Everybody Must Get Stoned: Stomping Through Feudal Japan With The Stone God Daimajin
In 1966, Daei released a trilogy of relatively sober kaiju films, the Daimajin series. In each, a giant stone god comes to life, usually at the behest of pious villagers who are being treated badly by some power-mad warlord. The stone god proceeds to unleash a Biblical level of vengeance upon the subjugators, reverting to the statue only when his anger has been spent.
When getting ready to write this review, I attempted to determine the actual release order of the films, which were apparently all shot back to back and then released in the same year. In 2002, ADV Films released all three movies in one DVD set (now out of print). According to the printing on the discs, Return of Daimajin is film number two but on the insert, Wrath of Daimajin is listed as number two. To further confuse things, both Return and Wrath have been released at some time in the US under the title Return of Daimajin. So for the purposes of this review, I’m going to refer to them by their Japanese titles, Daimajin ikaru (Return of Daimajin) and Daimajin gyakushu (Wrath of Daimajin).
The first Daimajin film was directed by Yasuda Kimiyoshi, a veteran jidai geki (period film) director for Daei. By the time he helmed Daimajin, he had already done a couple of Zatoichi and Nemuri Kyoshiro (Sleepy Eyes of Death) films, and he brought this eye for jidai geki to his kaiju crossover. Those expecting Godzilla-like levels of excitement could be disappointed, as the Daimajin films are samurai movies masquerading as giant monster films, and not the other way around. They’re relatively understated, and never does Daimjin fight another monster—only hapless samurai.
The first Daimajin sets the template: pious villagers worship and revere the Daimajin, a large statue of a samurai-armor-wearing demon. In the middle of a ceremony to assure that he’ll stay sealed in the stone statue, usurpers within the local daimyo‘s castle perform a coup d’etat, take over, and shut down all that superstitious nonsense. In the midst of the confusion, the lord’s young son and sister escape into Daimajin’s mountain and hide out for ten years, returning at last to attempt to rescue the villagers from the yoke of the usurpers. Of course, things don’t go quite as well as planned and the young lord is captured. Pretty soon Daimajin wakes up, fully pissed off. A good half-hour of giant stone god samurai trampling ensues.
Daimajin ikaru sees the plot replicated, only this time it’s a neighboring warlord that enslaves Daimajin’s worshippers. The film was directed by Misumi Kenji, a Daei contract director who went on to head most of the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Daimajin ikaru never reaches the heights of violence of those films, but it is the “roughest” of the trilogy, with the invading warlord delighting in slapping the film’s young lord hero, and attempting to burn a pious member of the toppled daimyo family to death. Daimajin will have none of this. Slow-motion destruction ensues.
Daimajin ikaru is my favorite of the three. It’s the darkest and has the best effects. Daimajin actually parts a lake to get from his island home to shore. The effect of the water cascading down on either side of him is pretty damn impressive.
The last of the series, Daimajin gyakushu, pretty much stinks. Maybe that’s being a little harsh, but the protagonists of this one are children and that’s never a good sign for a kaiju series. Gamera went downhill fast after he started kowtowing to every short-shorts-wearing kid who shouted his name. Thankfully Daimajin doesn’t stoop so low as to let the kids ride on his shoulders but he actually saves the life of one of them. Doesn’t he know the movie would be better if they died, preferably under his giant stone foot?
The plot should sound familiar: a warlord in the territory neighboring Daimajin’s is capturing Daimajin’s worshipers and forcing them into slavery. Four sons of captured villagers strike out over Daimajin’s mountain to rescue them. It’s starting to look bad until Daimajin comes to life and, well, you get the idea. If Daimajin gyakushu has one thing going for it, it’s the look of the picture. With its gorgeous outdoor shots and rich colors, it looks as if Inagaki Hiroshi could have been in charge. Of course, the similarities end there.
Daei would again dive into the rubber suit/samurai crossover realm a few years later with its Yokai Monsters trilogy, which included 100 Monsters (1968), Spook Warfare (1968), and Along With Ghosts (1969).