Are You A Fan of Japanese Fantasy Films? You Should Be!
Western movies are usually easy to categorize — science fiction, horror, action, fantasy, etc… In Japanese cinema, it’s often the opposite with movies that incorporate elements of several genre, leaving the Western viewer grasping for familiar tropes and genre clues. For the amateur cinephile and aficionado alike, it is exactly that hard-to-pin-down, out-of-the-ordinary quality that makes Japanese film so enticing.
Here’s a countdown of some of the most compelling– and disorienting– Japanese fantasy films that should be on your must-see list. We’ll count down from 15 to 9 in this post and wrap up with the top 8 in a separate post soon- enjoy!
Not as popular as the kaiju output of Toho Studios (or even fellow monster series Gamera from the same studios of the Daiei Motion Picture Company), Daimajin represents and intersection of the samurai, kaiju, and supernatural horror genres that had never before been attempted, and has never since returned to frighten villages of awestruck farmers and bring terrible wrath on the heads of heartless, corrupt officials.
After the untimely death of a local feudal lord, a scheming chamberlain takes over, forcing all of the men of a farming village into slavery. He persecutes the former lord’s surviving children when he learns of their existence and tries to destroy the statue of the deity Daimajin that rests half-buried in the side of a mountain.
Desperate, the lord’s daughter offers up her life in exchange for the deity’s help, bringing the statue to life, its face a frightful mask of samurai rage. Daimajin descends on the evil chamberlain and his men, killing them and nearly smashing the village before the young woman again intercedes.
The first installment of a trilogy (all three films follow the same basic formula), Daimajin is in many respects one of the best-looking, and sadly also one of the least well-known, kaiju films of the Sixties. Gorgeously shot and expertly crafted, it pushes the boundaries of miniature and photographic effects of the time, executing what are, hands down, among the most convincingly realistic and emotionally cathartic giant monster rampages in movie history.
As dramatically potent as it is beautiful to look at, Daimajin needs to be seen by every cult movie fanatic in search of the refreshingly unique. Thundering music by Akira Ifukube, the same man who scored Godzilla’s first foray into Tokyo.
14. War of the Gargantuas
When a trawler is attacked by a giant octopus, a massive creature rises out of the ocean to fight it, sinking the ship in the process. He continues rampage with an assault on an airport—during which he eats a woman alive—and another on the city of Tokyo. He turns out to be a hairy humaniod called Gaira, similar in appearance to another creature studied by a research team some years earlier.
The scientists involved are convinced Gaira can’t be their creature, who was non-violent. When the military corners Gaira and comes close to killing him with laser cannons, the other, bigger creature, called Sanda, appears and whisks him away. It becomes clear to the scientists that the two monsters were born from the same mutated cells. After Sanda realizes that his brother is beyond redemption, they engage in a battle that takes them to the ocean, where they are both swallowed up by a suddenly active undersea volcano.
Made as a co-production between Toho Studios and the American film company UPA, War of the Gargantuas is a sequel to Frankenstein Vs. Baragon, known in the States as Frankenstein Conquers The World. The creatures are even called “Frankensteins” in the original language track, but are changed to “Gargantuas” for any version dubbed or subtitled in English.
The idea is that both monsters grew from cells collected from the severed hand of the colossal Frankenstein’s Monster from the first film, though it’s certainly not necessary to have seen that one to enjoy War of the Gargantuas—in fact, little effort is made in the English versions to make a connection with the previous film.
Directed by famed kaiju-master Ishiro Honda, Gargantuas has the sharp, highly detailed look of his other monster films from the Sixties and Seventies, perfectly capturing Eiji Tsuburaya’s incredible miniature work and monster costumes, which are made all the more amazing by the fact that they allow the audience to see the actor’s eyes, lending the story a greater sense of drama.
As in other American co-productions with Toho, an American actor appears along with the Japanese cast—Russ Tamblyn in this case, taking over from Nick Adams in the first film (Adams also appeared in Honda’s Invasion of Astro-Monster). Generally regarded as one of the finest and most original kaiju films, jam-packed with great action and stunning imagery.
A group of yakuza and an escaped prisoner run into each other outside a forest that reputedly contains a portal to another dimension. The prisoner rescues a girl from their clutches and takes off into the forest with her, followed by the gang. One inside, they engage in combat with the reanimated corpses of the gang’s buried rivals, and the prisoner finds himself in a one-man war against supernaturally-powered assassins. Realizing he is part of an historic conflict that has been going on for centuries, the prisoner attempts to keep the gang’s leader from opening the portal, using a combination of guns, swords, and his bare hands.
The first feature-length film from Ryuhei Kitamura (who would go on to direct, among other films, the last Japanese-produced Godzilla movie, Godzilla: Final Wars), Versus is one of a handful of success stories where an independent filmmaker goes all-in on a low-budget project and has it pay off in a major way. Legend has it that Kitamura thought this was the only full-length film he’d ever get to make, so he threw everything he loved about his favorite genre films into a blender and ended up with this dizzying puree comprised of yakuza films, zombies, John Woo, The Evil Dead, samurai films, and kung fu.
The movie seems calculated to escalate with each scene, building from casual gangster cool to bloody zombie shootouts and eventually exploding into tightly choreographed, wickedly performed knife-fighting and swordplay. The story even moves backward and forward in time, flashing back to the death of a samurai and into a future of deadly wastelands populated by Road Warrior cyberpunks, at which point Versus unveils a story-inverting twist ending that caps off the best low-budget indie project since the early work of Sam Raimi and George Romero.
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