Daiei’s Idol of Terror: DAIMAJIN, THE AVENGING GOD
Author: Ed Godziszewski
Revised and Updated from Monster Attack Team #7 (1997)
1966 was a vintage year for Japanese fantasy and science fiction films- the Golden Age of Toho was still in full bloom, with THE ADVENTURES OF TAKLAMAKAN (Kiganjo no Boken), WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Furankenshutain no Kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira), and GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER (Gojira, Ebira, Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto) all seeing release. Rival studio Daiei was likewise enjoying a Golden Age of its own, following up the success of GAMERA (Daikaiju Gamera, US title GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE, 1965) with GAMERA VS BARUGON (Daikaiju Ketto-Gamera tai Barugon, aka WAR OF THE MONSTERS) as well as a unique trio of period fantasy films in which the title character was a giant statue called Daimajin. MAJIN (Daimajin), THE RETURN OF MAJIN (Daimajin Ikaru) and MAJIN STRIKES AGAIN (Daimajin Gyakushu) all followed the same basic formula: modest production values, the typical samurai drama of evil oppressors versus innocent commoners, and an avenging god summoned by a desperate plea for help. While simple in concept, the story behind the series contains some surprises.
The idea for a series of films about a huge stone idol coming to life in order to punish the wicked came to the duo of producer Masaichi Nagata and special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda in November of 1965. Interviewed about the genesis of this project, the pair both noted that this concept was obviously inspired by the old German film THE GOLEM (Der Golem), its story concerning a human-sized stone idol which came to life to wreak vengeance upon evildoers. However, rather than copy this image, their idea was to translate the story into a Japanese style legend, and as such it would be best to frame the story in the days of feudal Japan when superstition and worship of various god- like images was common. During those days, the Japanese people had a decidedly paganish view of the natural and supernatural… nearly every type of natural phenomenon and (especially) disaster was attributed to some type of god or “Majin”. All things natural had a spirit of sorts behind them, and the most powerful of these spirits were revered as gods. The most well known of these Majin were Huujin, the god of the wind; Raijin, god of thunder and rain; and Hishin, the god of fire; each of which has been depicted numerous times in ancient drawings.
The cinematic concept of Daimajin was derived from this Japanese view of gods, i.e. a supernatural being who controlled or represented forces of nature. However, the images of the gods Huujin, Raijin, and Hishin were decidedly non-cinematic…for example, Huujin was a rotund humanoid who carried a bag on his back which harnessed the wind, while Raijin was seen as a squat and balding figure with huge drums from which thunder rumbled- historically accurate, but hardly appropriate to adapt to the celluloid story of an avenging god. As a result, the filmmakers searched for an image, which, while not actually representing a genuine Japanese legend, would be a believable extension of the Japanese culture and fill the role of the Golem.
Together with designer Ryo Takayama, Nagata and Kuroda settled upon the image of a stone warrior, the basic design of which was taken from ancient clay figures. In addition to the warrior god concept, the creators also borrowed the idea of the statue being buried in the ground from an actual tradition. In ancient times, prior to going off to battle, warriors would bury a small statue of Buddha in the ground then pray for good fortune. Aware of this tradition, the filmmakers adapted it by having the people bury a giant statue in the ground then pray to it, replacing the Buddha with the giant warrior as a dramatic device.
What exactly does the name “Daimajin” mean? While literal translation can be done by most anyone with a good dictionary and some patience, the best result also requires looking beyond the literal to grasp context and intent since literal meaning varies from culture to culture. The most literal way to translate the phrase would be ‘Evil God’ or ‘Horrible God’, while the continuity script for the film uses the English translation “The Great Devil”. While technically correct and perhaps best descriptive of the character in the first film, MAJIN, in English these translations also create a somewhat misleading impression from what the creators intended over the series. ‘Evil’, ‘horrible’ and ‘devil’ all have strong negative connotations, as if the spirit were as evil as the forces which it appeared to vanquish. While they effectively conjure up an image of a god who was feared by the people, when considering the series as a whole an alternate translation such as ‘Angry God’ may be most appropriate for the character… the gods were always thought to be unhappy or angry at the transgressions of men, hence the reason they would unleash the destructive forces of nature on the common folk. In the case of the evil lords Daimajin dispatches on film, ample evidence is presented to justify the anger of the god. And if ever there was an angry god, one look at Daimajin is enough to convince viewers that THIS is one angry god.
