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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Daimajin (1966) review



Yoshiko Aoyama (Hanabusa Tadafumi), Ryutaro Gomi (Lord Odate Samanosuke),Takada Miwa (Hanabusa Ozasa), Jun Fujimaki (Kogenta), Sugiyama Tsuyoshi/Shousaku (Gunjiro Yasuke), Tsukimiya Otome (Nobuo Mikio)

Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

"Samanosuke... you will see God's anger. You will be crushed by his wrath!"

The Short Version: Daiei, a company famed for their ZATOICHI series, got into the giant monster game with GAMERA (1965), and quickly hit upon the idea of merging the two genre styles together for a trilogy of movies about an evil god prayed into existence to serve vengeance upon violent oppressors of peasant villagers. Director Yasuda kicked off this (mostly) superb series that relies heavily on spirituality and superstitions with a hint of horror, and healthy doses of samurai dramatics; and a climactic special effects buffet of divine retribution meted out by the mighty Majin.

Chamberlain Odate Samanosuke plots a coup to overthrow Lord Hanabusa and take over Yamanaka Castle. Once the man that rescued him from poverty is slain, Samanosuke seeks out Hanabusa's children to kill them, too. Their young guardian, Kogenta, manages to get them out of the castle alive, and they're taken to the sacred mountain of their god, a giant stone statue that houses an evil spirit. Ten years pass and Samanosuke has enslaved the surrounding villagers. Kogenta is captured, and Hanabusa's son attempts to rescue him; he too is caught, and both are set to be executed. Hanabusa's daughter prays to their god to save them, and rid the country of the cruel Samanosuke.

After the great success of GAMERA (1965), Daiei was riding a box office high (that ultimately proved short-lived) after throwing their hand into the daikaiju sweepstakes. A big budget sequel was ordered, as well as an ambitious trilogy of films that combined jidaigeki cinema with the surging popularity of Japanese giant monster movies. The Gamera film (GAMERA VS. BARUGON) was shot at their Tokyo studio while the task of bringing the unusual DAIMAJIN to the screen took place at their Kyoto division.

DAIMAJIN is a fascinating movie, and a unique entry in the big monster boom Japan was enjoying at that time on both the big and small screens. The melodrama takes precedence over the creature action, but Majin remains a looming presence leading up to the last 15 minutes when his rage is finally unleashed. Set to the majestically gloomy tones of Akira Ifukube's music, Majin's stone god hellfire and brimstone rampage is among the most memorable ever seen in films of this vintage. 

In the meantime, Tetsuro Yoshida's character heavy screenplay spends a good amount of time making us despise the evil villains (devilishly portrayed by perennial chambara bad guys Ryutaro Gomi and Sugiyama Shousaku) as they plot, enslave, and kill anyone that defies their tyrannical rule. The amount of superstition and spirituality present reads like a Japanese version of the Old Testament with its allegorical treatment of greed and inherent human evil; and the punishment of those who subjugate, torture and murder the pure and innocent. The god-fearing peasants (in the dubbed English print, the god is called Shino) pray to their idol high atop a mountain overlooking a waterfall. The god is distinguished by its benevolent and malevolent halves. This benign spirit houses an evil god inside the statue that can be prayed into existence. 

Unlike the two sequels (RETURN OF DAIMAJIN, DAIMAJIN STRIKES BACK) the enraged Majin doesn't halt when the last despicable villain is slain, but continues on till the very girl that begged his release cries tears onto its stone feet that force it to stop. The Majin then crumbles to dust, leaving as it came, and returning to its mountaintop resting place -- encased once more within the statue.

Some viewers may become impatient waiting for the Majin to finally arrive. The payoff is worth it, though. But for those who are enamored with both genres -- chambara and daikaiju -- you'll likely find the story mechanics and performances engaging; which makes the doom-laden spectacle of the finale all the more satisfying. 

Virtually every aspect of the film reeks of a devout professionalism with numerous scenes possessing an operatic vibe indigenous to Japanese cinema. From the direction, to the lighting, to the photography and effects work, DAIMAJIN is a true work of art. Released on April 17th, 1966 as a double bill with GAMERA VS. BARUGON as its co-feature, the character became a pop culture icon in its native Japan.

Each film was shot back to back, given approximately 3 months a piece with budgets in the range of 100 million yen (roughly $300,000US dollars at that time); and featured some truly stunning special effects sequences. Minus the troubled third picture, the first two Majin's were paired with co-features. Planning for DAIMAJIN took place in November of 1965 using the European legend of 'The Golem' as source material. Master monster modeler Ryosaku Takayama designed a 15 foot Majin, and a suit to be worn by an actor. The visage of mighty Majin was based on Deva King (Four Kings of Heaven) iconography and allegedly Kirk Douglas's face!

Reportedly, it was special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda who referred professional baseball player Chikara Hashimoto for the part because of his build. Hashimoto played Daimajin in all three movies. He also played Daimon, the lead monster villain in another Daiei classic, THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (1968); also known as SPOOK WARFARE, the first of a ghost trilogy from Daiei. With his professional baseball career starting in 1953, Hashimoto's movie career began in 1960 where he would hit a home run as the indomitable Majin six years later. The role as the vengeful stone god is his most famous. Hashimoto appeared in a smaller capacity in GAMERA VS. VIRAS (1968), and as Suzuki, the lead heavy in FIST OF FURY (1971).

SPX director Yoshiyuki Kuroda's impressive work can be seen in all three Majin movies, and counted film direction as part of his cinema repertoire, too. For the latter, his resume includes the original GREAT YOKAI WAR (aka SPOOK WARFARE [1968]), the third, and most adult oriented of the Yokai trilogy, JOURNEY WITH GHOSTS ALONG TOKAIDO ROAD (1969); and Kuroda took over the last of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, WHITE HEAVEN IN HELL (1974), after Misumi Kenji passed on it.

Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda was a specialist of the ZATOICHI school of samurai cinema, and his brand of swordplay dramatics was tailor made for Daiei's unusual marriage of chambara and giant monster genres. He worked first at Nikkatsu studios, and moved over to Daiei in the 1940s where he directed dozens of movies including a handful Katsu's ZATOICHI series. His other work included TV shows such as THE MUTE SAMURAI (1974) starring Tomisaburo Wakayama and again with Katsu on the ZATOICHI television series that aired throughout the 1970s.

A remake for television was planned in the 70s with Gamera director Noriaki Yuasa as director. A theatrical remake was planned in the 1990s, but Daiei producers figured Gamera was a more profitable option. Again in the late 90s, a proposed DAIMAJIN movie was proposed, allegedly with Steven Seagal starring in some capacity. It was also reported Kevin Costner was to be involved in some re-imagining of Majin during that decade as well. By the late 2000s, the property was again resurrected after Kadokawa acquired Daiei. Takashi Miike, having then recently helmed THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (2005) remake, was attached, but yet again, it stalled. Finally in 2010 the character was turned into a 26 episode modern day action drama for television as DAIMAJIN KANON.

For its time, DAIMAJIN (1966) was 'the odd monster out' among the many fire-breathing monstrosities and alien invaders that marched on movie theater screens in a big way in the 1960s. It benefited from a talented group of filmmakers, and delivered some impressive special effects that still stand up today. Without the contributions of such luminaries as Akira Ifukube, Ryosaku Takayama, DP Morita Fujiro, SPX director Kuroda, writer Yoshida, and director Yasuda, the monstrous Majin's retribution would be far less thunderous.

This review is representative of the Mill Creek Bluray set.

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