DAIMAJIN: The God that Lives in the Shadows of Monsters
Mill Creek Entertainment releases the Daimajin Trilogy on Blu-ray.
It’s interesting to watch the impact films based on comic book superheroes have on our culture in America, especially over the last decade or so. It seems like every month gives birth to a new defender of the human race, complete with a rich, conflicted back story that often includes some sort of genetic alteration, making them bigger, stronger or faster than they once were. When Earth is in trouble, we look to someone brave enough to face the monsters threatening us. Our heroes are often not much bigger than you or I in height, but the fact that they can be backhanded through a brick wall, get up, dust themselves off and dive back into the fray is often good enough for us. Our audiences enjoy heroes we can relate to – someone not without their weaknesses, someone with a flaw. The “idea” of our hero is stronger than their appearance or strength. They represent something to us, whether they wear a cape and fly, wield a patriotic shield or war hammer, wear a mechanical bodysuit or transform into a ball of green fury – they’re here for our protection. They bleed, they get frustrated, they doubt themselves, but they always get back up and fight no matter how uphill the battle. Our heroes are “larger than life” because of their actions.
In Japan, however, the idea of “larger than life” is far more literal. The Japanese are often perfectly happy with “larger than the other guy,” and that idea led to the big (no pun intended) daikaiju film boom of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Daikaiju, the Japanese term for “giant monster,” was a prominent mainstay in Japanese – and eventually worldwide – cinema. Usually a prehistoric or radioactive creature rises from the sea and levels the surrounding metropolis into rubble. These creatures are usually able to breathe fire or lightening and generally have a nasty temperament toward mankind. Most everyone relates these films to the iconic Godzilla series of Toho Studios that began in 1954, about the mutant dinosaur that rose from the sea and destroyed Tokyo. Though the early films in the Godzilla cannon often held a deeper relevance regarding the dangers of atomic testing, much of the series and every “giant monster” film that it inspired were very basic in their goals. Get a guy in a big, rubber monster suit, and watch him wreck miniature cities and villages. They’re entertaining, sure, but they’re not rocket science and they’re certainly not going to leave you with anything more than a nostalgic smile on your face, and a fun Saturday afternoon.
The irony is, amidst the legion of daikaiju films to be released during that period, the Daimajin trilogy – while often critically acclaimed – went largely ignored. Dwarfed by its reptilian peers, the story of a giant stone deity coming to life to smite the empires of evil in 17th century feudal Japan is exactly the type of “giant monster” film that will engage and elicit suspense from its audiences – all before the monster even awakes to cause destruction.
Filmed simultaneously and released in 1966 by Daiei Studios (the very same production company that introduced us to the Gamera series the year before), the Daimajin trilogy (Daimaijin, The Return of Daimajin and Daimajin Strikes Again) all center on various Japanese villages that are thrown into upheaval when corrupt warlords overthrow the thrones of peaceful village leaders and enslave the citizens to labor in poverty. Only their faith in the wrathful god Majin, which resides within a towering, stone shogun statue in their mountains, keeps them from losing their spirit and courage. When the superstitions and faith of the beleaguered followers is cavalierly ignored by the tyrannical villains, the Majin statue rises from its rock mountain wall and lumbers down to the villages to exact brutal, destructive vengeance on the faithless enemies of his loyal followers.
All three films in the trilogy have nearly the exact same plot and are beat-for-beat similar in their structures. However, it’s the style between the three that differentiates them. What’s interesting to remember is that these were all filmed at the same time, under three different directors. The screenplays might have all been penned by the same writer (Tetsuro Yoshida), but the visual “mood” that’s expressed in each film gives them each their own flavor. For instance, the original Daimajin is a dark, foreboding and almost Gothic tale of haunted forests, mountainside castles and blood-red skies. It’s violent, harrowing and often has much to say about faith, loyalty and blasphemy. Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, the story of Daimajin is similar to the 1920s silent German film The Golem, which portrayed a hulking, clay creature created by a rabbi to protect the Jews of Prague from an evil emperor – except for one dicey detail – the clay golem in Carl Boese and Paul Wegener’s German masterpiece was friendly (for a while) and stood as a proud, imposing protector of his people. The Majin, well…his actions might be in the right place, but you eventually get the impression he’s none too happy about his ancient slumber being disrupted. He provides a literal example of what the term “god-fearing” really means.
Kazuo Mori directs the first sequel, The Return of Daimajin, and the difference in tone is immediate. It’s brightly-lit, almost exotic, and has more of an “epic” feel to it. There are echoes here of classic Kurosawa samurai adventures, and sprawling Cecil B. DeMille productions like 1956’s The Ten Commandments (particularly during a sea-parting sequence that Moses would have admired). The theme and events in the film are still dark and violent, but there’s a very apparent change in color and mood. Though at first glance, it seems The Return of Daimajin is woefully derivative of its predecessor’s plot-line it’s saved by another group of fantastic performances, a brisk pace, and a seemingly larger scale of impressive special effects that manage to out-do the original. It’s also filled with enough action and suspense that once again, keep you planted in your seat long before the Majin comes to life.
