Daimajin By Tom Wilmot.

Despite a studio system in decline, monster movies continued to roar on into the Japanese film industry of the 1960s. While icons like Godzilla, Mothra, and many other gargantuan creatures dominated screens through studio Toho, rival studio Daiei threw their hat in the ring with the enduring Gamera series. However, while Daiei’s Tokyo studio churned out giant turtle movies aimed at kids, the Kyoto base was cooking up the Daimajin trilogy. With every entry shot and released within eight months during 1966, the films make up an overlooked if short-lived series. Much like Daiei’s Gamera films were last year, Daimajin has been given the full Arrow Video treatment, with the label releasing a colossal set worthy of the fearsome god.

The plot of each Daimajin film is strikingly similar, with the same general framework being used for the entire series. The first two entries are the most alike, with the basic plot involving a distinctly evil faction taking control of an otherwise peaceful clan. The subsequent misdemeanours of this invading force, often quite sadistic, are met with unsuccessful resistance from the desperate locals, who look to their local god for salvation. Marking a slight change in direction, the third movie focuses on a group of village children who cross the cursed Majin mountain in a brave attempt to save their enslaved relatives. In every film in the trilogy, judgment comes courtesy of Daimajin, an ancient god in the form of a giant statue that wreaks merciless havoc on the overtly evil forces. It’s worth noting that each film takes place during the Sengoku (warring states) period of Japanese history, a chaotic 150 years or so during which numerous clans battled it out for power before the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century.

First-time viewers of the franchise will be sure to notice that it takes an awfully long time for the titular god to make his explosive appearance. In fact, it’s not usually until around the last fifteen minutes that justice is served in one destructive form or another. However, far from being a drag until this climax, the Daimajin films are instead engaging chanbara (swordplay) flicks in their own right. You could even argue, as some experts do in the supplementals, that the movies belong more to the chanbara genre of samurai action films in which Daiei specialised, than the kaiju genre that often saw the featured monster dominate the screen from start to finish. In the first two entries of the franchise, in particular, there’s a fair amount of intrigue and entertainment to be found in the form of daring rescues, peasant rebellions, and thrilling samurai skirmishes. While most of these encounters see our heroes ultimately fail, they all help build-up to what tends to be an immensely cathartic finale.

In all three films the climactic appearance of Daimajin and the subsequent carnage that ensues is ferociously entertaining. The stern-looking god blasts apart everything in his path, whether it be fragile wooden gates, unavailing canons, or an array of terrified samurai. Daimajin’s triumphant arrival is gratifying in every entry, with the vengeful statue using several supernatural abilities to strike down evildoers, including conjuring whirlpools and calling down lightning. Wrath of Daimajin even sees the first use of the kami’s giant sword, which is hugely satisfying given that it’s left painfully untouched for the first two films. Without spoiling too much, the villains get their comeuppance in each movie, usually in a surprisingly violent manner that involves some form of poetic justice. While the antagonist’s demise is brutal in all three films, it’s arguably most enjoyable in Return of Daimajin, as the two warlords bringing misery to our heroes are especially despicable.

Of course, I would be remiss to discuss the Daimajin films without touching on the special effects, which come courtesy of seasoned SFX director Yoshiyuki Kuroda. One of the reasons that the Daimajin series came to fruition in the first place is because of the ambitions of Daiei to rival the tokusatsu (special effects) movies of other studios, specifically Toho. Thanks to the careful approach employed by Kuroda and a focus on achieving realism rather than just showcasing the special effects, the Daimajin films feature some of the most impressive visuals of the Showa era’s monster films. The detailed miniatures, seamless integration of blue screen and live-action, and the restraint shown regarding Daimajin’s appearances all work to make the vengeful god a far more convincing entity than one might expect from a 1960’s monster franchise. Even the more outlandish visual effects, such as the parting of the water in Return of Daimajin, are remarkably well-executed for the time, especially considering the production constraints Daiei would have had in comparison to a contemporary Hollywood studio.

