Nobody with a brain would blindly trust the internet, or at least that part of the internet that speaks English, on the subject of release dates of Asian-produced movies from a half-century ago. But what the internet tells me is that Daiei Film released both Gamera vs. Barugon and Daimajin ion 17 April, 1966. This seems a least a touch unlikely to me (where's the motive for a studio to release competition for itself?), but whether we allow it or not, the two films are obviously contemporaries in the greater scheme of things, and a broader gulf in quality between two films made simultaneously by a single company in even moderately overlapping genres is almost impossible for me to imagine. Gamera vs. Barugon is a genial piece of crap monster movie that's fun to watch mostly because it's so don't-give-a-shit bad. Daimajin, meanwhile, assuming we can confidently describe it as a daikaiju eiga (and that's surely a debatable point), is one of the very best daikaiju eiga I have seen, only a slight bit less impressive than the almighty Godzilla itself.

The film comes about as a hybrid of two of the major genres in Japanese filmmaking at the era: the daikaiju eiga, of course, or giant monster movie, and the jidaigeki, which essentially describes the style that in English we'd call a period piece of costume drama, though without the implication of classy literacy that those phrases tend to dredge up in connection with American and British filmmaking. There's absolutely no two ways about it, Daimajin belongs more to the latter form than the prior: there's no explicit monster action until the last 20 minutes or so of an 84-minute film, and in the sense that some of the more boring Godzilla pictures make us wait and wait for more than a flash or two of the monsters, but in the sense that literally not one single frame of the titular creature is shown in the first hour, and depending on how you interpret the opening scene, that creature is a completely inert non-entity for that whole time.

The first scene, anyway, finds the villagers cowering in fear during a noisy earthquake-like event. The peasantry instantly blames the local majin, a word that was left untranslated in the subtitled version I watched, but appears to be something larger than a mere demon and smaller than an outright god. Whether the incident is supernatural or geological, the chaos permits Samanosuke (Gomi Ryutaro), the treacherous second-in-command to the local feudal lord Hanabasa, to execute his long-gestating coup. In short order, Hanabasa and his wife are dead, and his loyal soldier Kogenta (Fujimaki Jun) is just able to rescue the Hanabasa children, bringing them to the local priestess Shinobu (Tsukimiya Otome), who knows a cave in the mountains above a waterfall where the three fugitives can hide. This cave overlooks a large stone statue of a warrior that, legend holds, stands guard sealing the majin inside the mountain.

Ten years pass, and Hanabasa's son Tadafumi (Aoyama Yoshihiko) and daughter Kozasa (Takada Miwa) are just about the right age to serve as the focal points for a rebellion. And is much overdue: Samanosuke has been driving the countryside into ruin with his tyrannical rule. Unfortunately, in attempting to learn more about this situation, Kogenta gets himself captured, and Tadafumi manages to join him during a rescue attempt. This leaves Shinobu and Kozasa with only one solution: to pray for the mountain god to release the majin into the body of the warrior statue, to avenge the people against Samanosuke's wretchedness. As with most deals that involve conjuring up the devil, though, the release of the stone warrior as Daimajin, its blank face replaced with a snarling mask of rage, leaves plenty of room for things to go horribly wrong.

Okay, so at the level of plot, it's super generic. But as far as I'm concerned, even a generic jidaigeki starts off with some considerable advantages. Among those is the weird but persistent superiority of the genre in servicing up one dynamic and involving composition after another: I don't have any idea why, but I've never yet found a genre that seems so reliably able to use the anamorphic widescreen frame (spillover, perhaps, from those films' aesthetic indebtedness to the linear artwork of the period). Director Yasuda Kimiyoshi and cinematographer Morita Fujio - both of them already veterans of Daiei's long-running series of samurai movies about the blind warrior Zatoichi - certainly were making a quick, relatively cheap film, but within that limitation, Daimajin still looks gorgeous, with a great many individually excellent shots, be they rigid, presentational interiors, or beautifully-composed landscapes. An early sequence includes one lengthy shot of tiny humans in the foreground, vast waterfalls in the center, and the distant statue of the guardian warrior statue near the very top of the frame; the simple but unmistakable correctness of this image is absolutely breathtaking.

What's most impressive of all is that the film doesn't give up any of its artistry when it finally gets to its major action setpiece near the end, with effects directed by Kuroda Yoshiyuki. Who, it's worth pointing out, worked on exactly zero Gamera films. Too bad, because they would certainly have benefited from the ambition and skill Kuroda brought to Daimajin: it has images compositing multiple layers and requiring humans to react to Daimajin and then Daimajin reacting to the humans, all with really showy dramatic lighting (Daimajin's entire attack takes place against a burning red sky). And it's done so skillfully that it only registers as a special effect in a small handful of shots at most. It's no hyperbole, only accuracy, for me to claim that the climax of Daimajin might very well be the most technically accomplished effects sequence from a 1960s Japanese film I've ever seen, every bit as persuasive as the far more well-heeled efforts being made by the American studios at the same time. And with much greater visual drama and a sense of artistry.

In fact, both the images and the narrative in Daimajin have a sense of what I'd happily call operatic excess if this were a culturally European film. Its primary interest is in the way that human lives are at the mercy of greater forces: nature, fate, the spirit world; at the level of the script, this plays out in a story that's almost comically stacked against the heroes, who are effortlessly outflanked by the usurping warlord's forces almost by accident. It also comes out in the shots emphasising the smallness and fragility of humans against the backdrop the film provides; even when the camera moves in close and tight, it's usually so suggest how the characters are in some way trapped or confined. Meanwhile, the filmmakers present the uncanny elements of the plot with striking flair: the disorienting sight of blood dripping from the guardian statue as Samanosuke's men attack it, the freakish lighting in the "supernatural" scenes, the way that Daimajin is always shot from below, even in close-ups, to stress its imposing mass.

The biggest problem with it, really, is that compared to a Godzilla, it's shallow. That is, there's no real social engagement here, no clever metaphor like in many genre films: it's about big, grand gestures and overtly dramatic emotional states. Which is, I hasten to point out, entirely fair game for any movie to explore: not everything has to be about nuclear war or out-of-control technology (and, if you wanted to, you could even read the way that the film depicts Daimajin turning against the people who called it out as a warning against the use of last-resort weapons of mass destruction). Daimajin works splendidly enough as a straightforward drama about desperate people struggling for safety and security that it doesn't need anything else to justify it. Heck, it doesn't even need to throw a giant monster at its plot in order to be completely engaging, beautiful, and emotionally resonant, that's just a nice bonus - how many daikaiju eiga come even close to the same achievement?