke Odate is, in short, a usurper, one who unrightfully rules. He is a ruler who took the power by force but without receiving the symbolic mandate by the plebs to do so. While many retainers supported his coup, it did not bring any prosperity for the villagers.

Daimajin (1966) by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Odate’s way of ruling, in fact, echoes the way communist dictators of the past ruled, by force, persecution, and inhumane exploitation. Ten years after his successful coup, he has enslaved the villagers to built him and his retainers a beautiful and impressive castle. In other words, Odate and his retainers violently exploit the villagers for their own enjoyment, to satisfy the ruler’s sense of grandeur and pleasure in having power, and to reenforce his ambition to take over the capital.

Of course, Odate’s violent reign causes the blossoming of rebellious feelings among the common folk. Yet, Odate, so sure of the power he holds in his hand, minimizes the growth of this opposition. Why does Odate remain confident in holding his position as lord, a position of power without the support of a symbolic mandate by the villagers? Because he is blinded by his obsession to gain more power as well as because he mistakenly believes his power induces a crippling fear and loyal obedience among the masses. His refusal to take the legend of the Majin seriously also emphasizes his blind confidence in his own position of power (Narra-note 1).  

Daimajin (1966) by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

One could rightly argue that Daimajin depicts a fight between the rebellious proletariat and the exploitative leaders. Yet, it is also important to underline that this rebellion is far from being a revolution. This revolt is not a fight for liberation as such, but a struggle to re-install the former ruling clan, a clan who has not lost its symbolic mandate to rule from the common folk. Daimajin is thus a very conservative narrative, delivering us a story that tell us that hierarchical (patriarchal) social dynamics and traditions of the past are worth protecting. In a certain sense, one can even argue that evil spirited daimajin (Chikara Hashimoto) is staged both as a protector of rightful leadership, as supported by a symbolic mandate, and a protector of conservative Japanese ideals.    

Having unearthed the political dynamic at work in Daimajin, we can now analyze more technical elements. Daimajin offers some nicely choreographed and visually pleasing fighting scene. Yet, truth be told, more intricate and impressive fighting sequences can be found in other period-dramas of the same period (e.g. Sword of Doom (1966)). Nevertheless, the clashing of swords will, in our view, not disappoint fans of the chanbara genre.

Daimajin (1966) by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

The special effects are simply wonderful. The age of the effects is certainly sensible, but SFX director Yoshiyuki Kuroda has made sure that the effects (e.g. the violent impact of the ‘vengeful’ earthquake, the awakening of the warrior statue, … etc.) are fluidly integrated into the greater visual context. This fluid integration of actors and kaiju in the same frame greatly benefits the believability of the narrative and heightens the enjoyment of the impressive finale tremendously.    

The composition of Daimajin succeeds in creating a mysterious and rather ominous atmosphere around the mountain god. While the atmosphere is mainly function of visual elements that either have an unsettling quality (e.g. a floating eye, a lone wolf howling, …etc.) or infuse a sense of mystery into the narrative (e.g. the lingering mist, the tribalistic dancing, …etc.). The unsettling quality of the atmosphere is further emphasized by slow cinematographically movement and threatening or mysterious musical accompaniment.

Daimajin (1966) by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Daimajin offers a wonderful and refreshing blend between the jidai-geki/chanbara and the kaiju genre. While the political undertone is patriarchal and conservative, this undertone does not sabotage the enjoyment of the spectator at all. With a splendid finale, in which the possessed statue finally comes alive and starts wreaking havoc, director Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Kuroda deliver one very satisfying Kaiju experience.     

Notes

Extra-note 1: Kim Newman’s introduction to Daimajin stands not only out due to its informative nature, but also by the contagious enthusiasm it is delivered. Ed Godziszewski’s explanation of the special effects that brought Daimajin alive is an essential viewing. This explanation is not only highly informative but will also heighten one’s appreciation and enjoyment of these narratives.

Narra-note 1: Later in the narrative, Odate states to high priestess Shinobu (Otome Tsukimiya) that he will destroy that what binds the Hanabusa clan and the villagers: the big warrior statue in the mountains that guards the Majin, the mountain god. With this statement, Odate subtly confesses that his position of power lacks a symbolic mandate. 

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