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DVD SAVANT

THE DAIMAJIN TRILOGY

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

By 1966 the Godzilla series was going strong for Toho, expanding into colorful monster rallies called Kaiju Eiga. In addition to their openly juvenile Gamera movies, Daiei studios went in another direction with a period monster series, a Japanese variant on the Golem legend. Their enormously successful Daimajin character appeared in three films shot back to back in 1966. The first and second pictures were shown on American television as The Giant Majin and Return of Giant Majin, and may have gotten some theatrical release as well. With A.I.P.'s typically poor English dubbing, and pan 'n scan reformatting, they were difficult to evaluate.

Over time, there's been a lot of confusion, as the second and third films were released with identical titles in various regions. A company called ADV has just released all three Daimajin films in one attractive 'Rubbersuit' DVD set, clearing up the confusion. This 3 disc Region 1 set has been given a very low price, $24.98.


Daimajin
A.D. Vision
1966 / Color / 2:35 letterbox flat / 84 min. / The Giant Majin, Majin, Monster of Terror / Street Date October 22, 2002 / $24.98
Starring Miwa Takada, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Jun Fujimaki, Yutaro Gomi, Tatsuo Endo, Riki Hoshimoto
Cinematography Fujio Morita
Special Effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Film Editor Hirochi Yamada
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Written by Tetsuro Yoshida
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Synopsis:

The just and fair Hanabusa clan is violently overthrown by the wicked Samanosuke clan, and retainer Kogenta (Jun Fujimaki) escapes with the only survivors, the children Kozasa (Miwa Takada) and Tadafumi (Yoshihiko Aoyama). They hide in a cave near the idol of the God Majin, a giant stone warrior. Ten years later, the teenaged heirs come out of hiding to discover that Samanosuke has enslaved the populace to build a huge fortress, as a base to conquer his neighbors. When they try to intervene, the hiding Hanabusas are captured, but Kozasa appeals to the idol with prayers. Samanosuke sends a gang of thugs to destroy the idol, and they start by hammering a spike into it. The wound begins to drip blood ...

Very surprisingly, this first Majin adventure is a very good fantasy film that puts a giant, supernatural monster into a samurai context, and bests most of Toho's efforts. Beautifully photographed and lavishly produced, the story plays like a classic fairy tale, and the art direction and special effects are the equal of anything done at the time anywhere in the world.

Toho by now had settled into a formula for its Kaiju Eiga that abandoned attempts at realism for candy-colored artificial spectacle. Most of its monsters were hundreds of feet tall, and frolicked and fought on a huge scale where humans really couldn't interact. Majin only appears to be about 25 feet in height, a Kong-sized juggernaut who rips the chains meant to bind him and shatters fortifications like a kid might hammer to pieces last year's treehouse. Yet he's small enough to pick up a man in his fist and look at him eye to eye. This modest scale makes him more interesting, more personal than a 50-story colossus.

Unlike the typical Toho product, Daimajin's appeal isn't directed only at children, although a scrappy kid character is included in the second half of the show. The tale is given a serious approach, and the supernatural aspect builds from the story and not commercial necessity. The predictable conflict between the heroes and the despotic villain has some weight, mostly because of the care taken with the characters' emotions. Atypically, the heroes have almost no success doing anything. It's refreshing to see a film where sneaking past guards doesn't work, and clever attempts to infiltrate the enemy are soon uncovered.

By the time the giant stone idol comes to life, the fun is well underway. Thanks to very artful and effective mattes and miniatures, Majin's waterfall base takes on a nice magical feeling, and when Samanosuke's men enrage the idol by hammering a spike into its forehead, we all know what's going to happen. Majin's face changes from expressionless stone into a glaring green demon, and he marches to Samanosuke's fort to settle the score.

The Majin's rampage, smashing walls and crushing soldiers, is quite a thrill. It's not kids' stuff, either, as when the idol pulls the spike from his head and uses it to nail the main villain to a wall.

