There was a period in my youthful life when my family moved to Del Rio, Texas, so my father could be closer to his major construction job and still have a family. Moving around at that age is tough, but there was one good thing about it: TV from San Antonio, and the local CBS affiliate, who had a regular horror movie every Friday night in a slot called Project: Terror. I got a fair amount of early tutelage on that show, and I really, really miss the days when TV station regularly had such niche programming on late night weekends.
I offer that bit of biographical data by way of introducing today’s subject, which is an unusual series of daikaiju (giant monster) movies from 1966, known as The Daimajin Trilogy. The first movie, Daimajin was unfolded before my fourth grade eyes under the title, Majin, Monster of Terror, under the (likely true) assumption that no American would watch something called Daimajin. At least not in 1968.
Let me try to briefly explain what makes the Daimajin movies so unusual: they take place not in the modern day, but possibly during the Sengoku historical period between the late 15th and early 16th century, judging from the backdrop of clashing feudal lords and presence of matchlock rifles. It’s the marriage of jidaigeki period drama and giant monster movies that make them so alluring – that and the monster in question is a rampaging, wrathful god.
This was also one of the things that 10 year-old me did not care for in the first movie – you had to sit through 90 minutes of samurai movie (in Project: Terror‘s two hour slot) to get to 15 minutes of stone god rampage. I’m (quite) a bit older now, and can appreciate things for what they are. If I do things like forgive the Rambo movies for 70 minutes of bad guys proving why they need to be Rambo-ized before I get 20 minutes of Rambo making bad-guy soup out of them, then I can’t very well criticize the Daimajin movies for doing the same thing.
Starting off with Daimajin (you can add the “Monster of Terror” part if you like), a series of earthquakes causes villagers to hold an impromptu festival/dance/ritual to appease the “Majin of the Mountain”. Under the cover of this festival, an evil Chamberlain stages a coup of the nice local lord. The Lord’s son and daughter escape, eventually settling in near the statue of Majin, an area superstitiously forbidden.
Ten years pass for the New Evil Lord to be evil and generally grind the faces of the poor. The son, now 18, tries to go back to the castle, gets captured, and is scheduled for execution. Having had enough of this Majin nonsense, Lord Evil sends some men to break up the stone statue. They get as far as hammering a big spike into its forehead before they stop, because blood is pouring from the statue’s forehead. The fearful men try to escape, but the earth literally opens up and swallows them.
The former lord’s daughter, who had been captured by the doomed demolition crew, sees this as proof of the Majin’s role as an active god, and offers her life to it if Majin will only save her brother. The stone statue comes to life, and there begins one of the better giant monster sequences of the period.
Waaaaay back in the days when we used a medium called “videotape” to enjoy our movies, ADV Films put out a widescreen VHS of this movie, and good gravy, what a difference that made (I am, incidentally, basing this on the recent Mill Creek Blu-Ray of the Trilogy, which is astounding in quality)! I think Daimajin is one of the first Daiei Studio movies made in the Vista Vision format, and that widescreen is used beautifully throughout. The forced perspective and occasional back projection are flawless, and often breathtaking; this is really some stunning stuff. I could babble all day about it, but basically: it has to be seen.
The second movie, Return of Daimajin (there was a weird mix-up in the names of the movies at some point, so I’m using the title Mill Creek employed), follows the usual sequel route by doing everything bigger: the Evil Lord takes over not one, but two peaceful castles, there are two male heirs in play, and Majin – this time on an island in the middle of a lake – is blown up with black powder. Once again, when the chips are down, and the daughter of one of the deceased Lords is about to be burnt at the stake, she offers her life to Majin, who literally parts the lake like the Red Sea to tromp out and proceed to smish all the bad guys.
The third, Daimajin Strikes Back (which I’ve always known as Wrath of Daimajin, but now my head hurts), shakes up the formula. Majin, apparently tired of being rousted by idiot Evil Lords, has taken to the top of a mountain. An Evil General is kidnapping men from surrounding villages and using them as slave labor to build his fortress and munitions factory near a sulfur lake. This time, our heroes are four boys from a village who trek over Majin’s mountain in an effort to save their fathers and brothers. Also, Majin has an “avatar”, a hawk that flies around and observes everything.
Saddling four child actors with the hero role could have been disastrous, but the result isn’t totally terrible (thankfully). They have some fairly good kid’s adventure stuff going on, escaping from three Evil Samurai over and over again. Our lead kid is a fairly decent actor, which is good, because lacking a Lord’s Daughter character, he’s the one who offers to sacrifice himself to Majin if the god will just save all the others.
Majin has his most extended rampage in this outing, and it is one of the most visually arresting, taking place during a snow storm. The General has cannons at his disposal, which turn out to be predictably useless. And we find out that the sword that Majin has been carrying throughout the trilogy is practical and has a steel blade.
As a whole, the Daimajin trilogy is a nice change of pace for giant monster fans. Though the daikaiju formula here is even more heavily-weighted toward the Big Finish than is usual in most of the giant monster movies, the change in venue is intriguing enough to offset that. The special effects are consistently better than other Daiei monster offerings (sorry, I was never a Gamera fan), and, perhaps harkening back to my upbringing as a Southern Baptist, I can really get into the concept of a god who actually does something… like grinding bad guys to a pulp. Reactionary of me, I know, but I do have my fantasies.
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