There’s an unwritten cinematic law (okay, so one that I just made up): if it exists, the Japanese have or will at some point make it gigantic and have it unleash destruction upon the screaming masses. These giant monster mashes (known as kaiju flicks) have given viewers everything from huge lizards to enormous turtles. But leave it to Daiei’s Daimajin trilogy to take the “Wha?…”-ness factor to a whole new level. This series’ gargantuan wreaker of havoc (played in all three installments by Riki Hashimoto) isn’t of flesh and blood but rather stone — the very pissed-off statue of a samurai god, to be exact, the perfect symbol of the potential wrath that the gods can unleash if ever crossed or defied. And although said goliath’s motivations and true nature are always a little on the shifty side, that doesn’t deter from the cheesy good times the series has to offer.
When loud rumblings start to emanate from a nearby mountain, the residents of a village know that it’s time to appease the Majin, a demonic force imprisoned inside a looming stone statue. Local chamberlain Samanosuke (Yutaro Gomi), on the other hand, has decided to use this occasion to overthrow the village’s kindly lord and seize power for himself. But the ten years of cruelty and oppression that follow don’t come without a price, as the day eventually arrives when the Majin springs to life and sets forth on a destructive, wanton rampage.
The most glaring aspect of Daimajin, something that just kind of sits back and pokes you in the cerebral cortex every once in a while, is the confounding nature of the Majin itself. Characters speak of both the Majin and a noble, protective god pretty much interchangeably, despite appearing to be two distinct entities. By the time the statue comes to life, you don’t have the slightest clue of which force is at work. But as confusing as this can get, it’s almost forgiven for as much as Daimajin keeps you entertained in the meantime. For the most part, the Majin stays out of the picture; for a good hour or so, the film is a pretty level-headed drama, focused on the fight of the fallen lord’s hidden heirs (Miwa Takada and Yoshihiko Aoyama) to end Samanosuke’s reign of terror. The Majin itself is steeped in mystery during this time, the dread surrounding it heightened by how desperately the villagers perform their ceremony to keep it at bay. By the time ye olde stone giant makes his big debut, you won’t be disappointed with the wrath he unleashes upon both the wrongdoers and those villagers unlucky enough to get in his way. Plus, for a “guy in a rubber suit” monster movie that’s just a few thematic shades away from Godzilla territory, the special effects really aren’t all that bad.
Though it may not seem like it, Daimajin has a lot more going for it then just some dude traipsing around miniature sets in a stone samurai costume. The story’s actually intriguing, and the actors are suited just fine for their roles, but for those looking for a little more carnage in their cinematic diet, allow Daimajin to sate your hunger.
RETURN OF DAIMAJIN
After the events of Daimajin, the Majin has apparently chosen another town to intermittently terrorize/be worshipped by. When word arrives that some of the village’s men have been enslaved by a ruthless lord, a plucky group of youngsters decide to band together and come to their rescue. Their journey is a perilous one, fraught with both enemy samurai and the brutal forces of Mother Nature. But the kids have an unexpected ally in the Majin, who once again comes to life to punish the wicked for their evil deeds.
You’d think the novelty of seeing a massive stone god spreading chaos and destruction would have worn thin after just one movie. But this is not so with Return of Daimajin, which takes the Majin and kicks him up an emotional notch or two. Despite having perplexingly put himself back together and relocated after the first film’s ending (well, he is a god, so I can guess he can do whatever he pleases), the Majin’s power seems to have increased even more, being able to cause massive floods and other natural disasters with his mere footsteps. But at the same time, the Majin is a little more benevolent and less apt to crush stuff willy-nilly. He even helps out the kids on their quest, siccing a hawk on pursing baddies and even rescuing one from certain death. Still, fans of the first Daimajin won’t be disappointed with the 20 minutes of carnage that cap the film off, a climax that pits the Majin against the latest gang of evildoers in the middle of a blizzard. My only huge complaint is that this story’s not as well-executed as the first one’s. Sure, you come to know the kids and even cheer them on as they press forward on their mission, but that first hour manages to get very repetitive in almost no time at all. Plus, the crummy editing often rips the effectiveness out of a number of scenes (particularly when the kids cross to the other side of a chasm on a tree trunk).
Return of Daimajin isn’t as polished of a feature as its predecessor, but it packs in the same sort of entertainment value, not to mention enough of it to warrant a reputation as a truly worthy sequel.
WRATH OF DAIMAJIN
Continuing his amazing ability to relocate and instantly become the god of a whole new group of people, the Majin now resides in a lakeside cavern near the home of a benevolent clan. But the clan’s hold over the lake and the profits generated from it make them the target of an unforgiving lord who wants to take over. The lord succeeds in infiltrating the clan’s domain, and the future certainly seems to be grim when the bad guys set their sights on a neighboring village. But when the invaders start messing with the Majin, there’s no stopping him from emerging from his stony slumber in order to open a big can of feudal whoop-ass.
On the surface, Wrath of Daimajin is everything you’ve come to expect from a film in this series. You get about an hour’s worth of oppressed commoners and larger-than-life villains who laugh in a maniacal tone usually reserved for mad scientists, and just when it looks like things couldn’t get any worse, in swoops the Majin to dole out some rock-hard justice. But out of all the trilogy’s installments, I’d have to say that Wrath of Daimajin is the most assured with what it wants to do. With the shortest running time of the three movies, this flick doesn’t mess around; it goes through the obligatory samurai drama, which is essentially a tweaked version of the first flick’s story, in a flash, getting to the Majin’s rampage at a fairly quick pace. But what I especially dug about this entry is that, for once, there’s no ambiguity surrounding the Majin. Here, he’s just a god answering his peoples’ pleas for help, not just a sentient statue destroying everything because he feels like it. It’s a big improvement over the first movie, where even those who worshipped him didn’t even know what to make of him, and seeing him progress to this point over the course of the series almost gives the stone giant a character arc of his own. Don’t fret, though, for the fury that the Big M unleashes here is as savory as ever, culminating in what is likely the single most badass scene in the entire trilogy, in which the Majin has what I like to call a “Moses” moment.
Most trilogies run out of steam by the third go-around, but Wrath of Daimajin is an exception to the rule. With a not-bad story and some very enjoyable action, it comes across as not just the best of its franchise but also one of the coolest slices of kaiju you’re likely to see.