Those who love giant monster movies finally got to enjoy Godzilla vs Kong this spring, and those hoping for a giant slug-fest between two of the biggest names in monster movie history were not disappointed. Many critics praised the fact that the boring human stories were swept aside and instead audiences were able to enjoy some well-choreographed motion-captured monster sparring. This wasn’t always the case though. The original King Kong warned about humanity’s desire to exploit nature for personal gain, and it’s hard to ignore that Godzilla, a monster created by dangerous radiation, was produced in the only country to have suffered the horrors of nuclear weapons in war.
Monster films used to be about a lot more than colourful ones and zeroes doing their thing on the screen. The earlier Kaiju movies of Japan were often more interested in presenting strong stories with interesting characters than a massive fight and rubber-suited spectacle. Kaiju – which literally means ‘strange beast’ – films would treat the hopes and fears of the people not as an annoying distraction from the giant monster action – one that a wise director would do well to mitigate – but instead the stage upon which the creature would finally appear.
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The Daimajin Trilogy follows this tradition. The three movies were filmed simultaneously using pretty much the same crew but different directors. All set in feudal Japan, they follow broadly the same story: greedy and arrogant warlords abuse peaceful villagers, misuse their positions of power, and scoff at the idea of a vengeful god. In the end it does not go well for them.
If there were some kind of Bechdel test for monster movies where two humans have to talk to each other about something other than a giant monster after the first twenty minutes, it’s hard to imagine the current batch passing. Yet for the most part these films manage to pass that test wonderfully. The giant god exists, but the people have got their own problems to deal with and really they just get on with it. When at the end of the film Daimajin finally does arrive, we’re invested in these characters because we can see them as people. Their fates actually matter to us, and so the destruction of their village or the death of someone is more powerful than any amount of CGI or motion capture wizardry alone could ever muster.
The middle film, Return of Daimajin, is the weakest of the trilogy, because instead of becoming invested in the trials and tribulations of people, the audience get to watch a bunch of put upon villagers spend all of their time either asking a giant statue for help, or talking about the statue. Those lazy ingrates need to stop relying on higher powers and get on with saving themselves. Luckily this really is the exception that proves the rule, with both Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin being far more enjoyable.
Daimajin, the first film, is pretty much what you would expect. It’s enjoyable, accessible, and well worth your time. Wrath is even more interesting, with an extended plot that is basically Stand By Me: Japan – the Feudal Years. Unexpectedly, it may be the most watchable of the trilogy, managing to add to the mythos as well as producing some remarkable performances from the young leads. Importantly, while giant latex monsters might feel silly to many viewers, at no times do these films treat them as such. Things aren’t played for laughs or with a knowing wink to the audience, and because of that they hold up extremely well. Perhaps the most notable thing is that even if Daimajin never appeared, these would still be exciting, enjoyable films in their own right.
On top of the direction and acting, the production values still, for the most part, work. Aside from a few ropey wigs and bald caps, which is nothing unusual for a Japanese period film, it all looks pretty convincing. This is fortunate as Arrow have done a wonderful job with the restoration, giving each film the feel of a modern day, high quality fantasy epic. With both the sound and picture enhancing the experience, the only real concern throughout each film is the worry that the reveal of Daimajin won’t live up to expectations.
While in the west Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion stye of animation provided the creature effects, the Japanese tradition was to use people in rubber suits performing on miniature sets. The restrictions of this kind of technology were apparent even at the time. Now, coupled with a modern audience whose expectations have been fed a diet of advanced CGI and film budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars, it can easily lead to disappointment or even laughter.
Fortunately, this is never really a problem experienced by the Daimajin films. The already mentioned emotional investment in the characters allows for a level of suspension of disbelief, but that’s not the only thing going for it. Daimajin isn’t a giant lizard, he’s a stone statue of a Samurai which comes to life. Because of this there is a realism to the costume and movements that no amount of double speed filming can hide in many other Kaiju films.
When, at the end of the movie, the giant god arrives to smash things up and dole out some pretty nasty deaths, the audience is filled with more than popcorn-fuelled elation, but something that verges on awe. This, despite the fact that Daimajin is so much smaller than many other Kaiju. Sure, he might lose in a fight with Godzilla or King Kong, but he can easily destroy the pathetic resistance put up by humans. Interestingly, that lack of size makes his destruction feel that much more personal. If Godzilla trod on you, it would be because he didn’t notice you were there. If Daimajin does it, it’s because you’ve done something to deserve it.
The special features are not bad at all. Audio commentaries from Japanese film experts Stuart Galbraith IV, Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes, and Asian historian Jonathan Clements all work hard at setting the context of the film historically and manage to rise above many of the dreary pitfalls expert commentaries can often stumble into. The listeners are even treated to a surprise pre-recorded interview with Yoshihiko Aoyama, one of the stars of the first film.
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There are some great other additions, too. An introduction from Kim Newman, a new documentary, as well as an interview with Professor Yoneo Ota, who gives some amazing insights into the production of the trilogy. Most welcome should be an interview with the cinematographer of the trilogy Fujio Morita. The aesthetics of these films is outstanding, and Morita deserves huge amounts of credit for the wonderful work that he did. We’ve also been given alternative credits as well as the usual trailers, TV spots and image galleries rounding out a very worthwhile Limited Edition.
Arrow have reminded us how they set the gold standard in restoring and presenting cult films. This is a collection that belongs on the shelves of any monster-movie fan, and one that should be watched by anyone who has ever turned their nose up at a film simply because it’s got a giant monster in it.
More than that, perhaps the next production team of whichever computer-generated confusion is on the slate for Warner Brothers could give them a view, and learn that these types of movies can be more than they seem to think, whilst still delivering on thrill, spills, and plenty of gratuitous crushinating.
The Daimajin Trilogy is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 26th July from Arrow Video.