If you tune into the Internet Movie Database and search for details on Daimajin, you'll see the User Review that begins "this is that stone statue movie that we've all seen as kids." Given that the reader is of the same age strata, this is pretty much correct; AIP-TV imported this Japanese fantasy under the title Majin, Monster of Terror, just so that there could be no doubts that it was a monster movie.
Indeed, I first encountered Daimajin under that title on Project: Terror, the same show which introduced me to the likes of Reptilicus and Space Monster. The Monster of Terror sobriquet helped, too, because my little 12 year old brain kept wondering, "Where's this Monster of Terror?" This is but one of the things that make the Majin films different from other Kaiju films. The other is the fact that the movies take place in Japan circa (approximately) the 17th century.
The movie opens with a household of peasants cowering during a series of earth tremors that are interpreted as the escape attempts of "the Majin of the Mountain", a spirit trapped within said geological formation. The entire village gathers at their shrine to pray Majin will remain imprisoned. This torchlit parade is observed by the local feudal boss, Lord Hanabasa, a good and just type. It is also observed by his chamberlain, Samanosuke (Yutaro Gomi), who is an evil and unjust type. Samanosuke has been waiting for just such a diversion to stage a coup d'etat.
As the villagers pray their little hearts out, Samanosuke and his henchmen attack and slaughter Hanabasa and his wife, but their son and daughter escape, aided by the heroic samurai Kogenta (Jun Fujimaki). Meanwhile, back at the shrine, Samanosuke's men break up the prayer meeting, forbidding all such gatherings in the future. The priestess issues a dire warning against forbidding the prayers, but the bad guys (being bad guys and all) ignore her.
Discouraged, the priestess, Shinobu, goes home, only to find herself the last hope of Kogenta and the two children. She takes them up the side of the mountain, into forbidden territory, where the stone idol which is Majin stands, half-buried in the living rock. Near this idol is an ancient temple - the only safe place for the children, as only Shinobu knows of its existence.
Ten years pass, and the children grow to adulthood. The son, Tadafumi (Yoshihiko Aoyama) reaches his 18th birthday, and high time to reclaim his throne, to his thinking. In fact, the last ten years have been pretty hard on the villagers: Samanosuke is the ideal poster boy for tyranny, and he is currently using every man in the starving village as slave labor to build his fortress. The place is ripe for revolution, and surviving Hanabasa retainers are starting to filter in on the tenth anniversary of the coup.
Kogenta journeys to the village to try to gather the old retainers, but gets himself captured. A Boy (yeah, yeah, I forgot to write down his name) gets word to Tadafumi and his sister, Kozasa (Miwa Takada) that their friend is a prisoner. Tadafumi, being a brave young samurai, tries to rescue him, only to discover it's all a trap laid by Samanosuke. With both the men under arrest and awaiting execution, Shinobu tries to talk some sense into the tyrant, who is drinking way too much and becomes incensed at all this talk of the god of the mountain; he murders the priestess and orders the idol demolished, to all the more thoroughly demoralize the villagers.
The crew that travels up the mountain to smash Majin accidentally discovers Kozasa, and forces her to take them to the idol. When repeated beatings with sledgehammers do no good, the soldiers break out an enormous chisel and proceed to hammer it into Majin's head; they are soon forced to stop when blood begins dripping from around the chisel. Horrified, the men flee, but to no avail - the ground literally opens up and swallows them.
Seeing the god suddenly get so proactive, Kozasa falls to her knees before it, begging Majin to save her brother and punish the wicked Samanosuke. Meanwhile, at the fortress, Tadafumi and Kogenta are tied to large crosses, awaiting their fates. Kozasa, sensing no reaction from the idol, offers her life to Majin and attempts to throw herself over the nearby waterfall, stopped only by the Boy. This is apparently good enough for Majin. The rock and earth covering the lower half of the idol falls away, and the fifty-foot statue walks out into the clearing. Kozasa prostrates herself before it, and the idol gestures before its face: the stone mask disappears, revealing the true face of Majin, alive, green, and looking very pissed-off.
Samanosuke orders his henchmen to stab his prisoners with their long spears; this was what the old retainers and rebels were waiting for, as they attack. Unfortunately, this is what the wily Samanosuke was also waiting for, as his concealed riflemen and archers make short work of the revolution. After a hardy bad guy laugh, Samanosuke orders the execution to proceed.