True to its inspiration, Majin’s appearances and departures depict varying manifestations of nature. The Japanese believed that supernatural spirits inhabited all aspects of nature such as mountains, lakes, forests, etc. Majin is known as the “god of the mountain”, a god, which is both feared and respected. In MAJIN, a windstorm and dark clouds herald Majin’s appearance, the god’s spirit arriving as a fireball. Majin mastery of the elements is displayed when the idol is encircled by burning wagons… crossing its arms, Majin lowers it’s gaze and disperses the flames with an outward sweep of it’s arms. When its anger has been appeased, Majin’s spirit returns to the mountain and the statue disintegrates into dust, returning to the earth from whence it came.
While Majin opens an earthquake to create a fiery fissure and swallow up the soldiers who would destroy its statue, the recurrent element of the second film, THE RETURN OF MAJIN, is water. The soldiers succeed in destroying Majin’s statue with explosives, its head falling into the lake, but Majin emerges from the water in a magnificently staged scene, parting the waters much like Moses parting the Red Sea. The evil lord attempts to flee in a boat but instead meets his end, crucified and burned to death while surrounded by water. Majin finally returns to its mountain and the statue dissolves into a fountain of water.
In the third film, MAJIN STRIKES AGAIN, Majin’s mastery over nature is overtly demonstrated as the opening montage shows the god, angry at the people, causing various natural catastrophes… floods, drought, earthquakes, storms, blizzards, etc. Majin is also embodied in the form of a falcon, which keeps watch over the mountain. The dominant element here is snow, as the vengeful god rises up from the snow to spare the life of the young boy who summons him. The snowstorm accompanying Majin’s rampage abruptly stops when the god’s wrath concludes, and the falcon spirit returns to the mountain while the statue itself transforms into a pillar of snow, which billows away into nothingness.
The fact that three separate feature films of Daimajin were produced and released within a 12 month period is remarkable, not only from the standpoint of the production schedule itself but also from a marketing viewpoint. Though somewhat incomprehensible to today’s generation of filmmakers, 3 to 4 months total to cover conceptualization, scripting, filming, sfx, editing, and post production was standard procedure in the Japanese film industry of the 1960s. But producing what were essentially three different variations on a single theme within a year stands as a unique achievement in this environment. The formats of the Daimajin series was simple… the evil lord and his men terrorize the populace and threaten them with a grisly kind of death, a death which is instead inflicted on the evil lord after a selfless act of sacrifice succeeds in summoning the statue of the god to life.
The quick pace of production for these films was made possible by the fact that substantial portions of each were standard period samurai drama, the kind of film that required little in terms of special preparation. Much like the American Western, natural locations were plentiful and authentic, few special sets were needed, the wardrobe department had a huge stock of costumes available because of the steady procession of such films being produced, and experienced action actors could easily deliver enough well choreographed swordplay to keep audiences entertained. And like many films of its era, the Majin films had the luxury of solidly competent if unspectacular scripts, allowing the visual payoff to be saved for the last 10 minutes of the film. The basic premise of evil oppressing the innocent, but getting its comeuppance at the end, has been tried and true through endless westerns and samurai films— done so many times, but nonetheless always appealing to the mass audiences. That a fantasy slant on this formula was added made the Majin films unique.
While Majin’s purpose was to put evil in its place, it is interesting to note how the god’s character changed slightly. In the first film, Majin not only vanquished the evil lord, his rampage continued out of control even after the villains had been disposed of— as if once unleashed, the god’s anger went unchecked. Only the selfless act of the girl who invoked Majin’s protection, hurling herself in front of the god to save a boy’s life, could appease the god’s anger and cause him to stop. The subsequent films toned down the god’s demeanor, having him concentrate only on the villains and disappear shortly after they had been terminated. By the third film, Majin actually restores to life the little boy who willingly sacrifices himself to save his fellow villagers.