Any Daimajin box set worth its salt would have an array of bonus features that further explore this mostly overlooked chapter in kaiju cinema, and as always, Arrow Video deliver. An introduction from critic Kim Newman touches on some of the influences behind the Daimajin series, notably the legend of the Golem, with Julien Duvivier’s 1936 film Le Golem being of particular inspiration. Newman also discusses the viability of the series and notes that the films are less of a trilogy in the traditional sense, as the narratives aren’t connected. One could indeed watch the movies in any order and not be confused, although you could argue that the progression of Daimajin’s abilities between films does add some level of continuity to the series.

Next up is a deep dive into the trilogy’s special effects through a video essay put together by Ed Godziszewski. The Japanese film historian takes us through the origin of Daimajin’s appearance, with the initial look coming from ancient ritual statues in Japan, called haniwa. Perhaps the most amusing detail behind the kami’s design is that his prominent cleft chin was directly inspired by none other than Kirk Douglas, though I can’t see much more resemblance to the golden age Hollywood star. Godziszewski also raises the curtain on more of the technicalities behind bringing Daimajin to life, paying special attention to the ¥10 million blue screen installed by Daiei that was, somewhat ironically, never used again once the trilogy was complete.

Further insight into the making of the Daimajin films is provided via a fascinating interview with the charming Professor Yoneo Ota, director of the Toy Film Museum in Kyoto (an institution well worth looking up for those interested in film history). Ota served as an equipment handler on Return of Daimajin during the summer of 1966 and was even involved in the resurrection of a Daimajin statue that, at one time, could be found at the entrance of Daiei’s Kyoto studio. As well as providing an interesting account of how Daiei Kyoto operated at the time of the Daimajin trilogy’s production, Ota also highlights the importance of storyboards to the making of the film. Remarkably, some storyboards for Return of Daimajin have survived and are available in this release as part of a side-by-side comparison with the final footage.

Also included in the set is an extensive archival interview with cinematographer Fujio Morita, who worked intimately on all three Daimajin films. The late cameraman, who passed away in 2014, worked on many features during his long career, including as an assistant cameraman on Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. He discusses everything from childhood memories of Nikkatsu’s old Kyoto studio to the difficulties posed by the Daimajin trilogy. The cameraman infamously worked himself into the ground during the production of the films with the project taking a significant toll on his health. This almost ninety-minute interview offers a wonderful look back at the career of one of Daiei’s greatest cinematographers.

There are also three audio commentaries included in Arrow’s set, with each film in the trilogy being given the complete supplemental treatment. Covering the first entry is Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV, who talks about how the year of the trilogy’s release, 1966, was a significant one for tokusatsu media in general, what with the television debuts of Ultra Q and Ultraman, as well as several other fantasy film releases. In addition, Galbraith pays special attention to many of the lesser-known actors in the film and provides revealing quotes from performers involved in the production, including the likes of Yoshihiko Aoyama.

The commentary for Return of Daimajin is a joint effort from former Midnight Eye editors Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp. Both cinephiles have a deep understanding of the different periods of Japanese cinema history and do an excellent job of placing the Daimajin films within the context of their era. The most interesting tangent explored during their conversation focuses on the oddly neglected 1961 film Buddha, which marked Japanese cinema’s first foray into 70mm. Sharp, in particular, is in his element when discussing the more obscure features that are intimately connected to the fabric of Japanese film history.

Providing the commentary for Wrath of Daimajin is All the Anime’s very own Jonathan Clements. In a rather shocking revelation, Clements details that roughly 40 minutes of footage was lost from the film due to an accident at the developing lab just before the end of production. With this in mind, it’s a wonder that Wrath of Daimajin made it to Japanese theatres at all, let alone in a coherent state.

The release is rounded out by a mightily thick booklet that contains a selection of behind the scenes stills and a whopping seven informative essays that celebrate various aspects of the trilogy. Everything from the booming score from legendary composer Akira Ifukube to further details behind the special effects is discussed, as Clements and Godziszewski also lend their writing talents to add to their on-disc supplementals. Anime fans will be most interested in reading Kevin Derendorf’s record of Daimajin’s place in popular culture over the years, with the vengeful god appearing in various manga series and even showing up in an episode of the much-beloved Urusei Yatsura anime (specifically episode 162).

