Gamera wasn’t the only Daiei kaiju series, nor was it their only successful series. The studio had by 1966 made fourteen films in their Zatoichi series. The period pieces followed a blind masseuse and master sword fighter as he came into contact with numerous crooks and criminals. The series was set in feudal Japan and starred Shintaro Katsu. The films were made by a collection of rotating directors contracted to the studio, with many producing multiple films scattered throughout the series’ timeline. This allowed the studio to facilitate its incredibly fast production schedule. Daiei decided to put this structure to work to make three kaiju films back to back at an incredible pace. Daimajin, Return of Daimajin, and The Wrath of Daimajin all came out in 1966 mere months apart. The series was to be substantially different from Gamera. For one thing they were to be period pieces, like Zatoichi. They were also designed to be headier than the cartoonish Gamera series. Even the titular daikaiju was a standout amongst his irradiated counterparts. The giant Majin is presented as a deity. A giant statue of an armoured man hiding a mythic being, either a frightening demon or benevolent protector.
The movies all utilized roughly the same structure. They all clock in at about an hour and twenty minutes, and in all of them Majin doesn’t show up until the final fifteen minutes or so of the film. By attempting far fewer special effects than your average kaiju film the Daimajin series spends time getting the special effects they do attempt right. However the films’ shared structure, non-existent continuity, and individual approaches to the rules surrounding Majin make the three entries feel less like a trilogy and more like three different versions of the same film. Albeit with different texture.
Still Daiei’s Zatoichi team was made up of pretty accomplished individuals, and they create good films. The first one, Daimajin, was directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, who directed Zatoichi on the Road, The Adventures of Zatoichi, Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, Zatoichi and the Fugitives, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, and some of the Sleepy Eyes of Death series. The film was shot by cinematographer Fujio Morita, who worked on the Sleepy Eyes of Death series, Zatoichi’s Revenge, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, Zatoichi in Desperation, Zatoichi at Large, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, and Rikyu. Daimajin and its two sequels were all written by Tetsurô Yoshida who wrote Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, The Great Yokai War, Samaritan Zatoichi, and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. The second film, Return of Daimajin, was directed by Kazuo Mori who directed Samurai Rebellion, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, Zatoichi at Large, and Zatoichi and the Doomed Man. The third film, Wrath of Daimajin, was directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed The Tale of Zatoichi, a few of the Sleepy Eyes of Death films, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, Zatoichi Challenged, Samaritan Zatoichi, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades, Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice, and The Last Samurai.
The team was essentially designed to be an assembly line pumping out high quality samurai films, and having them include a little bit of magic and kaiju action was pretty simple. It also meant that the length of time prior to Majin’s arrival could be filled with samurai intrigue and it would still be entertaining and engaging despite the lack of monsters and carnage.
Daimajin starts with peasants waiting for a series of terrifying tremors to pass by. They believe the temblors are the result of Majin trying to escape his prison. They pray at a shrine for the shaking to subside. The local feudal leader, Lord Hanabasa, and his scheming Chamberlain Samanosuke. Samanosuke decides this event provides a suitable distraction for his long-planned rebellion. Samanosuke and his loyal warriors slay Hanabasa and his wife, but their son and daughter escape with the help of samurai Kogenta. Samanosuke breaks up the shrine-side gathering of Majin’s epigones. He forbids any such meetings in the future, despite the ominous warnings issued by the peasant’s elder priestess Shinobu.
Shinobu returns to her home to find the hiding samurai and children. Shinobu takes the three up to a temple next to the placid, Kannon-like, statue of Majin. Only she knows the entry to the temple, which will ensure their safety. This all serves as prologue, and the movie’s real narrative picks up after this.
The movie resumes when the boy, Tadafumi, turns eighteen. Surviving men loyal to Hanabasa return to the village. Samanosuke has been ruling over the village as a cruel dictator, forcing every able body into slave labour. Kogenta gets captured by Samanosuke, and held to lure in the missing siblings. Tadafumi gets captured, and both men are sentenced to death. While they’re awaiting their execution, Shinobu attempts to reason with Samanosuke. The drunken Samanosuke becomes so distressed when Shinobu mentions Majin that he has Shinobu killed and promises to destroy the monument. The soldiers sent to find Majin stumble across Tadafumi’s sister and force her to lead them to the statue. They attack the statue’s pate with a large chisel, then freeze. Blood drips from the damaged stone. The men turn to flee, but before they can get to safety the ground cracks open and swallows them up.