The exact supernatural mechanism animating Majin isn't clearly explained. His coming is preceded by an equally mysterious fireball flying across the sky. Whether he is a God or merely the agent of one, we're not sure. Unlike the Jewish Golem, he's not an obedient robot, and his activation is initiated by personal insult (the spike), instead of any covenant to protect the good citizens from the bad rulers. But the good princess'es prayers, pleading, and especially her tears at the end of the show, have an effect too. There's a tentative relationship between the humans and the Gods, but the communications are poor.


The transfer of Daimajin is satisfactory but not excellent. The flat transfer is a disappointment, because the image cannot be blown up on most 16:9 televisions without cropping off the subtitles. Colors are okay, and the print is in basically good condition, with only a few moments of tape residue and scratches getting in the way. Akira Ifukube's impressive music is well recorded - his style, frankly, fits this film better than many of the Toho monster shows. The film is happily in Japanese with English subs.



The Wrath of Daimajin
A.D. Vision
1966 / Color / 2:35 letterbox flat / min. / Daimajin gyakushu / Street Date October 22, 2002 / $24.98
Starring Kojiro Hongo, Shiho Fujimura, Taro Marui, Takashi Kanda
Camera Fujio Morita
Special Effects Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Editor Kanji Suganuma
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Written by Tetsuro Yoshida
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Synopsis:

Evil Lord Danjo Mikoshiba invades Chigusa by sending spies and infiltrators to a funeral, and following with his army. He thinks good Lord Jiro has escaped to nearby Nagoshi, so he invades that peaceful domain too, holding a prince for hostage until Jiro is liquidated. Jiro has escaped to a magic island on Lake Yakumo, where the giant idol Majin serves as a local God. Danjo blows the idol to bits, and after prolonged fighting, captures all the principals and prepares to kill them, with the virtuous Lady Sayuri affixed to a cross for burning at the stake. That's when Majin chooses to come back to life, parting the ocean so that he can stomp his way to the rescue.

Even if the title throws you, you may have seen this film. I believe I saw it on Los Angeles television in the late 60s, confusingly titled Return of Majin, just like the 3rd sequel. A.I.P. made some pretty strange choices in its television releases.

The original Daimajin was a visual feast, but this (presumed) first sequel The Wrath of Majin is its equal in action and visuals. The basic idea is a bald repeat, so there's a definite lack of novelty, but since the two stories are completely free-standing, there's no harm done. Director Kenji Misumi's samurai action and general action direction are thrilling - he's the main director of the later, wonderful Lone Wolf & Cub / Babycart / Sword of Vengeance series of films.

Here he aquits himself admirably in all aspects, with the cutting particularly well handled. A potentially confusing cast of characters doing similar things is kept well-organized. Only one scene sticks out as stupid, when Danjo's prize prisoner is simply left unattended during his execution, allowing the requisite little kid hero time to free him.

The plotting gets a bit thick in this one, with at least three repetitive trips back and forth from the island, and the cagey Lord Jiro escaping one too many times. This time, the idol seems to be the official keeper of the peace in this corner of feudal Japan, but it doesn't react to save anyone until two domains have been overrun, a passel of virtuous men executed, and his stone likeness blown to bits by Danjo's powdermen.

The novelty comes in the visual embellishments to the formula. Majin's face turning bright crimson, is read as a forecast of trouble. With his head at the bottom of the lake, Majin first manifests as boiling red waters, and when he goes on the march, he strides between gigantic parallel walls of water, similar to the Red Sea scenes in DeMille's epics. His shattered gate looks something like a cross, but the attempted execution of Lady Sayuri by fire is an explicit St. Joan takeoff, with a very Christian martyr feel to it. Majin saves her by breaking the cross off and picking it and her up in his hand, also a very impressive visual. Danjo tries to dynamite Majin in a scene that plays just like a similar attempt in Tarantula! Throughout the effects sequences, the design of the effects and the matte work has a high degree of polish.

Not quite the surprise of the first film, but very nicely produced, The Wrath of Majin brings back more of the same without becoming tiresome.