There are those who may pine for Daimajin’s return, with the brevity of the series perhaps being one of its most surprising aspects. A television adaptation of the first film did make its way to the small screen in 2010, but a feature return doesn’t seem likely any time soon. However, if these three movies are the only ones that will ever see the fearsome kami grace the silver screen, then they’re entirely worthy efforts. The Daimajin series is a remarkable feat of film in the context of 1960’s Japanese cinema, with the consistency in quality and the talent behind the camera meaning that the franchise is arguably the finest of studio Daiei’s monster films. Arrow Video’s limited edition boxset is a wonderful way to enjoy this unique batch of films, with exceptional effort having been made to make this the most comprehensive Daimajin release to date.

The Daimajin trilogy is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video.Sep 3, 2021Tagged with:
Arrow VideocinemaDaimajinJapanTom Wilmot

Books: Ghibliotheque By Andrew Osmond.

The Ghibliotheque podcast started in 2018, and soon became an institution. It offered a journey through the films of Studio Ghibli, presented by Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham. Leader was a paid-up Ghibli fan already – you can see his video overview of the studio here, made for the BBC’s “Inside Stories” series. Cunningham hadn’t seen any of Ghibli’s films at the outset, and the original podcasts were balanced between Leader’s contextualisations and Cunningham’s first-time reactions.

After working through Ghibli’s oeuvre, the podcast moved on, covering Satoshi Kon and the films of Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (Wolfwalkers). But it frequently revisits Ghibli, interviewing numerous big-name fans of the studio, including Jonathan Ross, Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe) and Aardman’s co-founder Peter Lord. It’s also snagged interviews with Toshio Suzuki, Goro Miyazaki, Steve Alpert and Michael Dudok de Wit. Leader and Cunningham even podcasted from Japan, where they visited the Ghibli Museum and Studio Ponoc.

You can hear the podcast’s old and new episodes on Apple (which has exclusive bonus segments), acast and Spotify. Now Leader and Cunningham have distilled their Ghibli thoughts and findings into a book, Ghibliotheque: The Unofficial Guide to the Movies of Studio Ghibli. It’s one of the most attractive anime books I’ve seen, a sturdy oversized hardback wrapped in the soothing colours of Totoro. It’s smaller than the Ghibli art books, but it’s portable while still feeling very solid; you can rap your knuckles on it satisfyingly. While there’ll be a Kindle version, that will inevitably lose that charm.

It’s also packed with colour pictures – at least one per page, with plenty of full-page and double-page stills. Admittedly, many are familiar to Ghibli fans, and there’s little in the way of concept art, model sheets and the like. But there are still some very good touches. For example, there’s a page-sized poster for nearly every Ghibli film (the exception, for whatever reason, is From Up on Poppy Hill).

There are also photos from the Ghibli Museum, including a lovely double-page spread of the studio’s gorgeous artworks pinned blithely to a wall. There are helpful photos of Ghibli’s staff, and of interesting moments – a live Paris concert performance of Totoro, and the “real” glider made by Nausicaa fans. There are glimpses of the authors themselves, geeking out in Japan – for instance, re-enacting a scene from Whisper of the Heart, or brandishing an Only Yesterday poster they found in the otaku mall of Nakano Broadway.

The book confines itself to Ghibli’s features. There’s a section on the TV film Ocean Waves, but only passing references to the studio’s museum shorts and On Your Mark; to proto-Ghibli films like The Little Norse Prince and Castle of Cagliostro; and to Ghibli’s producer role in the Polygon-animated series, Ronja, the Robber’s Daughterdirected by Goro Miyazaki.

The book starts with Nausicaa, with the mandatory disclaimer that it’s not actually a Ghibli film. Fair enough; Nausicaa’s been bundled with the Ghibli canon for decades. It’s a slight pity, though, that the chapter doesn’t namecheck the actual studio that made the film, the eternally unsung TopCraft. From there, the book rattles through the decades all the way to last year’s Earwig and the Witch.

One thing which raises my eyebrows is that the book includes The Red Turtle as part of the Ghibli canon, whereas I’d put it in the canon of its own esteemed creator, Michael Dudok de Wit. As outlined on this blog, Ghibli co-produced the film, but the studio’s creative involvement was limited to a few informal suggestions, and they were really suggestions. The whole point of the exercise was to have a film by Dudok de Wit.

