[13 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the hierarchy of oversized Japanese icons, Majin (or Daimajin in the native tongue) barely registers on the fanbase firmament. Several slots below reigning king of all kaiju, Godzilla, and barely within breathing room of the giant lizard’s chief rival, the elephantine turtle terror Gamera, this legendary golem-like figure remains an afterthought in the whole Toho/Daiei rivalry. Created in 1966, when every child’s favorite amphibian was kicking some incredible box office butt, the mythic stone statue turned green faced avenger was introduced to movie audiences in the film Daimajin. Instantly successful (people just couldn’t get enough of humongous beings breaking up miniature communities as part of their entertainment ideals), two sequels quickly followed – Daimajin ikaru (Wrath of the Majin) and Daimajin Gyakushu (The Return of Majin).
But it took AIP, and their television division, for the warlord waxing effigy to make an appearance on American soil. Redubbed into English, stripped of their CinemaScope grandeur, and reduced to Saturday matinee kiddie fodder, the Majin films made a minor dent in the demographic, using their period piece pronouncements to further illustrate the Eastern obsession with tradition, heritage and honor. Barely remembered by new generations of Godzilla/Gamera lovers, Image Entertainment now releases a delightful double feature of the vengeance minded figurine’s first two films. Though barely passable when it comes to technological specifics (these are still the Western speaking full screen versions being offered) the actual films are filled with the kind of special effects ridiculousness that make most kaiju a crackerjack culpable contentment.
Daimajin (here renamed Majin, Monster of Terror) follows the format set out by latter day Toho/Daiei epics from the era. Instead of giving us all kind of bad ass monster mashing right up front, director Kimiyoshi Yasuda (best known for his Zatoichi films) sets out to recreate the time and place of feudal Japan. He explains the historic pecking order, briefly breaches the samurai code, and then gives us a typical story of political uprising, a cruel warlord’s bloody coup, and the rescued royal offspring who will lie in wait until the time comes for their return to power. In between we get lots of ancient Japanese gods and rituals, a constant reminder than Shino (a friendly warrior entity) must be appeased, less Majin get mad and start kicking country rube rear end. In the first film, our evil dictator decides to tear down the stone figure sitting near the top of the sacred waterfall, even going so far as to have his men drive a stake in Majin’s forehead. The results, or course, are fatal as our sculpture comes to life with payback on its mind.
Naturally, this all Hell breaks loose action sequence takes about 80 minutes to arrive. Before then, Yasuda gives us riffs on The Ten Commandments (a slave building the warlord’s fort is left to be crushed by oncoming columns before a local man saves his life) and standard melodramatic mush (a young boy constantly pesters his imprisoned father about a dying mother Daddy can do nothing about) before bringing on the successful city smashing. It has to be said that Majin, Monster of Terror has some very good old fashioned physical F/X work, especially when you consider that some of the Godzilla/Gamera oeuvre is laugh out loud terrible when it comes to their blue screen silliness. Here, Yasuda takes the finale very seriously, and Majin is definitely not your standard fire-breathing beast. Instead, he crushes people underfoot (sadly, no blood is shown) and uses the giant spike in his head as a means of dispatching the object of his anger.
Cathartic in its approach to man in suit justice, Daimajin makes you feel like the spiritual world is setting things right amongst the players of the corporeal plane, and while it does contain those dopey, jaw dropping elements that make Toho/Daiei movies so memorable (overdone villains chewing the scenery, moments of narrative illogic), there is still a real feeling for the time and place presented. It’s a formula followed almost to the letter by the second film featured, referred to as Return of the Giant Majin (actually, Daimajin ikaru). Again, an evil overlord trounces the legitimate local authority, goes despot on the dominion, and needs a 10 ton stone reminder of why such authoritarian atrocities don’t float the ghost world’s boat. Before we know it, another rubber encased stunt man is walking ramshackle over balsa wood homes as a cast of thousands flee his rear projection wrath.
Like the first film, we must suffer through plot points that purposely exaggerate our desire for revenge (peasants getting killed, children in perpetual peril) and wait incessantly while everyone final figures out that, by praying to Majin, karma will come along and boot some totalitarian tocks. It’s interesting how serious the filmmakers take these last act destruction set pieces. For some reason, American’s never really got behind the whole giant being/city destroying genre. Examples were usually reserved for bad B-movies (The Amazing Colossal Man) or nature gone nutty extravaganzas (Them!, Beginning of the End). But the Japanese, obviously influenced by the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, used the Godzilla/Gamera films – and all their Mothra/Rodan variations – as a symbol of how unstable life really is. One day, you’re a nation at war with the most powerful country in the world. The next, a mutant bomb wipes out an entire town.
Scholars have long discussed the correlation between nuclear proliferation and the Toho/Daiei efforts, finding parallels between the world’s rapid rise toward atomic armament and the destruction of the environment via global grousing and disrespect. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Majin movies don’t make a larger impression. There is no dialogue drawing a link between the statue and some simmer modern political problem, no symbolic stance where a transformed beast destroys the army that more or less created him. No, what we have here is cinematic vigilante justice, pure and simple, a chance for audiences to feel the cathartic curative facets of a malevolent boss belittled, a cruel taskmaster destroyed. While Godzilla and Gamera can definitely stand in for the natural order run amok, the more spiritual, theological nature of Majin keeps it insular and unique.
All problems with popularity aside, the Majin movies are still a great deal of fun. While it would have been nice to see all three films here (now out of print, ADV Films released the entire trilogy back in 2002), the pair offered up by Retromedia and Image recall rainy weekend days seated in front of the TV, juvenile eyes starring in wide delight as mythic beings beat the Bejesus out of each other on a glorified grand scale. Maybe one day, our man Majin will find a fan club capable of pushing it over the top, allowing it to take his rightful place alongside a massive moth, a revamped reptile and a titanic tortoise. As it stands, The Giant Majin Collection reminds us that certain styles of cinema are inherent to specific cultural setting. Thank god the Japanese love their bigger than life figures of retribution. Schlock cinema would be nothing without them.
Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD version of The Giant Majin Collection was released on 9 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here