Once considered a chief rival of Toho, Daiei rode high in the middle of the 20th century before hitting hard times toward the end of the century. This blog covers the fall of Daiei Studios and how the company’s major properties, such as Zatoichi and Gamera, ended up at times on Toho’s doorstep.
The “Golden Age of Japanese Cinema,” a glorious period from the 1950’s through the 1960’s when Japanese studio output was substantial and attendance sizes were even larger. By 1953, roughly the start of the “Golden Age,” Japanese cinema was ruled big six film studios: Nikkatsu, Shochiku, Daiei, Toei, Shintoho, and Toho.
It’s from this period that numerous Japanese franchises were born, including Toho’s Godzilla and Daiei’s Zatoichi. Despite a good run in the early 1960’s for many of the film studios, the “Golden Age of Japanese Cinema” was already starting to show signs of weakening. Shintoho, a company comprised of ex-Toho employees in 1947 who literally called themselves “the New Toho,” filed for bankruptcy in 1961. The invasion of television in Japan was starting to show its effect on the top studios of the period.
During the 1960’s, half of Japan’s theaters closed as audience sizes started to dwindle. By the late 60’s even Toho’s flagship franchise, Godzilla, was showing signs of slowing down, and Toho themselves announced that the series would end after one final “hurrah” with Destroy All Monsters (1968), which ended up being a huge success and the series continued. By 1969, audience sizes at theaters were down to 1/3 what they were during their peak in 1958. The cause was home entertainment, as televisions found their way into nearly every home in the country.
Surviving in the 1970’s would prove a challenge to many of the large studios, as people were forgoing the theater experience in favor of the television programming of the time. Some of the studios were hit hard, such as Nikkatsu who went on to distribute “soft core” porn (pink eiga) in the 1970’s to stay afloat. However, arguably none were hit harder than Daiei. In 1971 Daiei filed for bankruptcy and several projects were shelved forever, including Gamera vs. Garasharp. The company eventually reorganized; however, Daiei would never reacquire its distribution wing.
This period would take its toll on two of Daiei’s leading franchises: Zatoichi and Gamera. Despite Daiei’s collapse in 1971, the Zatoichi series continued as Katsu Productions, Zatoichi actor Katsu Shintaro’s Production Company, joined with Toho to produce three Zatoichi films: Zatoichi at Large (1972), Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), and Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973). The alliance between Katsu Productions and Toho proved successful; as they went on to produce other series together include the Razor and Lone Wolf and Cub films. This new found friendship bore even more “fruit” for Toho though, as a deal with Katsu Productions landed them the distribution rights to the three previous Zatoichi films that they had produced with Daiei: Zatoichi the Outlaw(1967), Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970) and Zatoichi at the Fire Festival (1970). Despite Daiei’s reformation, Toho has managed to retain the ownership to these three films and continues to do so to this day. In 1989, Katsu Productions would go it alone with their next Zatoichi film, simply called Zatoichi. For this they found distribution from Shochiku and was the last Zatoichi film to feature Katsu Shintaro before his death in 1997.
The Gamera series, with the exception of an unsuccessful re-launch with Super Monster in the early 1980’s, was shelved after Daiei’s collapse in the early 1970’s, as Daiei’s output continued to shrink. In 1995, upcoming director Shusuke Kaneko would give the series a proper rebirth with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). The film was produced by Daiei, but distribution was handled by, the once rival company, Toho who had since become an entertainment giant and has managed a stranglehold on the theatrical market in the country, as Toho owns most of the theater houses in Japan. The film was a success and two sequels, again under director Shusuke Kaneko, would be created: Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999), both of which would be produced by Daiei and distributed by Toho.
Sale to Kadokawa
In July of 2002, Daiei would finally be bought out by the Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Company. Kadokawa stated that they will take over production and distribution of Daiei films under the name Kadokawa-Daiei Pictures. Kadokawa has worked with Toho in the past, with such efforts as Virus (1980) and the Ring (or Ringu) series which were produced by Kadokawa but distributed by Toho. The two media giants also had a joint production with the highly successful Onmyoji in 2001. Whether or not Kadokawa will handle the distribution of their films has yet to be seen, though, as their 2004 movie One Missed Call (2004) would go on to be distributed by Toho.
This article was first published on January 28th, 2000.