Daimajin (1966)

Regular readers may recall that whenever possible, I like to surprise my ten year-old son with the details of what we’re watching in a way that really, nobody else gets to experience. Previously, we started watching Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) without him knowing that one partner would be a ghost, and he may be the only viewer in the world to not know what the “them” in Them! were. He didn’t even know that Edward Scissorhands really did have scissors for hands. So this morning, we sat down to watch 1966’s Daimajin, better known in this country as Majin: Monster of Terror, and I told him we were going to watch a samurai movie.

See, I think this setup made this experience really, really fun. Late last month, Arrow Video put out a remarkable Blu-ray box set of the three Daimajin films, which were made simultaneously by Daiei in 1966 and released at four-month intervals. I’m sure that my small audience knows to go someplace like DVD Beaver for really detailed restoration comparison and analysis, so I’ll just say that these look really impressive. The whole enterprise, from picture to sound to special features to packaging, just shines with love. I preordered my set from the good people at Diabolik DVD, and I’d say you could click the images to go there and order your own set, except that mine arrived on Monday and now, six days later, Diabolik’s already sold out, so you can click the image and get on the waitlist.

Anyway, I’m very, very glad I didn’t overpay for an older DVD of this as I’d been considering, because the new set is just so beautiful, and we had such a good time. Settled in for a samurai film – his first – we watched the pretty unexceptional story unfold. By that, I mean that it’s a story told well, but it isn’t the most unique tale in fiction. The local warlord is peaceful and indulgent, and once took in a drifter, who rose up the ranks and became a trusted lieutenant. Years pass, and, inevitably, the man betrays his lord with a giant company of brigands and murderers loyal to him. The warlord’s children escape in the company of one of the few good men remaining, and take refuge on a mountaintop next to a breathtaking waterfall. Ten years pass before they are needed to save the village from slavery and oppression.

The beautiful thing is that this film spends an hour grounded in the real world, with passing references to gods and hauntings and villager superstitions. We get hints that there may be something supernatural in this land, but then we see quick explanations for what we thought we saw. Then the villain sends his men to destroy a statue that keeps inspiring the oppressed villagers that their mountain god will save them, and this happens. The statue starts bleeding.

So obviously, my ten year-old kid is crazy for giant monsters, in part because he’s ten, and in part because he’s my kid. But the Daimajin films have a reputation for only revealing their showstopper at the climax. I really didn’t want him to judge this as a movie supposedly about a giant monster where you have to wade through a whole lot more human stuff than any Godzilla picture to get to the meat. I was reminded of that New Avengers where if you go in waiting for the giant rat to show up, you’re bound to be frustrated and disappointed. The best way to pull the rug out from under the audience is to do to them what the movie does to those fool warriors.

Having said all that, our son was patient and curious, but honestly not completely thrilled with this movie until it does its magic trick. It’s far less gory than many Japanese swords-and-samurai movies that I’ve seen, as it was intended for general audiences, although some of the tortures may be pretty intense for younger viewers. But he was never restless. I’d like to think the gorgeous location might have had something to do with that. If this movie doesn’t leave you wanting to hike to that waterfall, haunted or not, something must be wrong with you.

Our son claims that he “kind of” saw the statue coming to life, although its transformation into a blue-faced beast of anger was a huge surprise. Majin goes to give the evil, oppressive warlord his just desserts, and the kid was in heaven. Perhaps modern militaries might have a weapon or two to deploy against forty-foot stone monsters with spikes in their forehead, but these baddies are a little outclassed. The kid absolutely loved Majin’s “path of destruction” (our son certainly does enjoy that phrase) and whooped when I showed him that the box contains two additional Majin films.

I did warn him that the law of diminishing returns sets in immediately with this series. The other two have some fine set pieces, but they really don’t reinvent the wheel. Still, I can’t recommend Arrow’s new set highly enough. They did such a great, great job with the restoration that I went ahead and preordered their forthcoming collection of the same studio’s three “Yokai” ghost/monster films from the sixties. If you don’t get this from Diabolik, get it from somewhere, and don’t tell your kid what it’s about first!

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