Moreover, Red Turtle was animated thousands of miles away from Ghibli, and involved none of its artists. The book asserts that, “Make no mistake, The Red Turtle is a Studio Ghibli film,” with “clear Ghibli genealogy.” But that genealogy is far more obvious in Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flowerwhich involved loads of Ghibli artists. Mary doesn’t get a section in the book, though it’s discussed in the entry on When Marnie Was There. Of course, Ghibli would never give so many pictures to a book which featured a rival studio’s film!

But if that suggests the book’s commentary might be steered by Ghibli, that’s absolutely not the case. The opinions in the book are plainly the authors’ own, and forthright to a degree that’s startling. For example, there’s a clear itemising of all the times Ghibli seems to have crushed and frustrated the work of artists who aren’t Miyazaki or Takahata, artists who might have made Ghibli’s future far more secure than it is now.

The most famous of those artists is Mamoru Hosoda. His experience as a young director of getting thrown off Howl’s Moving Castle is highlighted in the relevant chapter. But the book points out a precedent – Sunao Katabuchi, future director of In This Corner of the World, was similarly turfed off directing Kiki’s Delivery Service. I knew he was on the film, but not that he was meant to be Kiki’s director. The Ghibliotheque book’s references cite an interview in which this gossip is suggested but not really confirmed; one has to dig a little deeper to find a Japanese source that supports it [I pressed the All the Anime Bat Signal, and Jonathan Clements dug it up for me].

The book also points up Miyazaki’s throwing callous barbs at another fledgling director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, during the making of Arrietty. Then there are the trials of Yoshiaki Nishimura, who worked as producer on Princess Kaguya. It was Nishimura, the book notes, who had to carry the can for the film in Takahata’s place, telling the press that Kaguya would miss its release date. Not long after, Nishimura quit Ghibli to found Studio Ponoc, where Yonebayashi went to direct Mary.

The book stops short of joining the dots between Hosoda, Katabuchi, Yonebayashi and Nishimura, but then it doesn’t have to. You could add a comment by animator Aya Suzuki to this blog: “Between Japanese animators I know, Ghibli doesn’t have the best reputation, not because it’s a bad studio but it can be quite disheartening to an artist.” Miyazaki himself wrote of his youthful frustrations as an animator at his first employer, Toei in the 1960s, and how he and his colleagues had to flee the coop. Plus ça change?

As this thread suggests, one pleasure of this book is putting the Ghibli narrative together. Ghibliotheque draws heavily on two recent first-hand accounts, Steve Alpert’s Sharing a House With the Never-Ending Man and Toshio Suzuki’s Mixing Work With Pleasure. Another thread is Ghibli’s relationship with Western markets, from the early infamy of Warriors of the Wind, through the Disney distribution deal in the 1990s, and then Ghibli’s switch from Disney to GKIDS as its American distributor in 2014.

The book notes that the highest-grossing Ghibli film in American cinemas wasn’t Spirited Away, nor Howl, and it certainly wasn’t Mononoke. No, it was Disney’s version of Arrietty! Since then, the book notes, Ghibli films “would receive modest, targeted US theatrical releases by the animation-focused distributor GKIDS, a company more attuned to the Studio’s prestige status… and less concerned with producing a blockbuster.” Excellent stuff, though it’s a shame the book doesn’t mention Arrietty’s different dub in Britain. That had a young actor called Tom Holland, who’s now in some films about spiders.

Ghibliotheque is divided into separate chapters on the 24 films, though some, understandably, get more space than others. Sensibly, the first part of each chapter sets up the context, followed by a review that covers one or two pages. There isn’t the leisurely discursive analysis of Susan Napier’s Miyazakiworld or Christopher Bolton’s Interpreting Anime. The reviews are closer to long magazine reviews, written in a breezy, informal style. Again, it’s a wise approach, although podcast fans might miss the sense of dialogue and friendly disagreement between the book’s authors. The foreword explains Leader wrote the “history” text, while the reviews are by Cunningham.

