Friday, August 13, 2010
Martin Arlt, the man behind the excellent magazine, Mad Scientist (for which I am a contributor) asks what my favorite kaiju movie is and why. For those who don't know what a kaiju movie is, these would be your giant monster movies produced in Japan.
I love this subgenre of movies, but while I can sit through almost any of them and enjoy a vast number, there are only a handful that I truly love. My favorite of the bunch barely qualifies as a kaiju movie since the "monster" is really a warrior god imprisoned in a forty-foot, or thereabouts, tall statue who comes to life at the pleading prayers of the desperate in order to punish the wicked.
The movie is Daimajin, or simply Majin, or Majin, the Monster of Terror as I knew it as a kid when it would seemingly appear on television every month along with at least one of its two sequels. Majin was more familiar to me then than almost any other monster, and I devoutly watched this movie every chance I could. It took a long time as an adult to find anyone else who remembered this movie, or to finally find a copy to watch again. When I did, it immediately reawakened all my memories of watching it as a kid.
As a child I think I liked this movie for two reasons. Like the Gamera movies (also produced by Daiei Studios) a child always seemed to be at the center of the story. Also, there seemed to be some real weight to the storyline beyond the usual battles and destruction of other giant monster movies I was seeing --both Japanese and American. I liked a wide range of movies as a kid, and this felt more on par with something like "The Bridge of the River Kwai" than "Reptilicus."
In a lot of ways Daimajin is a lot like the story of Moses grafted onto a samurai melodrama. Set in 18th Century Japan, a fair ruler is overthrown by a cruel one. The children of the good ruler are whisked off to exile, where hopefully ten years later as adults they will be able to set things right. As it turns out, everything goes wrong and gets worse. The son and the guardian who protected the children are captured and sentenced to death. The daughter, and an orphaned boy pray to the statue of the imprisoned god begging for his help. The daughter offers her life to the god. The statue comes to life, revealing a cruel face and strides off to smite the bad guys before reverting back into statue form and crumbling away into dust.
The two sequels (all three movies were made in 1966) follow a very similar plot of the conquest of good people by cruel warlords, the enslavement of the good people, the attempts and failures of the heroes to overthrow the badguys and set the slaves free, and then the capture of the heroes with their imminent execution disrupted by the timely arrival of the deus ex machina of Majin, who disintegrates after saving the day. I advise against watching these as a triple feature.
Daimajin has really high production values for this type of movie for the time it was made, and in comparison to Daiei's major kaiju films starring Gamera. It is beautifully shot, has nice sets, often gorgeous scenery, large casts, several battle scenes, capable actors, and mostly really good special effects. The character of Majin doesn't actually come to life until well after an hour of the movie has gone by. Unlike the sequels though,
he seems omnipresent from the very first frames of the movie featuring a giant eye superimposed over the mountain which contains the statue of Majin. The people fear him and living in the shadow of his domain certainly shades everything that happens. By the time he is finally revealed, it feels like a big moment. Of course, the ominous three-note motif present in Godzilla composer, Akira Ifukube's score only helps.
Once released, Majin lumbers forward at a ponderous rate. This doesn't seem lame though, like the shuffling of Universal's mummies. His footsteps reverberate with the inevitable. His pace, like his expression never changes, and he merely walks through his obstacles, occasionally pausing to strike down a building, or to grab a samurai. Majin comes on as an unstoppable force, and you, and the bad guys, know there's no escaping him. I also really like the design of the character and pretend I don't notice how the wind is able to make his shoulder guards and the sides of his helmet occasionally flap as if they are made of rubber and not stone.
Unlike many other kaiju movies where the human element seems like tedious padding between the monster parts, the human story here, IS the story, and as cliched as it may be, was very involving. How else could I have been so enthusiastic about this movie at age 8, when the giant monster doesn't appear until so late in the movie. The entire story really unrolls nicely, building up to its climax with a nice bit of suspense. It's also nice to see a giant monster movie from that period where the monster wasn't engaging in clowinsh wrestling moves and other hokum like what was the norm in Gamera and beginning to become the norm for Godzilla. Majin is a serious, and scary looking giant.
Beyond Daimajin (and I'll include the sequels which are all of about equal quality) my other favorite kaiju movies really don't hold any surprises.
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! (2001)
War of the Gargantuas (1966)
and the Gamera trilogy made in the 1990s.