One of the things I love about the internet is that between Amazon, Ebay, Netflix, IMDB and the various places where people congregate to talk about films, I can take the half remembered shadowy memories of movies from my childhood and reconstruct them, find them and recapture a tiny piece of home long lost. I’m not the only one who does this; other people do it too. Have you ever tracked down a movie from long ago that left you with nothing more than an ephemeral vision that occasionally dances in the back of your mind? Let me know. I digress . . .
Hunting the films that leave these ghostly impressions is easier now than ever and one of the common results is disappointment. Film fans talk about this phenomena all the time; the nostalgic recollections of what you thought was an awesome movie were no match for the reality of the thing. Then again, sometimes . . . every so often . . . once and a while . . . it works the other way and you don’t come away disappointed. Sometimes, albeit very rarely, a movie will even surprise you, being even better than what you remembered. To that end, I give you that giant-sized slice of awesome – Diamajin!
It’s feudal Japan and everything isn’t as serene as it seems in this rural district. There are tremors shaking the ground, which troubles Lord Hanabasa’s peasants, who fear that the small quakes foreshadow a return of the Majin, an angry god that lives in a nearby mountain. To stave off the Majin’s wrath, the peasants lead by the local priestess, Shinobu, gather to pray and make offerings to the god.
Up at the castle, Hanabasa is concerned about the situation, and orders his chamberlain, Samanosuke, to head into town with a few samurai as gesture of concern to show the people that their Lord is on the job. You, kind of like when there is a little something eating at the public and the president goes on TV and tells us that government is doing everything it can: to save Christmas, to fix my busted lawnmower, or to cure male pattern baldness. Nobody with a brain in their head believes it, but we expect the gesture. I expect the president pretend to care about me and my problems and the same holds true for the peasants in feudal Japan. Hanabasa, being a decent and contentious Lord moves to make this gesture.
Samanosuke, as ordered, gathers the samurai, but instead of going to town for a little parade, he decides to use the occasion to usurp and murder Hanabasa and his family, making himself Lord. Samurai on samurai sword action follows with Hanabasa’s followers getting the worst of it. A few loyal samurai escape, including the brave Kogenta, who manages to spirit Hanabasa’s son and daughter from the castle alive.
If murder and disloyalty were not enough, Samanosuke adds impiety to his list of crimes, sending Gunjuro and some samurai to the village to interrupt the prayers of the peasants, ending the ceremony, and ordering everyone home on pain of death. The priestress, understandably piqued, heads home. Samanosuke then makes Gunjuro (who looks like an evil frog), his chamberlain and orders him to pursue and kill Kogenta and the kids.
Kogenta, desperate to hide the Hanabasa children takes to them to the home of the priestess to ask for advice. The priestess leads them to the only safe place in the district, the mountain of the Majin.
We skip forward ten years, Samanosuke is bleeding his district white in grand tyrant fashion, pressing the entire male population into a work gang whose mission is to build him a huge fortress. With everyone working on the fortress, nobody is left to harvest the crops. Samansosuke is unconcerned with whether the peasants starve or not, so long as he has a secure place from which to oppress the masses.
Up on Majin Mountain, Kogenta has raised the children into fine young adults. Tadafumi, the Hanabasa heir, has grown to become an exceptional samurai and his sister, Kozasa, into a lady of refinement and quality. The three of them have been keeping tabs on what has gone on since the betrayal and murder of their parents. Tadafumi is chopping at the bit to avenge the crimes committed by Samanosuke and save his people.
Things go from bad to worse in a spoilery way, you’ll just have to take it from me that Samanosuke decided to up his game. I know! It’s difficult to imagine him acting like a bigger dirtball, but he’s nothing if not totally motivated. Extreme blasphemy, more murder and a side order of crucifixion become par for the course. Samanosuke, thus laying the final straw, provokes the Daimajin further, bringing the awesome ensuing daikaiju action down on his head in grand fashion.
I have next to nothing bad to say about Diamajin. As I said at the opening on the article, it exceeded my sketchy childhood memories. Before you accuse me of shoveling on praise out of a sense of nostalgia, I’d like to point out that I only remembered bits and pieces of Diamajin. I don’t actually remember sitting down and watching it because I was maybe four or five years old at the time. Also, it’s more fun to trash something that to sing it’s praises – at least in my case. I’m a horrible person.
