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Friday, May 2, 2014

Return of Daimajin (1966) review



Kojiro Hongo (Juro Chigusa), Shiho Fujimura (Sayuri), Taro Murui/Ishigami Shoji (Ikkaku), Jutaro Hojoh (Genba), Takashi Kanda (Lord Danjo Mikoshiba), Kagatsume Seiwa (Ryuta), Koichi Ueno (Katsushige Nagoshi), Tadashi Hiraizumi (Hayato)

Directed by Misumi Kenji

The Short Version: Daimajin returns with the same movie all over again; but with all the talent behind the scenes, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Those only familiar with Misumi Kenji's samurai works will want to see what the director does with a samurai monster movie. Majin, this time situated on an island in the middle of a huge lake, stomps once more on transgressors of innocence and purity amidst familiar, if exemplar special effects set pieces. It's a worthy sequel for a highly recommend, and unusual series of films from Japan's booming age of monster movies.

The peaceful lords of Chigusa and Nagoshi thrive economically and agriculturally aided by a high quotient of workers grateful for the generosity of their employers. Yagumo Lake borders both lands, but in the mountains lies the Mikoshiba clan, a brutal dictatorship ruled by Lord Mikoshiba. Desiring to lay claim to the lake and its surrounding lands, Mikoshiba and his chamberlain Genba devise a plot to seize control of the properties and enslave the people. Attacking in the night, Mikoshiba overtakes Chigusa Castle, yet Lord Juro manages to escape. Lord Danjo then marches on Nagoshi and takes them without a fight. Desperate, the subjugated people from both clans pray to their god to save them from the tyrannical overlord.

The man most famous for directing four of the LONE WOLF AND CUB movies, as well as some of the best ZATOICHI entries (including the first of that series) helmed this, the second in the DAIMAJIN (Evil God) trilogy. The overbearingly grim atmosphere (the third movie lightens it up a bit) was suited to Misumi's unmistakably melancholic style; yet surprisingly, the oppressively dark nature of the first movie is toned down here, but only slightly. The film runs at a brisk 78 minutes (five minutes shorter than the first); and Misumi keeps the pace moving quickly whereas Yasuda's picture kept a slower stride.

Yoshida Tetsuro's screenplay is virtually identical to the first film, but certain details are changed, with some new additions along the way. Other than that, it's essentially the same movie, down to repeating certain effects shots with minor alterations. That doesn't detract from the enjoyment of Misumi's movie, although the feeling of deja vu is indisputable. 

The setting is once again the Sengoku period (the Warring States period) prior to the Tokugawa Era that began in the early 1600s.  There's no coup by a duplicitous subordinate, but delusions of grandeur by a barbaric would-be conqueror instead. The villains are interchangeable from those in the first DAIMAJIN, yet Tetsuro manages to create a vibe where you're curious just what sort of grisly death awaits them in the end. The angry Majin is very good at serving 'just desserts', a suitable punishment to fit the crime. Differences are negligible, and possibly not noticeable upon the first viewing. Some of these are noted below.

Mirroring the first film, RETURN OF DAIMAJIN traverses the same morality tale territory in that those who fall into gluttony, avarice and murder to gain dominion over others will suffer horribly in the end. In another repeated plot device, it is also the tears of the innocent, and pure woman whose plea the god (Arakatsuma) responds to.

The statue of the god is pulled down much sooner in this first sequel. Just as Lady Sayuri kneels to pray that the god intervene, Genba and his men lie in wait and capture her. They then blow the statue to smithereens with dynamite. Unlike DAIMAJIN where the god's angry alter ego is omnipresent leading up to his awesome unveiling, his presence is only felt after his stone effigy is destroyed about halfway through this film. Interestingly, there's no distinction to their being two gods -- one being the god statue, and the other the evil spirit confined within it. For RETURN, it's strictly the god alone who is prayed into existence.