Those reviews have no huge shocks – no claim that Spirited Away or Fireflies is grossly overrated, or that Poppy Hill is Ghibi’s one true masterpiece. The book might ruffle a few feathers with the claim that Tales from Earthsea isn’t that bad, deserving a passing grade. The review of The Cat Returns sounds more disappointed, though the writer doesn’t specify which film he thinks is better (or less bad). If you do want to see Cunningham’s rankings and star ratings, they’re given on the letterboxd website, which reveals Cunningham ranks Earthsea above not only Cat Returns, but also Howl and Ocean Waves. (Leader disagrees.)

The book’s homoerotic take on Ocean Waves, perhaps Ghibli’s least-discussed film, is especially interesting, prompting me to rewatch the film. I can go along with some of the argument, which highlights details I’d never registered, though I’m not convinced by its conclusion. The book claims Ocean Waves is a should-be-gay romance that loses its nerve; for me, the film acknowledges overlapping attractions and teen feelings that may only resolve when perspectives change over time and distance. I was also surprised how easy the book goes on When Marnie Was There, which is often criticised on very similar grounds. Of course, these arguments run on – look at the discourse over Pixar’s Luca – and I’ve touched on them in another article.

Of the films by Ghibli’s “main” directors, Howl also gets off lightly for a film that Cunningham rates worse than Earthsea (“Who wants a Hayao Miyazaki film that is just okay?”). Takahata’s Yamadas is described mildly as “testing.” The reviews give most love to the likes of Totoro, Mononoke and Whisper, while Grave of the Fireflies is “an incredible work of art.”

But it would sound weird to speak of loving Fireflies, and that reflects a divide that could be discussed further. It’s the double-bill twin of Fireflies, Totoro, that the book claims is Ghibli, the studio’s quintessence. Totoro is a Miyazaki film, of course. And it’s undeniable that the popular perception of Ghibli, in Japan and abroad, is bound up with one director only, and we don’t mean Takahata.

That isn’t denying the greatness of Fireflies or Kaguya, but acknowledging the lopsided nature of an outfit that so much of the audience sees as “the Miyazaki studio.” At one point, Ghibliotheque suggests lightheartedly that Takahata was the visionary, experimental Lennon to Miyazaki’s populist McCartney. But in terms of public recognition beyond fans and critics, Takahata is nearer Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe.

It’s not the only time we’ve had this situation in animation. Earlier, I mentioned Peter Lord, who founded Aardman Animations with David Sproxton. But how many people on the street automatically think of Aardman as “the Nick Park studio”? (Own up if you thought Park directed the Shaun the Sheep movies, for instance.) But the situation with Ghibli is more extreme. In 2013, Miyazaki’s least populist film, The Wind Rises, earned $113 million at Japan’s box-office. Takahata’s Kaguya, released months later, couldn’t get a quarter of that.

The odds seem against Studio Ghibli living any longer than Miyazaki, at least as a maker of animation. And yet Ghibli will outlast Miyazaki, in terms of the “Ghibli genealogy” cited earlier; its DNA has seeped into so many other films. There’s Studio Ponoc and Mary and the Witch’s Flower. There are non-Japanese films like Wolfwalkers (compared by Tomm Moore to Mononoke) and April and the Extraordinary World. There’s also such diverse anime as Okko’s InnPatema Inverted, Weathering with YouChildren of the SeaGiovanni’s Island and In This Corner of the World. Each was made by a different studio and a different director in the last decade.

Giovanni’s Island and In This Corner recall Takahata’s work more than Miyazaki’s. So did Mirai by Mamoru Hosoda, the first non-Ghibli anime feature nominated for an Oscar (in 2019). Hosoda confirmed Takahata’s huge influence on his work when I interviewed him for this blog. That’s worth remembering now, as Hosoda cheerfully trash-talks Miyazaki at film festivals.

Another thing to remember; an apocalyptic image in Ghibli’s not-really first film, Nausicaa. The film’s giant insects, the Ohmu, rush for endless miles over land. Finally, they die, only for their bodies to seed a new eco-system which engulfs the world. If that’s Ghibli’s legacy in animation, Miyazaki would approve.