Here I’ll get slightly negative. Daimajin builds to the climax rather slowly, spending more time showing how bad Samanosuke is that is necessary. On the flip side, Tadafumi, the rightful master of the castle, is given precious little to recommend him. His vassal and foster father Kogenta seems a more capable leader.
Daimajin also features an annoying child, Take, who has Disney witch hair and a thing on his face. To be fair, I found Take annoying for no other reason than he is a child and all children are annoying. Often child characters are tacked on to the story to jack up the cuteness factor, to draw people in, to create empathy. Take is important to moving the plot forward and has as little screen time as possible – which works for me. To their credit, director Kimiyoshi Yasuda and producer Masaichi Nagata never try to play the “cute kid” card here, which is just as well, because that doesn’t work on me. I also detest monkeys; they’re not cute either. The child actor does well enough, so I have no beef with him.
My final knit to pick is with the costume. The Daimajin looks awesome,. The suit looks more or less like stone with the exception of a few scenes where Daimajin’s helmet flaps wiggle about just a bit, betraying its rubbery nature. This is hardly noticeable and I didn’t catch it until the third viewing, when I was looking for stuff like that. I can chock that one up as “Daimajin is flexible stone because he’s a god.” If the supernatural can get away with special pleading in real life then I’ll let it go here when it’s only a movie.
Like I said before, my gripes with Daimajin are exceedingly minor. So let’s get on with the good stuff, yes?
As the music came up in the opening credits, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the music in Toho’s Godzilla movies. That’s in no small part due to fact that Daimajin’s score was composed by Akira Ifukube, who also did most of scores for Toho’s daikaiju films, including the bulk of the Godzilla movies, including the iconic score for Gojira/ Godzilla (1954). Just as he did for Godzilla, Ifukube’s music fleshes out the imagery, adding life to what we are seeing on the screen. The monster motifs of the score, if not the same, are very near to his other kaiju scores. I’ll forgive that, after all Ifukube invented this particular wheel, there is no reason for him to totally re-invent it again and again. The music for the samurai adventure portions of the story heighten the tension. For fans of Japan’s giant monster movies, Ifukube’s deliciously bombastic scores are as integral as suit-mation and carefully built model buildings that are going to get stomped.
Speaking of models getting stomped, the miniatures are totally top flight, not only on par with Daiei Studios rival Toho, but equal to the big budget Hollywood films of the day. The level of detail is impressive. In several scenes were buildings are destroyed, you can see individual tiles slide from a collapsing roof or the support beams crack and splinter from falling walls.
The outstanding miniatures are blended with the actors and sets using clever editing and camera work. Making the very small things mix with life-sized things in a convincing way is tough enough, but to do that while making a man in a rubber suit look like a massive living stone statue is truly impressive. There are scenes where the huge Daimajin inhabits the frame at the same time as model building and live actors. Carefully composed using traveling matte paintings and forced perspective, these shots are totally fantastic and though they never achieve a perfect level of realism, they are still more impressive than all but the very best modern CGI. Nothing looks real like something real, even if it’s just a guy in a rubber suit made giant by forced perspective and matte paintings. For me, all the very expensive computer rendering is not a match for even the worst rubber mask and corn syrup blood. The rubber mask exists and the computer image, no matter how carefully rendered, is nothing.
The costumes, sets and matte paintings are all incredibly lush, helping to create a fantastic world of feudal castles, delicate ladies with courtly manners and brave samurai . . . and best of all – monsters. Yoshiyuki Kuroda and his team, in Daimajin, have created a series kaiju films that Daiei Studios wouldn’t equal until the Gamera films of the Heisei series.
Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this movie. Within the context of what it is Daimajin is just about perfect.
The version I’m reviewing is the DVD release by AVD Films. The transfer here is absolutely phenomenal. If you find a copy, I recommend that you grab it up.
New words for today:
Kaiju- Japanese for monster. Daikaiju-giant monster. Thanks Wikipedia!