New to this film, when Majin returns, he raises both arms -- as opposed to the single arm of part one -- over his benevolent visage to reveal the angry countenance underneath. It makes for a more dramatic shot than the single arm coming into frame, providing a more seamless transition between the placid look that segues into the enraged one.

Ryosaku Takayama did the modeling of Majin in the first film, but while he was busy creating a menagerie of monsters for ULTRAMAN (1966), Ekisu Productions took up modeling duties for the remaining two films. Some modifications were made to the Majin; such as lighting up his eyes during the finale. This gave the evil god an even more malevolent appearance that's greatly amplified by the lighting of Hiroshi Mima and Kenji Furuya.

The biblical feel is more obvious the second time around; most notably when Majin parts a lake to get to the bad guys in a spectacular effects sequence that recalls a similar scene in Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). The DAIMAJIN movies aren't meant to be religious allegories, but they could easily pass for them. There's a strong theme of faith amidst the battle of good vs. evil chiseled into the script; most powerfully apparent in the first two entries.

The paying public saw the finished result on August 13th, 1966 paired with the 14th chapter of the Zatoichi series, ZATOICHI'S PILGRIMAGE (ZATOICHI ACROSS THE SEA), directed by Kazuo Ikehiro. The box office was good, nearly duplicating the first film.

I remember seeing the first film on television as MAJIN, MONSTER OF TERROR. I only made it through about a half an hour as I'd lost interest since I'd not seen a monster by that point. A few years later around 1986, I ran across the sequel on television as RETURN OF MONSTER MAJIN. I happened to tune in during the finale, and upon discovering what it was, suddenly garnered interest in the first film. That didn't happen till the films were released on tape in the late 90s.

Misumi's direction is impeccable, if essentially a retread of what Yasuda had done previously. In some respects Misumi's sequel surpasses the first film, but overall, Yasuda's series opener is the better simply because it was first, and the drama has a bit more impact. Misumi fans will definitely want to see this -- the closest the esteemed filmmaker got to directing a giant monster movie. Well known for his supreme samurai works, the stamp of Misumi is all over the best chambara series' to ever grace the screen. The man also counted horror films and big epics among his impressive resume. His last work was, appropriately, THE LAST SAMURAI in 1974.

SPX director Yoshiyuki Kuroda redoes some of the same effects shots with minor adjustments, but he and DP Morita Fujiro outdo themselves with the aforementioned 'parting of the lake' sequence. Backed by Akira Ifukube's remarkably infectious, gloomy music, the cues greatly enhance the familiarity of it all. A classmate of DP Morita Fujiro, Kuroda cut his teeth as an SPX assistant on such films as NICHIREN & THE GREAT MONGOL INVASION (1958), and the super spectacle BUDDHA (1961) among others. He served as SPX director on the US-Japan co-production FLIGHT FROM ASHIYA (1964) directed by Michael Anderson and starring Yul Brynner and Richard Widmark. In addition to overseeing effects work on the DAIMAJIN movies, Kuroda did likewise for Daiei's bizarre, but entrancing Yokai trilogy. He also directed the first and third films in the latter series, and the obscure THE INVISIBLE SWORDSMAN from 1970.

Kojiro Hongo, a familiar face to daikaiju fans, joined Daiei in 1958 and got notable roles in such early epics like Japan's first 70mm movie, the star-studded BUDDHA (1961), and THE WHALE GOD (1962) -- both films featuring Shintaro Katsu. Likely his biggest claim to international fame were his lead roles in the Showa Gamera pictures -- a string of films Hongo wasn't keen to star in initially. His association with the series was strong enough that he was invited to appear in the Heisei re-imagining of the giant jet-propelled turtle in GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995). Hongo suffered a stroke in 2004 that led to his retirement upon his recovery. On February 14th of 2013, a day before he was to turn 75, he died from heart failure.

Overall Daimajin's second coming is an exceptional sequel that at least equals the results of the first picture in nearly every way. Unfortunately, the series would lose some luster by the third entry.

This review is representative of the Mill Creek Bluray set.

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