The Magic Serpent (1966)

The_Magic_Serpent_(1966)‘Don’t cry, you’re getting a runny nose.’

A kindly Lord and his wife are murdered by one of their retainers, but their infant son escapes the massacre. An old hermit raises the boy and trains him in combat and the magical arts. When he becomes a man, he sets out to avenge his parents…

Lively mix of martial arts and sorcery with plenty of action, a dash of romance and a young lad along for the ride so the kids can relate. Hiroki Matsukata has grown up to be both a mighty warrior and a great magician, going head to head with ninja assassins and the mystical powers of the villainous Ryûtarô Ôtomo. The fights are bloodless but decently staged, and if the story is never anything more than completely predictable, at least it’s competently assembled and realised. The sorcery involves transformation into giant creatures who fight; explaining why this film is often included in lists of ‘Kaiju’ films, even if it has little thematic similarities to the adventures of Godzilla and his monster buddies.

The SFX are very much of their time, with neither Ôtomo’s evil dragon of the title or Matsukata’s giant frog convincing anyone but very young children. Of course, a more mature audience is also left wondering why a harmless amphibian is Matsukata’s beast of choice anyway, but it is likely there was some mythological source material here which might explain it.

The Magic Serpent (1966)

Grab your partner by the hand…

Elsewhere there’s an excellent action sequence when Matsukata is attacked by a roomful of flying doors, which is actually quite striking and very original. There is also a surprising moral dilemma for pretty heroine Tomoko Ogawa that adds an extra dimension to the story. This more thoughtful aspect of the tale is well handled by the principals of the cast but director Tetsuya Yamanouchi ensures that the film remains well-balanced, and places the emphasis on thrills and entertainment, rather than the weightier issues of obligations and duty owed to a parent.

It’s interesting to speculate on the intended market for the film, although that’s a little difficult given its vintage. It also doesn’t help that I saw a print edited for stateside release. Was it originally aimed at children? Well, it certainly seems that way at times, but, then again, there is quite a bit of sword play and violent death. Probably too much for a contemporary young audience. Have times changed that much? Perhaps it’s a cultural thing anyway?

Inevitably, the film looks a bit dated now, particularly in some of the more technical aspects, but it still gets by on a breezy, likable style and a pleasing ‘anything goes’ attitude. 

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