It was only last summer that I finally got the opportunity to start watching a genre that I'd always been deeply interested in, Kaiju. I watched the Showa era Godzilla films, Shin Godzilla, Mothra and all twelve Gamera movies. It was later in that summer that I saw that Arrow Video were going to release a box set containing the three Daimajin films, a kaiju series that I'd never heard of. Unfortunately, I only learned about it the day after it was released and, by then, it seemed to be unavailable. The next few months I would look yearningly at the store pages, hoping to see it relisted once again but to no avail. Interestingly, a friend of mine in Britain noticed that it was available on Amazon on her side (I didn't even know that Ireland and Britain were shown different pages on Amazon!) and bought it for me with me reimbursing her later. Now, having finally been able to watch these three films, I wanted to share my thoughts on them, particularly compared to other kaiju films.
Easily the most distinctive aspect of the Daimajin series is its setting. In contrast to so many other kaiju films which are set in the contemporary era, the Daimajin films are set in the Edo period and are, for all intents and purposes, jidaigeki films. This aspect, in particular, is something that I really want to emphasise. I didn't realise that, going into these films, the jidaigeki component of these films was so prominent. The majority of each film deals with the struggles of a village or kingdom that end up in trouble. At the same time, they worship a god in the form of a giant statue that, in their darkest moment, they pray to for help. This is where Daimajin himself comes in but I confess that I was quite caught off guard by how little screen time he has overall. In the Godzilla or Gamera movies, the kaiju tended to appear relatively early in the story and the plots tended to revolve around dealing with them or another monster. The fact that Daimajin is so restrained in this regard is a little bit surprising but I also very much believe that it helps to carve out the franchise's identity within the kaiju genre.
The first Daimajin film, simply called Daimajin, opens up with a coup d'état that overthrows the local lord, Hanabusa Tadakiyo, which sends his children, who are also protected by a loyal samurai, into hiding in the mountains. Notably, these mountains are where a statue of a god called Daimajin resides and it's said that his spirit is trapped within it. The rest of the story covers the efforts of the children, the samurai who takes care of them and some other villagers to resist the new lord and his cruelty. The story and characters are quite engaging although the fact that it seems so separate to Daimajin himself did throw me off a bit. Nonetheless, I did ultimately find myself enjoying the first film quite a bit.
The second Daimajin film is called Return of Daimajin and sees a conflict break out when a warlord invades a neighbouring state. These states are surrounding a lake in which an island containing the statue of Daimajin resides. While a little repetitious when compared to the first film, I actually ended up enjoying the second film even more, probably due to the fact that I knew it was going to be more jidaigeki than kaiju. Besides that, the characters were endearing, the finale was exciting and I had a great time.
Now we get to the third Daimajin film, Wrath of Daimajin. The third movie follows a group of kids who must traverse the treacherous nearby mountain in order to rescue the loggers from their village who have been kidnapped by a nearby lord to use as slave labour. I was first quite intrigued by the film as it seemed to be doing something a little different from the other two. Unfortunately, this results, in my personal opinion, in easily the worst of the three films. The kid characters themselves are annoying and unlikeable, the villains are bumbling and incompetent when pursuing these children and it felt like the film, which isn't that long at 87 minutes, moved at a glacial pace. The climax of the film is quite fun once Daimajin comes to life and I do appreciate that they were trying something different with the last Daimajin movie. However, the sheer lack of enjoyment that I got from Wrath of Daimajin reminds me of the very worst that Gamera has to offer, those being Gamera vs. Viras and Gamera: Super Monster, and it remains as a stain on an otherwise fine kaiju franchise.
With regards to the special effects, I actually think that the Daimajin movies are some of the better looking Showa era kaiju films that I've seen. The sets and costumes are fantastic and very much reminded me of when I was playing Sekiro recently. Daimajin himself, of course, is where the special effects truly stand out. Clearly using suitmation as so many other kaiju films do, his design is simple but distinctive with his blue skin tone and wrathful facial expression. I was also particularly impressed with some of the interactions he has with the other characters with some excellent shots of hordes of soldiers attacking Daimajin's foot or the way he picks up some characters standing out to me as being better than any of the special effects I'd seen in the Showa era Godzilla or Gamera films.
I also have to give props to the score which is generally fantastic. As I was watching these films, I was quickly reminded of the superb music of the Godzilla movies so imagine my surprise when I saw that Akira Ifukube, the composer for the first several Godzilla films, listed in the credits as the composer! Unfortunately, the music became less memorable and more irritating in the third film as it tried to emphasise the comedic antics of the child characters. Even then though, besides the special effects, the score remained one of the best things about the third film.
With regards to the release itself, Arrow Video have done another outstanding job releasing these films and it's clear to me why they are quickly becoming my favourite distributor of Blu-rays. The three films are housed in a very handsome case that's quite similar to the releases of the Showa and Heisei Gamera films with the small differences being that you lift a lid at the top to get access to the films and the blurb is separately released on a card sheet rather than on the box itself. There is an incredible booklet included that numbers about 100 pages and contains a wealth of information about the movies from the likes of Jonathan Clements, Ed Godziszewski, Robin Gatto and many others. Additionally, you get art cards and a poster that shows either the newly commissioned artwork or the original movie poster. With regards to on-disc extras themselves, you get the English dub that was produced for these films as well as the original Japanese of course, a commentary on each film produced by film experts and historians and several fascinating behind-the-scene extras such as an interview with the cinematographer, video essays, storyboards and more. Truly, Arrow Video continue to reign supreme when it comes to their impeccable releases of kaiju movies and they must be commended for the great effort they put into their products.
While I wouldn't say that the Daimajin movies manage to reach the heights of the best that the Godzilla or Gamera series' can offer, the first two films remain very enjoyable and are a distinct take on the kaiju genre. It's just unfortunate that the series ends with such a movie as Wrath of Daimajin.