A common plot device for the series was that the chief villain would plan a grisly death for his victims, a death not only prevented by Majin, but also ironically used as the villain’s ultimate punishment. The crucifixion of the innocents in MAJIN is turned on the lord himself when Majin takes the spike from his helmet (driven into the statue in an attempt to destroy it) and impales him on the cross-like remains of his destroyed fort. The second film uses a less obvious yet very dramatic way to dispose of the villain. With the heroine about to be burned and crucified, Majin appears. Though the evil lord attempts to escape in a small boat, Majin follows part way into the lake and halts the boat’s progress. A ball of fire hurtles toward the boat, setting it ablaze. The villain desperately climbs the ship’s mast to escape the fire, but becomes entangled in the rigging and the cross mast, hanging him crucifixion-style and burning to death… and stunning and powerful image. In MAJIN STRIKES AGAIN, the villain throws one unfortunate soul into a boiling sulfur pit and threatens the rest of his captives with the same fate, but instead it is the lord’s lifeless body, run through by Majin’s sword, that plunges into the boiling depths.
While Eiji Tsuburaya has always garnered fame and notoriety for his tremendous body of work in pioneering special effects in Japan, other talented individuals also produced fine work in Eiji’s shadow. For Daiei, Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s efforts on the Daimajin series yielded special effects that may have gained little attention, but take a back seat to none. His flair for dramatic staging, cinematic composition, and incessant attention to minor details are major reasons for the resounding success of the Majin series.
With the title character being a modest (in Japanese monster terms) 4.5 meters tall, Kuroda’s task in producing convincing effects was made somewhat easier, and he took advantage of this fact to realize the full potential of his subject. Miniatures hardly look like miniatures, the monster interacts effortlessly with humans…it’s often easy to forget that miniature effects were being used at all. Perhaps the only sfx that tend to belie their nature are the matte shots that suffer from blue haloing, a technical limitation of the era. While many sfx directors have been able to excel on the technical side, Kuroda had the rare ability to combine technical excellence with a flair for the dramatic and artistic. The intensity of the god’s anger is simply but emphatically made through a series of close-ups of Majin’s face and the posturing of the head. Using an immobile mask with a single grim expression frozen on its face, it was left to suit actor Riki Hashimoto to project a living personality through the costume’s eyes alone. With a simple widening or narrowing of the eyes or a tilting of the head so that the eyes peered from the tops of their eyelids, the range of Majin’s expression is both remarkable and compelling, making the stone idol actually seem to emote.
Kuroda concentrates on composition and camera angles, which place the audience in the midst of the action – scenes are constructed so that the audience sees Majin as would the characters in the film. A full size model of Majin was constructed. Built in individual removable pieces (head, arms, helmet, skirt, legs, etc), it took a month to assemble. A staff member would be positioned inside the head and neck so that he could manually operate the eyes, head, and right arm from within. At a whopping 300kg, the model’s lack of mobility dictated limited use, but judicious use in quick cuts made it seem as if Majin actually was in the midst of swarms of men fleeing for their lives. The prop would slightly turn its head or swing its arm… subtle movements, but enough to make the figure seem lifelike without revealing its nature. The prop was also useful for scenes of Majin passing through crowds… the full size prop would be wheeled in front of the camera so that only the midsection was visible, while the background would be populated by terror-stricken people. Rather unwieldy due to its size and slow to curl its fingers around an object was a full size mechanical hand constructed for scenes where an actor was to be grabbed by the idol. With the full size prop and composition emphasizing a human perspective of Majin, the audience easily buys into the illusion created by the effects.
Miniature work on the series was flawlessly executed, so much so that audiences (especially at the time these films were made) often mistake miniatures for the real thing. Since miniature structures could be built at 1:2.5 scale, realistic structures could be easily made… just slightly scaled down versions of the same kind of buildings incessantly being made at the studio for its period dramas. Even the same materials and detailing could be used as in real buildings, their realistic destruction facilitated by the fact that these materials did not behave substantially different in the slightly altered scale. All of Majin’s effects were filmed at high speeds, i.e. with the camera cranking at quicker than normal pace, slowing down the movements of the suit actor so as to create an impression of great weight and size. Whether it be the toppling of an enormous wall of stone or the trashing of the gate to the villain’s fortress, miniatures also crumble more realistically when filmed in this manner. The ultimate in realistic miniature work occurs in the first film when the evil lord’s men hurl chains around Majin, hoping to topple the avenging god. Instead, Majin summons the strength to pull on the chains, causing the entire compound to collapse around him. Wood beams crack and splinter, roofing tiles cascade down from the tops of buildings, all exactly as would happen if full-size structures of the same type were destroyed.
