Nestled in a mountainside an idol awaited supplicants. Hewn from stone and isolated from the village below, the idol’s only constant companion was the sound of a towering waterfall crashing below. Prayers from acolytes were few and arose only when he moved the earth. This is the world of 1966’s Daimajin. Premiering at a time when Godzilla was the king of the Japanese box office, Daimajin was period drama punctuated by 40 foot-tall rampaging god. In the process of telling its kaiju climaxing tale, Daimajin however serves as perhaps the only example of gothic film making in the kaiju tradition.
The film’s gothic style comes through its use of lighting, music, and shot composition. Daimajin’s gothic aesthetic accentuates and builds the tension and mood in the absence of the rampaging god, known as Arakatsuma. Rumblings in the earth, attributed to the disgruntled god, draw villagers and scorn from the otherwise benevolent leader. Framed through his reassurance of his panicked children, the leader explains their god will protect them from the old god shaking the earth. Villagers, however, do not share this opinion as they rush to perform rituals to appease the occulted god.
Reenacting fabled battles of good against evil in costumes of wood and straw, the villagers pray and gesticulate under firelight and the supervision of a black toothed priestess. This scene echoes the rituals and rites performed in folk horror films in the British tradition. Daimajin does not frame these rituals as strange or farcical, but as deeply important to the spiritual and physical survival of a fading Japan. One example of the change happening to the village is the presence of soldiers bearing muskets. Where only gods could hurl bolts and strike men down, now men could do the same. While subtle and often overlooked, the matchlock muskets of the soldiers is contrasted to the weathered, faceless idol nestled into the mountainside. Dressed in archaic armor, the idol is symbolic of old Japan. Its armor, dating back 800 years of a style long since vanished, in an age of muskets is a visual reminder to the view of the ancient ways contiguous to the bedrock of Japan. The armored god repels the volley of musket fire, further signifying the resilience and invulnerability of old Japan and its gods.
The gothic filmmaking of Daimajin, directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, rumbles to life with the use of smoke and vivid lighting designed to evoke the otherworldly or supernatural. The film starts with a pan through fog shrouded forest and even a howling wolf. Mist engulfs the village, syphoning away any color. A coup overthrows the village old leadership to be replaced with a sadistic, if caricaturish, despot who vows to kill the protector god. When the despot sends a cadre up to destroy the mountain idol, the stone avatar for the god, Yasuda relies on crumbling miniatures and moving sets swirling with smoke and accentuated by flashes of green and white light. A chasm swallows soldiers in a final burst of strange green light, only to draw tight as the maw of the earth. Yasuda’s further use of smoke pierced by a knife-like column of white light creates a visual cue that registers with filmgoers of the western religious tradition as well. Preceding the attempt to kill the mountain god by driving an iron spike through the idol’s forehead, the despot kills the village priestess. Each sword strike weakens her further, but not before she utters a curse upon him. Here Yasuda dramatically and overtly changes the lighting in theater style, dropping background light to pitch dark and isolating the minions, despot and dying priestess in a faded indirect light. This keeps the viewer physically in the space, but psychologically ripped away into a shadow world that shows the supernatural is merely a cursed breath away.
Yasuda’s use of tones of grey in the color film, as well as smart camera work continue to create unsettling feelings in the viewer well before the arrival of the demon god. Sense of dread and uncanny pervade the first two-thirds of the film to eventually give way to an angry god astride an unfaithful world. Released from his mountain keep, the kami lays waste to the village crushing and hurling vassals and soldiers alike. In one startling moment, as the despot attempts to flee the rampaging god, he looks out of a home to see a man being crushed into and through a wall by the massive green patina hand of Arakatsuma. Pulling free the iron stake still lodged in his head Arakatsuma impales the tyrant to a crucifix-like piece of wreckage.
Aesthetically, Daimajin lives in the world of gothic cinema found in the 60s heyday of the Hammer films and not normally associated with Japanese kaiju films of the period. Some may complain about the story pace or lack of destruction by the green hued armored humanoid. I contend the pace is particularly well suited and even mature for a “monster movie” often dismissed by western viewers. The creeping horror well known in gothic cinema in Europe is equally present in Daimajin and deserves a place in the pantheon of classic gothic film making.