Not the Usual Suspects – Japanese Horror

First the the capitaine yells at the gendarmes, “Round up the usual suspects! ‘ When it comes to Halloween we know who they are. The older generation of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. Then there are the moderns, Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers and that dreadful doll Chucky. I am rarely interested in endless repetitive series, if it’s more than a trilogy I’m gone. We won’t be covering them here. Neither are the classic figures of black and white movie days in danger of another lineup.

Daimajin Bluray coverAt one point I had a roommate who watched a lot of TV, but spent almost every Saturday with her boyfriend. This left me a chance to enjoy Samurai Saturday in the afternoon. I discovered a lot of great Japanese movies beyond the Godzilla & Co. monster franchises. This is where I found Daimajin. Unlike most Japanese monsters, spawned by radiation in modern days, Daimajin appears in human form, wearing samurai armor, and belonging to that period of Japanese history. It’s just that he’s made of stone and enormous.  Created in 1966, all three films were made together in one series of shooting, although by three different directors, and released the same year. The first film was Daimajin, which introduces the story of the titular monster, followed by two sequels  –  Daimajin Ikaru (Wrath of the Majin) and Daimajin Gyakushu (The Return of Majin).

Daimajin, renamed Majin, Monster of Terror for the American market, follows the format set out by latter day Toho/Daiei epics from the era. Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda (best known for his Zatoichi films) sets out to recreate the time and place of feudal Japan. He  gives us a typical story of political uprising, a cruel warlord’s bloody coup, and rescued aristocratic offspring who must go into hiding among the peasants until they can return to reclaim their birthright and avenge their parents. Sandwiched into the basic plot Yasuda gives us insight into the historic pecking order, makes reference to the samurai code, and includes lots of lore on the supposed ancient Japanese gods and rituals. Chief among these is  a constant reminder than Shino, a friendly warrior entity, must be appeased, less Daimajin get mad and start rampaging around the countryside. In the first film, our evil dictator decides to tear down the stone figure sitting near the top of the sacred waterfall, scorning local belief, and even going so far as to have his men drive a stake in Majin’s forehead. The results, or course, are fatal, as the sculpture comes to life with payback on its mind.

It has to be said that Majin, Monster of Terror has some very good old fashioned physical F/X work. Yasuda takes the finale very seriously, and Majin is definitely not your standard beast monster. Instead, he crushes people underfoot. The giant spike the villain had driven into his head as a means of dispatching the object of his anger. What most impressed me was the focus, not on the gore of squashed victims, (there really is none), but on the obviously human face of  the actor in the suit, once the Maijin comes alive. Although covered in heavy makeup and not speaking a word, he projects a wonderful malevolence as he wreaks havoc on all in his path.

Daimajin makes you feel like the spiritual world is intent on karma and supporting good values in the world, on an almost Biblical scale. Majin provides a literal example of how the term  “god-fearing” came into being. It is a dark, foreboding tale of haunted forests, mountainside castles and monumental forces only held in check by faith and ritual. It’s violent, and has much to say about faith, loyalty and blasphemy. Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, the story of Daimajin iechoes the 1920s silent German film The Golem. While it does contain the elements that make Toho/Daiei movies so memorable (over the top, scenery chewing villains for example) there is still an authentic feel of the period and the Japanese view of the supernatural found in nature.

It’s a formula followed again in the second film featured, referred to as Return of the Giant Majin (actually, Daimajin ikaru). Again, an evil overlord trounces the legitimate local authority, ruthlessly brutalizes the people, and of course manages to invoke the ire of someone better off not annoyed. Kazuo Mori directs this first sequel, and the difference in tone is immediate. It’s more brightly lit and reminiscent of the sprawling Kurosawa samurai epics. Some people might find the run up to the monster madness a little long but I like the build of of drama (or melodrama if you prefer) and some kind of story in a movie, not just things being smashed up. Plenty of modern CGI movies if you want that. Eventually, everyone figures out that, by praying to Majin, he can be roused to inflict some instant karma on the bad guys. Each of the directors took these last act destruction set pieces quite seriously.

The third and final in the trilogy, is probably the closest to typical daikaiju (great moster) films.  Directed by Kenji Misumi, Daimajin Strikes Back is much less dark and the horror is given secoond place behind an adventure tale that centers on the Majin statue coming to the aid and prayers of four young children, who embark on a dangerous quest through the deity’s mountain to free their enslaved fathers from another evil warlord.

The 2002 ADV Films release of the trilogy had been out of print for years but thankfully the folks at Mill Creek Entertainment haven’t forgotten about the importance and quality of the Daimajin trilogy, and released the films on Blu-ray in 2012.  All three films have been cleaned up to look good-as-new and retain their original 2.35:1 widescreen format, Also included is a lengthy and extremely informative interview with the brilliant cinematographer Fujio Morita, who gives insight into the unique look he gave these films and the problems that came with the often complex film shoots.The Majin movies are still a refreshing change, a great variation on standard samurai movies as well as an alternative to both standard creature feature Japanese horror films and the terminally depressing modern ones like Ringu.

About angela1313

I am a cat lover, a writer, and an overextended blogger trying to foster for a cat rescue, finish a Master's degree and rehab a fixer upper house i bought.
This entry was posted in Archetype and Myth, Films, Joys of Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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