Arrow Video made an impact on the kaiju community in 2020 with its cereal box-sized special edition of Gamera: The Complete Collection, which managed to severely outclass Criterion’s Godzilla: The Showa Era Films, 1954 – 1975 release from the year prior. I’ve reviewed both of those series in the past (Gamera and Godzilla), as well as a hypothetical Godzilla vs. Gamera match-up, and regularly return to both monsters when I want to watch something comforting. I’ve never reviewed those boxsets, however, because in both instances I purchased them well after release. In Gamera’s case, I purchased it after the very limited supply had sold out, forcing the price to skyrocket.
In short, they’re the cream of the crop when it comes to kaiju filmmaking and easily the nicest, most well-compiled collector sets of pretty much anything I own. My recommendation is to buy the Godzilla set, which is still available, during Criterion’s biannual 50% off sales, and to buy the Gamera re-releases from Arrow, which replace the now hard-to-find Complete Collection. Of course, the new Gamera releases are very basic and lack the pack-in reprint of the 1990s Gamera comic series, as well as the booklet of interviews and diagrams and maps and and and …
Yeah. That Complete Collection set for Gamera is, simply put, the most fully featured release I’ve ever seen. The Godzilla set is great, and the only way to get many of those Showa films on Blu-ray in the United States, but doesn’t really compare as a set. As films? Godzilla certainly outclasses most of the Gamera set. In the end, what is more important — the content or the presentation?
That brings us to The Daimajin Trilogy, Arrow’s latest kaiju-related release. For this review, I was provided with sample discs of the actual release product, although no packaging, booklets or special features were sent for review. It’s impossible to review the physical presentation of Arrow’s set here, although the photos I have seen online from early recipients and promotional materials indicate it’s another gorgeous set from the home-video group. (Matt Frank, the artist on IDW’s Godzilla: Rulers of the Earth comics as well as the Complete Collection Gamera set, returns to the Arrow fold to illustrate the boxset.)
Without the physical set to review, all I can really do is convey my feelings about the actual films included in the set, all released in 1966: Daimajin, The Return of Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin. The trilogy was made in quick succession by Daiei Film, the studio that also made the Gamera films, and was an attempt at riding the wave of kaiju mania with a second franchise. Each film follows roughly the same plot: Set in 18th-century Japan, villagers call upon Daimajin to help them against evil warlords who have enslaved their people.
Unlike his reptilian brethren, Daimajin is a stone statue — one said to contain a spirit of vengeance. In each film, Daimajin doles out retribution for evils done by mankind, which, in some films, happen to interfere with his ritualistic pacification. He’s considerably more violent than other kaiju of the time, but also much less of a character. He’s a god. An angry god.
One notable element of the Daimajin Trilogy within the kaiju genre is that each film features progressively more psychedelic depictions of Daimajin’s entrance into battle and subsequent destruction of evil. These are certainly the best moments of each film; they make each entry worth watching. The films themselves as whole, though? Let’s break them down:
Daimajin is the best of the three, featuring a bleak and brutal samurai story at its heart that just happens to lead to the giant god. The local lord of a small village, Hanabusa Tadakiyo (Ryūzō Shimada), is murdered in a coup by one of his assistants, Ōdate Samanosuke (Ryūtarō Gomi). With the help of a samurai named Kogenta (Jun Fujimaki), Tadakiyo’s children, Tadafumi and Kozasa, escape and hide out in a temple near the Daimajin statue. As adults, Tadafumi and Kozasa (respectively played by Yoshihiko Aoyama and Miwa Takada), return to try to help their miserable, enslaved village.
The sequence of events leads to Daimajin attacking Samanosuke in a visually thrilling, extraordinarily violent finale. It is mind-blindingly satisfying. However, most of the film features samurai action and social intrigue. I found the non-kaiju moments exciting and interesting here, particularly because Samanosuke is a gleefully evil villain. Just dastardly. Kaiju movies sometimes struggle with creating compelling narratives around their show-stopping visual-effects sequences, a problem more pronounced in the latter two entries of the Daimajin series. Thanks to a balanced story leading up to the third act, Daimajin is certainly the best of the three movies.
I actually had an opportunity to watch Daimajin on an older DVD release, which has since gone out of print. The new restoration work completed by Arrow is indescribably better. It is, without a doubt, the best this film has ever looked on home video. It goes without saying that the miniature work for the finale looks great, but much of the action here is filmed on sets replicating the feudal village and mountain shrine, which are also gorgeous and convey a backdrop of natural tranquility for all the gross human evil taking place.
Return of Daimajin
Return of Daimajin has an extremely similar story to the first film with a higher degree of complexity. In this case, it’s Lord Mikoshiba Danjô (Takashi Kanda) who is persecuting Lady Sayuri (Shiho Fujimura), her beau, Juro (Kôjirô Hongô), and her brother, Katsushige (Kôichi Uenoyama). As with the first film, the villain ends up on the verge of killing the heroes through execution before Daimajin appears to save the day.
Unfortunately, the bulk of Return of Daimajin lacks the energy of Daimajin and structurally falters because a great sequence of Mikoshiba’s people destroying the statue (and throwing it into a lake that glows red with blood) is followed by a lot of very talky, occasionally violent moments that never gain any cumulative energy. The finale is, of course, incredible, featuring a stunning crucifixion scene so memorable it’s depicted on Matt Frank’s cover of the movie seen above. Fans, and Arrow’s own description, cite the arresting visuals of Return of Daimajin, and although that applies to some scenes and the finale, the movie as a whole is less engaging than the first. The conclusion is great, but the work to get there isn’t, particularly when watched in sequence with the first film.
