Spiked to Life
The Daimajin films convey a certain post-war nervousness for Japan, hidden under a veil of feudal-era duels. Here, it’s warlord Samanosuke (Ryutaro Gomi) overtaking a small village, enslaving the people, and robbing them of their culture. It’s grisly and perversely cruel at times, Samanosuke shrugging off the myth and religious fervor. The sentiment is entirely that of an authoritative force, dismantling what was to replace what now is, undoubtedly prescient themes to an audience still reeling from the American occupation.
The village’s rightful ruler is banished, living in a cave for a decade as Samanosuke’s law oppresses the people. In that time, everyone prays to Daimajin, a stone idol. Even the most fervent believers begin to break, asking, “Did all of this really happen?” The dissection is almost complete; Samanosuke nears total victory, as if Japan were reeling, teetering on total loss.
In this fable, Daimajin doesn’t rise when evil takes control. He doesn’t strike when attacked, shedding blood when men drive a spike into his helmet. Daimajin only appears at a moment of self-sacrifice, utter defeat, when all other options were exhausted. It takes the willingness of one to put herself above others for Daimajin to appear in full.
It’s odd in that Daimajin seems to blame the victims for their inability to rise up or fend for themselves. Help from this cruel god comes only after a desperate realization, as if the nation must contend with their own loss first before being given a chance to succeed. The subtext is nuanced and similar in all three films, if certainly more potent in the first given its place.
Looking through the broader culture, Daiei undoubtedly saw potential cross-marketing with the rise in samurai epics via the Zaitoichi series and the studio’s giant monster success, Gamera. While giant monsters descended toward colorful matinees, Daimajin’s oppressive atmosphere stands out for being emotive, and bringing genuine fear back to the genre. Visual effects utilize gargantuan miniatures and crisp composites, along with a full size puppet to instill fear. Fantastical in concept, but unnervingly convincing in its finished form, creating something distinctive amid a mess of forgettable knock-offs.
Previously issued on Blu-ray by Mill Creek, Arrow’s newer mastering and encoding make for an obvious upgrade. Color leaps out immediately, giving period costumes a vivid boost. Primaries stick out, lush and bold. There’s an intensity Daimajin never had on prior releases, and compared to the ancient DVDs, a minor miracle.
A nearly pristine print shows hardly any damage, limited to just a few specks of dust on rare occasions. There’e no fading evident, the contrast thick, the black levels intense. When flames erupt during the first act against a blackened night sky, it’s catalog Blu-ray bliss, renewing Daimajin’s visual range in full.
Generous resolution is able to bring forward previously unseen textures, facial definition prominent and the forest environments splendid even in wide shots. Encoding struggles a little against hazy/foggy scenery, but otherwise resolves a thin grain structure without worry.
The highest levels in Akira Ifukube’s score rattle a bit, unable to hold together, but it’s tolerable enough given the overall fidelity in this mono track excels. For vintage audio, this is exceptional clarity and definition. A dramatic low-end from drums sounds equally pure, even powerful. Sensational work by Arrow here.
Uber-knowledgeable Stuart Galbraith IV explores the production through a commentary track. Kim Newman spends 15-minutes introducing the series in a video chat. Then, Ed Godziszewski chats about the visual effects processes over 17-minutes. Alternate US credits, an image gallery, and trailers round this one out.
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Daimajin’s emotional strength, dread, and period setting create a distinctive monster from Japan’s kaiju golden age.
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