The third and final in the trilogy, is probably the closest to typical daikaiju films – thanks in no small part to a far less grim tone and often a somewhat out-of-place sense of humor. Directed by Kenji Misumi, Daimajin Strikes Back is far less a suspenseful horror film, than it is a “coming-of-age” adventure tale that centers on the Majin statue coming to the aid and prayers of four young children, who embark on a dangerous quest through the deity’s mountain to free their enslaved fathers from another evil warlord. While it’s not exactly Stand By Me (or even The Goonies, for that matter) the inclusion of the children and their journey seems to soften the impact of this third installment, which – while entertaining and fast-paced – seems more innocent and non-threatening for most of its duration. Yes, there are moments of harsh reality that test and terrorize our pint-sized heroes, whether its evil samurai or nature’s hazards, but for the most part I never really worried about them the way I did the adult characters in the previous entries. And for that reason, Daimajin Strikes Again just didn’t shoulder the same emotional weight the first two films did. Topped off with another justified demolition by the scowling shogun god, the satisfactory finale still makes this lesser entry well worth the runtime, and proves ultimately that while all three films were shot at the same time, each director worked hard to give their respective film its own distinctive touches.
If none of these three films sound remotely like the typical Japanese “guys-in-monster-suit” films, then you’d be right. The Daimajin trilogy was clearly approached from a different standpoint than just about every daikaiju film before or since. While films of this nature are generally more about the spectacle of its action and destruction, the Daimajin scripts by Yoshida were written with an emphasis on the characters and dramatic themes, and less on the titular monster. The political tensions, class warfare, ruthless villainy and bravery of spirit are key in making the Daimajin films more than the sum of their parts. These are riveting, suspenseful and often intense character dramas that have much more to offer than the inevitable finales which bring the stone golem to life to exact its vengeance.
The films are also unique in their cinematography and set design. All three films are beautifully shot, taking full advantage of their locations. Whether it’s a sweeping shot of a rocky mountaintop, or the rolling waves lapping against the shore of an island, the films are framed in such a way as to give everything a vast, almost biblical feel. They’re also very eclectic in their visuals, borrowing liberally from a number of genre styles. For every scene that might have that expansive scale of terrain, there are many set pieces that seem pulled straight out of Masaki Kobayashi’s grim, brooding anthology Kwaidan. There’s a “heaviness” to the shadows and surroundings in many instances of the Daimajin trilogy, which adds menace and dread.
Also of note are the impressive special effects. Rarely does anything look disproportionate to the statue as it towers over structures and fleeing warriors, and this gives the film a far more organic look than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in daikaiju films with miniatures and rubber suits.
The Daimajin trilogy has earned a place as a cult favorite thanks to Saturday afternoon television broadcasts of the past, but it remains a far lesser known daikaiju, which is a shame. It’s got more to say than the others do, and it’s evident that the makers went to great lengths to tell three engaging stories that well set up and justify the chaotic finales. The destruction caused by the Majin god seems earned somehow, as opposed to the nearly wall-to-wall action/destruction in the Godzilla or Gamera franchises. While those films delivered exactly what you paid to see, the Daimajin films are structured in a way that made all the screaming, crumbling and stomping worthwhile and climatic. You just don’t get that with films of this type.
Fortunately, the folks at Mill Creek Entertainment haven’t forgotten about the importance and quality of the Daimajin trilogy, and released the films on Blu-ray for the first time. All three films have been cleaned up to look good-as-new and retain their original 2.35:1 widescreen format (many of the previous DVD releases by Image Entertainment or ADV often cropped the aspect ratios). Also included is a lengthy and extremely informative interview with the brilliant cinematographer Fujio Morita, who gives insight into the unique look he gave these films and the problems that came with the often complex film shoots.
With Mill Creek Entertainment giving the Daimaijin trilogy such a respectable refurbishing with it’s fantastic new transfer and some thoughtful bonus features, I truly believe this new Blu-ray set is the perfect way to dust off that old statue you used to remember, or (in most cases), discover for the first time.
As I previously mentioned, the distinction between American cinema’s heroes and Japan’s is generally in the size of the hero to the villains they battle. In the case of the Daimajin trilogy, the Majin statue might be outweighed and outsized by Godzilla and his imitators – but in terms of great daikaiju cinema, he towers above them all. They would do well to fear his wrath.
By Jason Marsiglia