Like the first, I was able to watch this on an older release. Arrow’s version is by far the most spectacular version I’ve seen. If you are already a fan of this series, this is the definitive way to collect these films. If you are curious but not interested in devoting $70, however, each film in its new restoration is available on Arrow’s streaming service — a must-have for fans of cult films anyway.
Wrath of Daimajin
There’s some confusion regarding the titles for the two Daimajin sequels; Wrath is also called Return of Daimajin in some releases. So I am following the scheme used by Arrow in this set. Wrath is similar to the first two, with a notable difference: In this one, a cadre of young boys sets out to implore Daimajin to save their fathers, who are enslaved as workers at a mine. Like Daiei’s Gamera series, Wrath features a monster who becomes an avenging force for children.
Of the three films, Wrath feels the slowest to develop but has the best final battle, thanks to a unique, snow-capped setting and some cool miniature work. Of the three, this is the one that tested my patience the most. I’m usually a fan of “kids befriend giant monsters,” particularly All Monsters Attack and Gamera vs. Guiron — movies generally despised in fanbases due to their emphasis on children. However, Wrath was simply not an engaging version of this story, most likely because it follows the same structural pattern as the first two: Monster action is solely reserved for the very end while the rest of the movie is just character stuff and praying.
It does look magnificent, though. Again: This is available to stream on Arrow’s streaming service along with the previous two films.
The special features are robust. Each film features a Japanese audio track (with English subtitles) and an English-dubbed audio track. The Gamera set did, too. For kaiju fans who understand and appreciate the historical relevance of dubbed tracks in the genre, this is a major quality-of-life improvement over Criterion’s Godzilla set.
New audio commentaries accompany each film. I only sampled these but found them to be compelling and insightful. Frankly, additional historical context always benefits any film — particularly kaiju films, which also come from a culture where my familiarity comes through some generalities and some film history. The commentaries are a good resource for knowledge about each film, as well as the era of the Japanese film industry during which they were made. I’d like to go back and finish them all.
There are also new documentaries and interviews for each movie, unique in their subjects and focus. The list of extras compiled by Arrow is deeply impressive considering the fact that the Daimajin movies are little-known among Western audiences. It’s a substantial, respectful collection of three films that are, at best, of middling overall quality, which makes the reverence for the trilogy and those who made it even sweeter. Few films are perfect, but they’re still the product of innumerable creative minds working in tandem to tell a story. Knowing the behind-the-scenes history of the Daimajin movies makes them more fun to watch. Maybe that’s not high praise of the films themselves, but it speaks volume about what this Arrow set brings to them.
The essential question here: Is this content worth the $100 MSRP (although it’s generally available for slightly less)?
Acknowledging that I did not receive the full packaging: Frankly, I’m on the fence.
The Daimajin Trilogy are films I’m unlikely to watch again as comfort food and unlikely to show with excitement to friends with little knowledge of kaiju cinema. The genre is already an acquired taste, and the three Daimajin movies don’t have much action to engage a viewer who isn’t invested in their political dramas . The special features are incredible and add to the experience of the films, which makes the set a must-have for anyone willing to watch them. That takes time, though, and real interest. That only comes after watching the films themselves, which are of middling quality.
I know many friends who purchased the Godzilla set and only made it four movies in; I’ve seen just as many acquaintances on collector blogs who purchased the Gamera set last year and subsequently sold it when they realized that even that series’ vaunted Heisei Trilogy isn’t particularly friendly to Western audiences that expect fast pacing and coherent plotting. In fact, I purchased my set from one such collector. I’ve seen those collectors pre-ordering the Daimajin sets and I have no idea what they’re going to enjoy here. I fully anticipate seeing them up for sale in a few months to make funds for whatever new boutique set is announced by Arrow, Severin or whomever.
The Daimajin films are not entry-level kaiju and will only appeal to devoted fans. There’s a lot to love about the content of these discs, particularly the robust special features and the slam-bang finales of each movie. I intend on fully diving into the commentaries someday to enhance my understanding of what went on behind the scenes because that interests me as someone with a vested devotion to this genre and its history.
However — and again, this does not pertain to the physical box, artwork, booklet or other pack-ins — I don’t know that I would recommend Arrow’s The Daimajin Trilogy to collectors who aren’t already interested in kaiju filmmaking, particularly if they did not find much to love in the Godzilla and Gamera sets. Although this is a very different series from those two, it’s still within the same general product line and, as an artifact, feels like a spiritual sequel to Arrow’s Gamera boxset from last year. I would imagine the physical boxset is just as incredible; unfortunately, the films contained inside it just aren’t up to the same level. They’re moderately entertaining, sometimes fascinating and inessential movies.
Whether that’s worth $100 is up to the consumer. My rational mind is telling me not to purchase it because Arrow has the new restorations available to sample on its wonderful streaming service. My collector mind, however, knows I have a weakness for beautiful restorations of kaiju movies, and Arrow’s ability to package said restorations is truly unparalleled. Their work puts Criterion to shame, which is no small feat. I wrote 2,000 words about this set, in large part to exorcise my desire to buy it because the movies themselves left little impression on me. Writing this may have had the opposite effect.
Collecting is a habit, a compulsive behavior that can become very quickly grow deeply unhealthy. Make your own call, but please heed my fundamental point: The films in this set are mostly middling, with spots of greatness. The special features are incredible. The packaging is not something to which I can attest, but I can’t imagine it would disappoint given Arrow’s stellar track record. I hope you make the right decision. This final paragraph is obviously self-talk.
Arrow’s limited-edition Blu-ray boxset of The Daimajin Trilogy will be released in the United States on August 3 and is available wherever discs are sold for various retailer discounts.