ADV's transfer of The Wrath of Daimajin is the same as the first film, with rich color. I didn't notice any marring or scratches on this one. Ifukube's music for the parting-of-the-waters scene comes across particularly well.



The Return of Majin
A.D. Vision
1966 / Color / 2:35 letterbox flat / 79 min. / Daimajin ikaru / Street Date October 22, 2002 / $24.98
Starring Shinji Hori, Riki Hoshimoto, Shiei Iizuki, Masahide Kizuka, Hideki Ninomiya
Special effects Yoshiyuki Kuroda
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Written by Tetsuro Yoshida
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Kazuo Mori

Synopsis:

A peaceful mountain village is threatened when its woodsmen are kidnapped by an evil warlord as labor to build a military fortress. With the roads guarded, the only way to reach the captives is over a treacherous path through the forbidden Majin Mountain, where an ominous stone idol stands. Whenever anyone goes to the mountain, terrible storms, floods, and earthquakes ensue; but four little boys disobey their parents and make the journey to save their fathers, braving the elements, the warlord's henchmen, and the giant Majin.

The Return of Daimajin is a 2nd sequel very much in the tradition of not-so-good American sequels - the story is mostly an irrelevant reprise of the events of the first two films and a pretext to repeat the same thrills. By not breaking new ground, or giving the Majin anything innovative to do, it doesn't come off as well. Unlike the first sequel, this diminishes the formula and adds little new of interest.

Yet again an evil warlord uses slave labor to build a fortress, which appears to be constructed on the same site as the fortress in the first film. Most of the running time is devoted to a tedious journey of the four little kids across the mountains. One of the tykes is pretty young, and often has an inappropriate smile on his face, or is looking at the camera, so the believablility of the narrative breaks down and doesn't recover. The villains can't seem to locate the kids or catch up with them, even though they're often in plain sight.

In the first two films, princesses tearfully offered their lives to the God, to spare the innocent and heal the political situation. Here one kid is drowned, and another's father boiled alive. Then two more tots seem to die of a fall, and another commits suicide by jumping off a cliff, just to show his sincerity to the God. That's a curious message to kids - run away from home and kill yourselves to save your country. Three of the boys are miraculously resurrected by Majin, but I guess the earlier drowning victim is plumb out of luck.

With a script this bland, not much excitement is generated until the Majin is again unleashed. There's no story connection with the previous films, as the statue is found standing out in the open on the mountain. The artful design and build-up of the first two adventures is mostly undeveloped here. There's not a great deal of excitement seeing the villains get their just desserts. The main interest is seeing the giant idol (which this time out glows like a phantom, and has a similarly-charmed eagle assistant) fight in the middle of a blizzard. The effects sequence is technically adroit - at one point the giant Majin pulls his sword and uses it to very graphically skewer the main villain.

I've seen several reference sources that confuse sequel #'s 2 and 3, probably because both shared the 'Return of' title in some markets. Return of Majin appears to be the third, and weakest of the three, if ADV's chronology is correct. The care taken with this set convinces me they do.


The transfer of The Return of Majin isn't quite as good as the first two, with digital patterning showing up in a few shots during the boys' long trek. The whites clip too often, resulting in waterfalls that are just big patches of white. Thankfully, all the snow scenes are very dark, so they still look rich and detailed. But when the glowing effects envelop Majin, the whites again look blown-out.


Overall, the Daimajin Trilogy set is an exceptional bargain, with reasonably good versions of the three somewhat repetitious Majin movies. The cover art is beautiful, with a graphic style that carries over to the menu design. The three discs are numbered out of sequence (I think), which caused me to confuse the 2nd and 3rd titles all over again.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Daimajin Trilogy rates:
Movies: Very Good, Very Good, Okay ..
Video: Good, Good, fair
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: The 'trailer' is a new montage set to synthesizer music, that spoils highlights from all three films - see it afterwards.
Packaging: 3-disc keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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