- Ravi Swami
"DaiMajin", Dir: Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1966
If there's a film that I wondered about for a long time after seeing images like the ones posted in the gallery above, then it's "Daimajin" - the poster in a sense gives the game away a little too early by placing the "monster" center stage but then in an era dominated by the runaway success of the "Godzilla" films produced by Japan's Toho studios, it made total sense from a marketing point of view to show audiences what they could expect from the film, produced by Toho's main rival, Daiei, the studio also responsible for the "Gamera" series of "Kaiju" films.
The success of "Daimajin" resulted in it being the first in a trilogy, which are all available to view on the Apple TV streamer, and fortunately I was able to watch the first film for the first time and I'm pleased to report that it doesn't disappoint, in spite of the posters.
Set in Medieval Japan, a benevolent warlord is overthrown by his evil second-in-command while the villagers he rules over are gripped by a superstitious belief in the protecting spirit that resides in a mountain overlooking their village. Periodic earthquake-like rumbles attributed to the spirit, or "Majin", that terrorise the villagers, have to be placated with a ceremony where mask wearing dancers surround a straw effigy of the Majin before it is set on fire.
A priestess, whose son is also a guardian of the warlord's young children, presides over the ceremony to the angry deity, whose summoning will wreak destruction if aroused for any reason.
When the evil second-in-command successfully overthrows and kills the warlord, he proceeds to enslave the villagers, forcing them to help build a new stone gate and fortress walls, before he embarks on a path of conquest of neighbouring cities.
Meanwhile the children, a boy and a girl, are taken to a safe place - the home of the priestess - by her son, before she instructs them to climb the sacred and haunted mountain of the "Majin" where she knows the superstitious villagers will be too scared to venture, and it is there, at the top of a waterfall, that they see the enormous stone idol of the Majin behind which there is a secret cave entrance supposedly created by the gods themselves, where they will be safe from harm.
The story jumps to 10 years hence - a period of time promised by the warlord's loyal followers as being when they will attempt to wrest control from the evil second-in command and restore his son, the young prince, to his rightful place as ruler alongside his sister.
The sister has grown into a beautiful young woman and her brother, the prince, is a warrior eager to avenge his father's death, but first they must find a way to overthrow the evil second -in command who has almost broken the spirit of the villagers who belong to a different clan, by his cruelty.
The children's guardian makes an attempt at infiltrating the village but is captured when the evil second-in-command's cruel general recognizes him, and he is subsequently tortured in order to reveal the location of the old warlord's children. When he refuses, he is hung upside down in the centre of the quarry where the villagers are forced to break rocks for the building of the new fortress but it is really a ruse to draw the young son there so that they can imprison and later execute both of them.
A villagers' son whose mother has been left to die and who later witnesses his father being tortured and hung upside down determines to visit the shrine of the mountain spirit in order to pray for the end of their suffering but he is warned off from doing this by the priestess, who is unaware that her son has been captured and tortured. When the boy tells her, she allows him to see the stone idol while she decides to try and plead for mercy from the evil second-in-command, with a dire warning that destruction will befall him and the village if the angry "DaiMajin", protector of their village, is summoned, but he mocks her before killing her as she utters her dying curses.
This might seem like a very long preamble before we actually finally see the DaiMajin but the plotting and pacing of what is the bulk of the film, along with atmospheric art direction and cinematography is so carefully constructed that when you *do* see the DaiMajin - the stone idol come to life - it has considerable impact, supported by a terrific brooding musical score.
Clearly Daiei pulled out all the stops in every department, from art direction to visual effects, which are as good as anything produced by Toho, combined with the interesting medieval setting of the story and the end result is something that could easily exist alongside the fantasy mythical works of Ray Harryhausen, except that the lumbering DaiMajin is a combination of a man in a suit and a giant-sized "animatronic" puppet, depending upon the requirements of the shot, and invites fair comparison with the stop-motion technique due to the ponderous movements of what is essentially a stone giant come to life, aided by excellent process work combining shots of the villagers with the "suitmation" DaiMajin.
By the time we see the DaiMajin the die has been cast and there is sufficient rationale for the giant to wreak a terrible revenge on the villagers, and the evil second-in command is pursued before being skewered to a wooden post with an iron shaft that his followers had driven into the head of the stone idol in order to destroy it, before being consumed by an earthquake.
This is a film that is quite full-on as regards savage sword fights, torture scenes and the horrific and graphic death of the villainous second-in-command and reminded me very much of similar tales in Indian mythology that don't spare grisly details for wrong-doers, suggesting shared cultural connections, and the end result succeeds on many fronts.
It will be interesting to watch the remainder of the trilogy which apparently tread a similar plot arc, and especially if, in line with the later "Godzilla" films, to see if the violence and horror had been toned down for a younger audience to make the DaiMajin a more benign presence, like a stone equivalent of Toho's "Ultraman".
"DaiMajin", Dir: Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1966