Kuroda exhibited a special flair for the dramatic with eye-opening entrances. For Majin’s appearance in THE RETURN OF MAJIN, Kuroda conjures up an easily identifiable yet spectacular homage to Cecil B. DeMille’s dramatic parting of the Red Sea from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). The meaning is obvious… only the awesome power of (a) god could accomplish such a feat. The audience is put back in their seats from the first moment Majin appears. In the third film, Majin eerily rises up from beneath the snow amidst an intense energy glow, carrying in his arms the body of the boy who would sacrifice his life to summon the god’s protection. The sight is awesome yet touching.
What is especially noteworthy of the Majin films are their total believability in realization of a supernatural force… viewers instantly buy into the premise with its universally appealing scenario and technical excellence. Although the visual element always garners the most attention in films of this type, in the case of Majin, one would be remiss to overlook the prominent role which sound plays in creating its realism and mood. Just as Akira Ifukube’s musical style was ideally matched to Godzilla and would come to be inseparable from the character in the minds of the audience, it was likewise perfect for Daimajin… who else could do justice to this subject? His themes for the idol itself are pounding and ponderous, as relentless on the eardrums as is Majin thundering through any obstacle as he closes in on his victims. Ifukube uses the same blaring brass motif for Majin’s theme, the music intensifying for each successive film so that by the third feature, the brass section seems to be playing almost out of control at times. But the real genius of Ifukube in these films was in his ability to produce delicate and moving themes for the human drama, which serve as marvelous counterpoint to the image of the raging god. That the mere teardrop of a pure heart could tame this fierce spirit is made believable by such brilliant scoring. Also vital to the creation of a realistic and dramatic image, the sound of Majin’s thundering footstep was both deep and omnipresent. Never once was the footstep omitted or softened to where it could not be heard, serving as a constant reminder of the nature of the god and his inescapable presence.
MAJIN and THE RETURN OF MAJIN were acquired by American International Pictures (AIP-TV) in 1967, and English dubbed versions of the two films were released directly to US television the following year as MAJIN, THE MONSTER OF TERROR and THE RETURN OF THE GIANT MAJIN, respectively. Three decades would pass before the third Majin film was officially distributed in America. In February 1999, ADV Films released subtitled versions of all three movies on VHS as DAIMAJIN, RETURN OF DAIMAJIN, and WRATH OF DAIMAJIN. Oddly, the VHS release confused the order and titles of the second and third Majin films; ADV’s RETURN OF DAIMAJIN is actually the third movie MAJIN STRIKES AGAIN, and their WRATH OF DAIMAJIN was originally called THE RETURN OF MAJIN by Daiei. ADV repeated this mistake in their 2002 “The Complete Daimajin” DVD collection, but finally got the films in the correct order when DAIMAJIN, WRATH OF DAIMAJIN, and RETURN OF DAIMAJIN were reissued separately on DVD in 2005. Now that ADV’s rights have expired, the public domain label Retromedia has announced they will be bringing the AIP-TV versions of the first two films to DVD on January 9, 2007 as “The Giant Majin Collection”.
Rumors have persisted over the years about a potential remake of Majin being made, some reports from the early 1990s even mentioning a possible co-production with the Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest Films that would star Kevin Costner. In 2002, Daiei was sold to the Kadokawa Publishing Company, and earlier this year Kadokawa Pictures announced that renowned director Takashi Miike had been chosen to direct a new DAIMAJIN for release in 2008. The project was reportedly cancelled after the studio’s kaiju movie GAMERA THE BRAVE (Chiisaki Yusha-tachi Gamera, 2006) fared poorly at the Japanese box office.
In today’s idea-starved film industry a DAIMAJIN remake seems inevitable. But is a remake really necessary? Perhaps not. While 40 years of technological advances have taken place since Majin was last seen on the big screen, little could be improved except matte photography, and the basic stories offer little room for new ideas. With the passing of Akira Ifukube, it would be quite difficult to find another capable of the unique and powerful scoring necessary to make such a project work. Perhaps a good Majin film could be made, but it still begs the question of why make another such film. With the concept already seemingly played out to its full potential, rather than a remake that adds nothing new, some fresh ideas instead would be far more welcome in a genre that lately consists of nothing but retreads. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.