Judge Mike Pinsky knows better than to meddle with a 30-foot-tall stone deity.
"Death has many faces—so does the wrath of God."—keepcase tagline
Like many boys of my generation, I grew up watching kaiju movies on the local independent television station on Saturdays and Sundays. Of course, we did not call them kaiju—they were just "giant monster" movies. They all followed a familiar set of rules: Aliens or demons or some lost undersea kingdom would invade Japan. Little boys in short pants would cry out for help, while scientists and military types would glower ineffectively. Eventually, a giant rubbery monster would show up for a fight among noticeably miniature landscapes. Goodness would prevail, and the monster hero would head out to sea or back into space, hoping to catch a nap before the next entry in the series.
Among my friends, Toho Studios was the top of the line for these films, with Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan in its stable. Daiei, home of Gamera, was further down on the list. For some reason, I never saw Giant Majin, or Majin the Stone Samurai, or whatever the heck it was called when it played on American television. But when I sat down to ADV's DVD releases of the three Daimajin films from Daiei, I was expecting a few hours of silly and inconsequential giant monster action.
It turns out I was wrong. The three Daimajin movies, products of the fertile imagination of screenwriter Tetsuo Yoshida, were shot back to back in 1966, each by a different director. The films are rare among their kaiju brethren in that they stand up perfectly well without the giant monster. Oh, the monster himself is pretty interesting—a giant stone deity that comes to life to stomp on naughty samurai that persecute his followers. But, well, you'll see…
Daimajin, naturally the first entry in the series (and clocking in at a fast-paced 84 minutes), begins with plenty of atmosphere, like the crew of Kwaidan wandered onto the wrong set. In a misty region of medieval Japan, local villagers fear the thundering footsteps of Majin, the spirit of Okamidani. They pray to every Shinto god they can think of to keep this vengeful god sealed up. But a few conniving nobles in the nearby castle plan to use the commotion surrounding the village festival to seize power from the Hanabasa family. The lord of the castle is killed, but the children escape with the help of a loyal retainer.
Ten years pass, during which the children grow up hiding in the shadow of the Majin statue. Meanwhile, Lord Odate uses the villagers as slave labor. He has a penchant for crucifixion (so guess how he will get his comeuppance). Our heroes plan a rebellion, but end up captured and tortured. Odate pushes his luck by killing the local priestess and having a chisel driven through the statue's stone head.
Some people say payback is a bitch. Payback is really a 30-foot tall stone god that can summon earthquakes and lightning—and stomp on whomever tries to run away. Oddly, Daimajin would have been interesting as a traditional samurai drama, even with the supernatural elements remaining metaphoric (as opposed to coming to bone-crushing life). Thus, while most kaiju movies struggle to keep us awake when the monsters are not around, this film succeeds as a fast-paced adventure for that long hour or so before the big climax. And when Majin does finally awaken, his power is scary and brutal in a way Godzilla never really got to be (and as no one could have ever expected from Gamera prior to his recent resurrection).
Hoping for a franchise, Daiei shot all three Daimajin movies back to back. Oddly though, all three films are very different. Return of Daimajin (97 minutes) is the best of the lot. Eschewing the mist and spookiness for gorgeous exterior location shooting, this installment is the least stylized and most realistic of the trilogy. Like nature itself, the angry god Majin is loose again. Or so the peasants believe every time fire, flood, or earthquake threaten. When Lord Arakawa from Hell's Valley is planning to invade his neighbors, a group of children brave crossing Majin's mountain to save their enslaved fathers. No short-panted wimps in this bunch: They build a raft, fight enemy soldiers, and survive a sudden snowfall—and one of them even gets killed. Once again, this movie would be exciting even if Majin never showed up at all. But of course, when our villain (who has a penchant for throwing his victims in a hot sulfur spring) goes too far, Majin attacks—in a blizzard no less—and shows them all who is boss.
Wrath of Daimajin (79 minutes): Don't these tyrants ever learn? Lord Danjo of Mikoshiba (who uses the Arakawa crest to save the budget, and does not really favor any particular torture technique) gives his troops standing orders to beat up on the peasants. Neighboring Lord Juro tries to help the refugees, while on an island between the territories, Majin naps. I guess he was tired of people bothering him on that mountain and decided to relocate to waterfront property.
But the locals here will not leave him in peace either, as Juro's province of Chigusa falls and Mikoshiba moves on Nagoshi province next. Screaming and crying follow, as they usually do. And the bad guys have the balls to blow up Majin's statue! For most of the running time of this third installment, the samurai fights seem to pile on breathlessly, and the film operates as a straight-ahead actioner. Of course, it all culminates in Majin's apocalyptic resurrection and a serious beat-down. Between the crucifixions and the scene where Majin parts the lake, you might wonder if director Kenji Misumi (best known for his Zatoichi films and "Baby Cart" movies) has been watching biblical epics in his spare time.
You can purchase the Daimajin movies individually, as part of ADV's new "Rubbersuit" line. Even better, hunt up the earlier 2002 package with all three films together for much less money. In either case, ADV has not done much to show off these entertaining films. Although all three were presented in their 2.35:1 Daieiscope ratio (mono audio only) in the 2002 trilogy set, the prints, especially on the first film, were quite scratched. The first movie also suffered from softness around the edges (the other two were sharper). And there were no extras. Nothing. The 2005 single-disc releases are not much of an improvement. A better print was found for Daimajin. But Wrath of Daimajin, while offered in a new anamorphic transfer, has been cropped down from Daieiscope to 1.85:1.
So which is the lesser of two evils: lower print quality or wrong aspect ratio? I'll leave that for you to decide. But the films are still cheap enough, especially packaged together, to almost make up for ADV's shortcomings. At $25 for the set (you have to pay $20 apiece individually), the Daimajin movies represent everything that is fine and good about kaiju movies: a childlike exuberance that takes comfort in an afternoon of imaginary adventure, horror, and property damage.
In spite of ADV's indifferent treatment, which seems characteristic of their treatment of live-action movies (don't get me started on their abominable Destroy All Monsters anniversary disc) fans of giant monsters will not be disappointed in these atmospheric and fast-paced films. Mighty Majin's wrath crosses cultural boundaries. What kid does not enjoy a giant monster movie? I know I plan to show Daimajin to my daughter one Saturday morning when she is old enough. I hope she remembers it fondly when she reaches my age.
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