Gundam NT an Article from https://blog.alltheanime.com/

This blog frequently highlights the fact that many Gundam anime are designed to be accessible to newcomers. Gundam NT, quite honestly, isn’t one of them. Firstly, the film’s very much a sequel to the lavish series Gundam Unicorn, which is a good starting point for newbies, covered on the blog here. Gundam NT picks up several of Unicorn’s story threads, and has appearances by some of its characters, though the protagonists are new.

(Warning: Some broad spoilers for Gundam Unicorn follow.)

But there’s more to Gundam NT than that. The story also dives back into the early interlinked Gundam titles that established the history of the Universal Century, as Gundam’s classic timeline is known. There are references to the first Gundam series, its sequel Zeta Gundam and the film Char’s Counter Attack, all available from Anime Limited. Indeed, the title Gundam Narrative has a sly double meaning. It’s the name of a giant robot in the film, but also reflects how the story interweaves Gundam anime through the decades.

The main story takes place in UC0097, a year after Gundam Unicorn and eighteen years after the first Gundam. Much like UnicornNT reveals a hitherto untold secret history of the Universal Century. We learn that back at the time of the first Gundam (UC0079)when the Zeons in space rained destruction on the Earth, there were legends of “Miracle” children who foresaw the disaster to come, and were even able to save some people before it happened.

Eighteen years later, things seem more peaceful, following Unicorn. But in space, a secret hunt is taking place. The target is an elusive golden Gundam named the Phenex, a Gundam Unicorn with the same staggering powers as its “brothers.” Its pilot seems to be female, but also something beyond human. Two factions are chasing the Phenex. One is a rogue Zeon force, including a grinning maniacal pilot called Zoltan, who’ll remind older anime fans irresistibly of Dilandau in Vision of Escaflowne. The other faction is from Earth, and it includes a young man called Jona who’s bent on catching the Phenex, which is linked to the most important person in his life…

As the film goes on, more is revealed about Jona’s backstory, and how he was thought to be one of the “Miracle” children. It’s a dark story, full of cruel experiments – if you remember the character of Four in Zeta Gundam, you may guess where it’s heading. But this is also a story of childhood friends, and a yearning for when that friendship was unsullied. Some of the remembered scenes, and the emotions that go with them, recall the anime of Makoto Shinkai, especially The Place Promised in Our Early Days.

Gundam NT also has something in common with another SF franchise title – the live-action American series Star Trek: Discovery. That’s another glossy 2010s space opera, but it referred extensively to the original 1960s Star Trek. There was even one 2019 Discovery episode (“If Memory Serves”) which has a direct flashback to a 1960s story, despite the very obvious contrast in visual style and production values. Similarly, Gundam NT is a glossy-looking anime that’s not afraid to drop in flashbacks to old TV Gundams with far quainter visuals; the first Gundam was made nearly forty years earlier.

Like Gundam UnicornNT is steeped in the themes and ideas of Yoshiyuki Tomino, Gundam’s creator, even if it doesn’t seem to have involved him. The film was based on “Phoenix Hunting”, a prose Gundam story by Harutoshi Fukui, and published as part of his Gundam Unicorn book series which inspired the anime of the same name. Gundam NT was directed by Shunichi Yoshizawa, who’d previously directed a couple of episodes of Gundam Thunderbolt in its original format as a web serial.

Despite a massive “carnage on an inhabited space colony” set-piece like the one in Unicorn’s first part, NT doesn’t feel quite like a new episode of Unicorn. The main characters are different; moreover, the images don’t have that extra level of hefty Akira-like dimensionality which made Unicorn so distinctive. However, an obvious point of continuity is the music. Like UnicornNT is scored by our friend Hiroyuki Sawano of Attack on Titan fame, and again the anime sounds very like Titan at times. On NT, Sawano worked with the rock singer LiSA (Risa Oribe), who you may know for her contributions to Angel Beats!, Sword Art Online and recently Demon Slayer.

Andrew Osmond is the author of the recently reissued BFI Film Classic on Spirited AwayMobile Suit Gundam NT is released in the UK by Anime Limited.