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Review: Return of Daimajin

[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!] Recently, I had the pleasure of revisiting Daiei’s Daimajin. In many ways, it’s fairly typical of the studio’s consistently above average B-movie efforts, combining competent period drama (reminiscent of the Zatoichi and Sleepy Eyes of Death franchises) with spectacular kaiju mayhem (à la Gamera). The first film’s excellence, however, is utterly dwarfed by its sequel, Return of Daimajin, which elevates the previously established themes and tropes to near biblical proportions: the political intrigue is more intricate and suspenseful, the battles more epic and meticulously choreographed (courtesy of director Kenji Misumi, a veteran of the chanbara genre), and Yoshiyuki Kuroda's special effects more elaborate and explosive.

The plot—which is repeated more or less verbatim across all three chapters of the trilogy like a poetic refrain—revolves around the concept of divine retribution. In the era preceding the unification of Japan, the land is splintered by conflict and strife. Ambitious, opportunistic tyrants ruthlessly exploit the peasantry; excessive taxation and slave labor abound, as commonplace and devastating as earthquakes and typhoons. When the innocent cry out for justice, the ancient deities that govern nature answer their call by animating a colossal ceremonial statue to wreak terrible vengeance. But the wrath of the gods is indiscriminate, and only the tears of the pure-hearted can once again quell the stone giant's blind rage following the completion of his violent duty.

The influence of foreign culture is already evident in that basic premise (the eponymous guardian spirit is essentially a reimaging of the golem from Jewish folklore), but this particular installment takes the allusions a step further. During his climactic rampage, for example, the monster magically carves a path through the waters of a vast lake like Moses parting the Red Sea. Additionally, his anger is roused by the desperate prayer of a young princess condemned to crucifixion and immolation by a conquering warlord; her selfless offer to sacrifice her own soul in exchange for the salvation of her subjects more than justifies the ensuing deus ex machina. Indeed, images of crosses pervade the story: the wreckage of a demolished torii gate, for instance, is distinctly cruciform in shape; the central villain, meanwhile, meets his karmic demise when he becomes entangled in the rigging of a burning boat—mimicking the sadistic execution that our heroine nearly suffered at his hands.

These (admittedly cosmetic) references to the iconography of Western religions and classical literature lend Return of Daimajin a mythic quality that distinguishes it from the rest of the otherwise rather formulaic series. Simple in its narrative structure yet absolutely immaculate in its craftsmanship, this sophomore entry in Daiei’s sadly short-lived saga ranks among the very finest creature features ever produced.

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