Tadafumi’s sister begs Majin to save her brother and best Samanosuke. She offers her own life as a trade and goes to throw herself to her death. Before she can perish however the stones trapping the lower half of Majin fall away, and the statue rises from the ground. It passes its armoured stone arms across its face and the placid stone mask transforms into the leering monster that is Majin’s true form. Majin descends upon Samanosuke’s fortress, wreaking havoc and slaughtering his soldiers. He rescues the two prisoners and corners Samanosuke. In a poetic send-off the mighty demon raises Samanosuke up and drives a chisel through his head. Majin then begins to march towards the nearby innocents, his lust for destruction not yet sated. Tadafumi’s sister yet again offers her life to the spirit, but in the end her tears are enough to halt the monster. His spirit form emerges from the statues and soars into the air, leaving the rocky remnants of Majin to crumble to the ground.
Return of Daimajin sees the statue, still whole, in an entirely different location. The great stone icon is set on an island in the middle of a lake flanked by the idyllic villages of Chigusa and Nagoshi. A third nearby village is ruled over by yet another evil dictator with his sights set on domination. Knowing his suffering citizens often flee to Chigusa he decides to spread out and rule all three villages. Much like the first film we end up with fleeing figures and numerous fugitives winding up near the Majin statue. Eventually the dictator starts to plot against the statue, and he has his men try to destroy it. This time there are no chisels involved, but rather a whole lot of gunpowder. The explosion rends Majin apart and sinks chunks of the statue to the bottom of the lake. A lot like the first film, the samurai drama unfurls before Majin gets involved. This time a woman ends up tied to a cross while the heroes watch. As she’s about to be burned alive she begs Majin for help and he arrives. The film’s most dramatic effects shots occur near the beginning of Majin’s apical rampage. The statue rises up from the lake, unveils his face, and parts the very lake. Like some new testament prophet the demonic statue splits the water apart and stands flanked by two towering walls of rolling water. He then assaults the dictator’s stronghold in a more typical manner, smashing buildings and marching unceasingly forward as he doles out cosmic justice and defends his worshippers.
The third film shakes up the format the most. Wrath of Daimajin relocates the statue of Majin to the very peak of a mountain, instead of a mountainous cave or island. The plot again features an evil warlord who, after a scene giving us a glimpse of Majin’s powers, descends upon a village and enslaves the able-bodied men. The only unguarded route from the village to the labor camps takes the traveller right past the statue of the vengeful god. Instead of focusing on noble samurai, this film follows the children of the enslaved as they attempt to cross the mountain and rescue their fathers. The path is dangerous even before they reach the statue. They almost fall to their deaths, get swept away by a river, and caught by the warlord’s samurai. They stick to it and manage to outwit the dangers. They’re guided along the way by a hawk, Majin’s animal avatar. They reach the statue and pray to it before moving on. Majin eventually wakens when the samurai chasing the children slay his hawk avatar. As blood runs down the hawk’s throat, ichor also flows from Majin’s head. He emerges from the mountaintop and reveals his face. Then he disappears into a glow of orange light. Orange light simultaneously revives the hawk as Majin emerges from a glowing hole in the snow spitting coloured particulae into the air. Majin, answering the pleas of the poor villagers, drives through the warlord’s men and sticks the warlord to a rock with his sword.
The special effects, while scarce when compared to most kaiju entries, are well done. The Majin suit looks good, and its nicely humanoid form makes the job of the actor portraying the spirit a lot easier. The smaller scale of Majin also meant the effects team to produce a few real sized props, including Majin’s hands and feet. The sets are all pretty simple, and the rustic log structures and period pieces make for easy models. The effects team also did a great job matching the suit footage with the scenes shot on sets. One my favourite shots from the trilogy is a long shot from behind of men on roofs. Majin approaches, turns to look at the men, and waves his hand at the roof. The kaiju’s actions are matched nicely to the destruction of the full-sized sets. It’s effective. The optical effects, like Majin’s glowing aura and parting of the lake, are also well done. By limiting the quantity of effects the studio really managed to master the quality. The real-world samurai intrigue and action was pretty much second nature to Daiei’s crew at this point, and the Daimajin trilogy doesn’t see them experimenting that much.
It’s effective despite its slightly rote nature, and is incredibly elevated by the bombastic climaxes. Seeing a kaiju film take a period route, and a mystical route, brings a novelty to the proceedings. The combination of average Daiei samurai movie with a loose kaiju framework makes for a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. A large part of that is just due to the consummate skill of the Daiei Zatoichi team. Their mastery is apparent in the little touches. A shade of hand-held, a slightly lower angle, a nice camera rotation. They communicate the scale of their monstrous creation, and the connectivity of disparate special effects shots, with incredibly effective subtlety. For all the skilled craftsman to work on kaiju films at this point the Daiei team just came from different cloth. They weren’t B-movie manufacturers; they were practiced at producing pieces with a shade more prestige behind them. Consequently they had more skill when it came to the finer touches of filmmaking. Special effects, monster scripts, and kaiju action may not have been their specialty, but cinematography and staging was. The Daimajin trilogy consequently makes for a fascinating contrast. It’s almost like peeking into an alternate reality version of kaiju film.