Monday, 15 August 2011

FILM REVIEW - Daimajin (1966)

There are a few instances in my younger life that I can trace my obsession with cult/trash/horror/sci-fi films back to. My earliest memory of such is my older sister bringing home the soon-to-be-banned VHS video of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetary. I wasn’t allowed to watch it (I was only 4 years old!), but the lurid cover set my imagination racing, and the forbidden nature of it didn’t hurt either. A few years later my very understanding mother let me video tape the old Hammer and Universal films off of late night BBC2, and around the same time I came into possession of Alan Frank’s seminal big hardback encyclopedia ‘The Movie Treasury - Horror Movies’. I note now that said book only came out 7 years before I got hold of it (about 1988-89) but it already felt like it belonged to a different age entirely, pretty much dismissing anything that had been made after 1968. However, that didn’t stop it from being a treasure trove of grisly delights, and I all but memorised the text from reading and re-reading it, which set me firmly on the path to being a bloody know-it-all.

Of course, living out in the wilds of Wales at the time didn’t give me a great deal of scope to see all the weird and wonderful films that were being shown and described to me – For many years I relied solely on those much-missed late night BBC2 double bills, eagerly scouring the paper to see what classics were being served up for me that week. Of course, I was still only allowed to video tape them and watch them the next day – expecting the one instance when my mother let me stay up alone in the front room with a blanket and pillow, and I ended up scared to death watching the Count Yorga films. Often I would be seeing something as innocent and fun as Karloff in The Ghoul, or a Godzilla film, and then occasionally I’d be taken aback (but thrilled) by something unexpected and harder-edged, like Eraserhead or Night Of The Living Dead.

But I digress! There are still films whose stills in Alan Frank’s book have stayed in my memory and I have never gotten around to watching – and Daimajin is one of them, or at least it was until yesterday.
Daimajin is, at heart, a Kaijiu Eiga (aka Japanese giant monster) film, yet unusual in the fact that it eschews the usual modern-day nuclear-paranoia influence started with Godzilla (1954) and instead sets the action in feudal Japan, amidst a tale of savage warlords. In fact, for the most part, it plays more like a classic Samurai film than a monster movie (unsurprisingly, as director Kimiyoshi Yasuda later directed several films in the excellent Zatoichi series)
The plot centres around the overthrow of Lord Hanabasa by the evil Samanosuke and his men, who take over when the peasants are in the throes of a ceremony designed to keep the demon god Daimajin imprisoned in a mountain. Hanabasa and his wife are killed, but their son and daughter escape with the aid of Kogenta, a Samurai, and the priestess who was presiding over the ceremony. They end up retreating to a temple under a waterfall, opposite the mountain where the Daimajin is imprisoned – his great stone face peering out from the mountainside.
Ten years pass and the children grew to adulthood, swearing revenge on Samanosuke, who by now has the villagers in bondage, working as slaves, denying a man the chance to see his dying wife and generally behaving like a nasty man. Kogenta travels to the village but gets captured and hung upside down by Samanosuke, and a small boy (the son of the slave with the dying wife) travels to the priestess and the children, Tadafumi and Kozasa, to bring them the news. Tadafumi attempts a rescue but gets himself captured instead. The priestess goes to bargain for their release and gets herself killed for her troubles, and Samanosuke orders what he believes to be ‘the statue’ of Daimajin to be destroyed...However, when his men attempt to wedge a giant chisel into the statue’s head, they get a giant-sized surprise in return!
As with most Japanese giant monster films from the period, there is not much giant monster action until twenty minutes before the end – however, in this case, unlike the sometimes interminable plots of the later Godzilla movies which invariably involved annoying children and space aliens (sometimes annoying space children), what is here is well-acted and interesting, and extremely well shot and directed. At times it’s easy to forget the genre of the film one is watching and believe you are indeed watching a serious drama about a barbaric warlord, in fact, one of the most impressive things about this film is that when the giant monster mayhem finally gets going, the feel of the film remains consistent – some fantastical elements have already been introduced (the young boy encountering spirits and skeletal hands in the forest is very effective), for instance, albeit slowly. The rampage itself, is, of course, the highlight of the film – and the special effects are quite literally stunning for a film from 1966 - In fact once or twice I found myself scratching my head as to how certain shots were pulled off (well, I don’t THINK they built a 300 foot tall stone samurai for the purposes of the film. I could be wrong!) also, without spoilering, the nature of some of the Daimajin’s revenge is rather poetic, and such small details as the colour of the sky when the demon is on-screen are simply breathtaking.

I will recommend Daimajin without reservation to most viewers – Certainly one of the best monster movies I have ever seen, and speaking as a hardened Godzilla fan, that’s high praise indeed.

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