But once more, Tadafumi and Kogenta are spared, as black clouds obscure the sun and a blue fireball buzzes the courtyard, eventually hitting the ground and becoming the living Majin, who proceeds to take apart Samanosuke's nice new fortress and smish all his henchmen in varying ways. Samanosuke himself, of course, gets the royal treatment; pursued through his castle like a sniveling cur, he is finally caught by Majin and carried into the courtyard like a doll (well, it's not that obvious...). Majin then places the despot against a ruined wall and, plucking the chisel from its own forehead, proceeds to nail the villain there, like a grotesque butterfly.
Which would all be well and good, except that we now find out why everybody wanted Majin to stay put in the mountain - the idol now turns its wrath upon the villagers. Only Kozasa, once more offering her life and letting her teardrops fall on his stone feet, stops Majin's rampage. He fireballs away again, leaving the good guys to pick up the pieces, and to await once more a parade of injustice to awaken him from his cold sleep.
This is why the Majin movies are not your average kaiju: the title creature takes a nap through the first two-thirds of the movie. They're more like morality plays than full-blown monster movies - the bad guys get to be really bad for an hour, then Majin comes to life, and the bad guys all suffer really bad deaths. It puts you in mind of a generic episode of Kung Fu, where you sit through forty-five minutes of "Hey, Chinaman!" just to see Kane finally kick some butt in the last ten.
Which is not meant to be a negative comment - director Kimiyoshi Yasuda keeps things interesting, and the payoff in the final act is worth it. The other intriguing aspect of the Majin films is the time period; in the absence of jet fighters and tanks, Majin has to deal with the best technology Samanosuke has to offer - flintlock rifles, catapults, and (ingeniously) enormous lengths of chains stretched across the road. These all have the same effect that jets and tanks have on Godzilla or Gamera (i.e., none), but the change of pace is a lot of fun.
Also, it's the religious overtones that appeal to my Southern Baptist roots - when God is prayed to in these movies, God eventually comes down and enacts some pretty brutal retribution, which is, I admit, The Way I Think Things Oughtta Be. And if they were that way, there was a certain junior high school student of my unfortunate acquaintance who would have been a grease stain on the pavement long, long ago (or now, seeing as how Majin seems to work at a very leisurely pace. I'm relatively certain the bully in question either beats his wife, children, or dogs, wherever he is now).
Okay, psychodrama now over...
Mention has to be made of the work of Effects Director Yoshiyuki Kuroda, who has managed to put onscreen some of the finest giant monster footage I've had the pleasure to encounter. Through careful matching of camera movements, Majin appears to be wholly real and occupying the same world as the humans he towers over. The sequence is only marred by a giant rubber hand that looks like it was on loan from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Past that, the Majin scenes are practically flawless, and entirely satisfying.
ADV Films, those nice people that brought you the letterboxed Destroy All Monsters, have issued a gloriously letterboxed edition of Daimajin. There's a little speckle and wear at the very beginning, but the rest of the print is beautifully pristine. The widescreen presentation was also a revelation, as I found myself pondering, again and again, how did I ever think I had seen this movie? Yasuda makes such full, fruitful use of the whole frame, the pan-and-scan version of this movie must have lacked on any number of levels. Daimajin is full of pretty pictures, and only the jarring inclusion of a couple of hand-held camera shots spoil the proceedings.
The only downside of the ADV tape might be in the translation of the subtitles. I curse my fate regularly that I have one of those brains that doesn't deal well with other languages, as there at least five I can name off the top of my head I would love to speak. So I can't really say if the confusing quality of some of the subtitles is due to a too-literal translation or possibly a decision to not "localize" it - to make a few of the more uniquely Asian phrases and concepts more Western. Majin goes from a spirit to a demon to a god. Is Shinobu really Kogenta's aunt or is he only employing the Asian honorific for an older woman?
The most glaring - to me - instance is when the Boy informs Shinobu of the fate of the captured Kogenta: "They dangled him outside." Dangled him? I remember that Majin, Monster of Terror introduced me to the phrase "hung by his heels". It doesn't take that much longer to read "Hung him by his heels". And Samanosuke's brisk bark to his spear-weilding executioners to "Pierce them!" is somewhat less dramatic than one would hope.. Ah, well, I suppose I have to complain about something....
Because if you're a fan of fantasy, genre, or just plain Japanese films, Daimajin is a fabulous find. ADV issued all three Majin films at the same time, which means, in the months to come, I can safely look forward to the sequels. The last time I saw Return of Daimajin was over ten years ago, and I have never seen Wrath of Daimajin. These are those rarities: kaiju movies that have not been overexposed by fans, imitators or parodies, that truly stand on their own as a unique brand of film.
And Devlin and Emmerich will never touch them.
Good samurai melodrama followed by great kaiju!
- February 28, 1999