By the time the first Daimajin film opened in 1966, it already had a sequel mostly ready to go. In fact, Daiei Film released an entire Daimajin trilogy in that single calendar year, a burst of extreme energy after which the stone daikaiju would go completely silent until a 2010 TV series created by Daiei's successor, Kadokawa Pictures.

Before I can speak about the first of these sequels, I'm going to have lay a bit of groundwork. For films that barely ever had a release in the English-speaking world, the second and third Daimajin vehicles have suffered from appalling confusion regarding their titles. The first sequel is titled 大魔神怒る, Daimajin ikaru, which translates to Daimajin Becomes Angry. But it has never been called that in English, released instead as both Return of Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin. The second sequel is titled 大魔神逆襲, Daimajin gyakushu, and in English it has also been titled Return of Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin (presumably owing to distributor confusion over which film was which), as well as Daimajin Strikes Again and Revenge of Daimajin, none of which are its actual, literal title, Daimajin's Counterattack. I'm going to abide by the release that I used to watch the films, the 2012 Region A Blu-ray release of the complete trilogy by Mill Creek Entertainment, which calls the first sequel Return of Daimajin and the second sequel Daimajin Strikes Again, and from this moment on, you shall hear me refer to this naming controversy no more. But for the sake of not having everybody be helplessly confused, I thought it was worth walking through all that nastiness.

So on we go to the film that I can now confidently and definitively refer to as Return of Daimajin. And oh, what a pleasure it is to report that it's very nearly up to the level of its rather impressive predecessor. Better in some ways, in fact. Other than the figure of a giant stone statue that is imbued with the spirit of a divine entity, there's nothing linking the films: technically, I don't know that it's even fair to call the statue in this film "Daimajin", which in the first movie referred to a malevolent being, while the one in this movie is rather more explicitly a protector god. But that's what Daiei wants me to do, so that's what I shall do.

The plot is broadly the same, though Return of Daimajin doesn't bring in the paranormal theatrics until later. In the region surrounding a lake, there are three feudal communities. Two of these, Chigusa and Nagoshi, directly overlook the lake and receive the protection of a god who lives on an island, which the locals worship in the form of large stone statue on that island. And it's become especially necessary for them to worship, since the neighboring Mikoshiba, ruled by the vicious Lord Mikoshiba Danjo (Kanda Takashi) has lately begun to increase its attacks against Chigusa, which has been a welcoming home to many refugees from Mikoshiba's tyranny. Lord Juro (Hongo Kojiro) of Chigusa, a longtime ally of Nagoshi and presently courting Sayuri (Fujimaro Shiho) daughter of the lord of Nagoshi (Uchida Asao), manages to escape from Chigusa shortly before Mikoshiba overtakes that village; in his rage, Lord Mikoshiba pursues Juro all the way to Nagoshi, where he takes out his frustrations on that community. As Sayuri flees to the idol of her god to pray for deliverance, Mikoshiba's men follow, and destroy the idol, pitching the rubble into the lake, which bubbles and glows red with the wrath of the deposed god. For the remainder of the brief (78 minute) film, the disembodied spirit of the god makes life hard for Mikoshiba, still trying to quell the rebellions led by Juro, Sayuri, and her brother Katsushige (Uenoyama Koichi), until eventually, as he prepares to executed Sayuri and other Nagoshi troublemakers by burning them at the stake, the god reforms himself into a living statue, its blank stone face replaced by an angry mask of wrath, and things progress as they will.

Were I going to sum up the difference between Daimajin and Return of Daimajin in the most succinct way I knew, it would be that the former film, directed by Yasuda Kimiyoshi and shot by Morita Fujio, has a much riper, omnipresent sense of uncanny energy; the sequel, directed by Misumi Kenji and shot by Morita and Tanaka Shozo, favors a great deal more earthbound realism, through we need to be awfully delicate about where we put our definition of the word "realism" in the context of a samurai epic that climaxes with a giant paranormal statue defeating an army. Certainly, Return of Daimajin isn't wanting for atmosphere, and it includes many beautiful, ornately composed shots - the image of the torii gate leading to the god's idol, emerging in bright red against the slate rocks and grey water, is legitimately one of the loveliest frames I have ever seen in a Japanese movie - which openly, pridefully acknowledge the theatricality and falseness of the film's construction. It is presentational and formalised to a greater degree than the first film, its litany of noble characters more pageant-like and detached from us. There's atmosphere to spare, it's just that it's more of a distant, historical type of atmosphere than the raging, apocalyptic energy dabbled in by the first movie.

Not that Return of Daimajin doesn't have its moments. The sequence of the titular creature rising, intact, from the lakebed, is an awe-inspiring effects sequence, with sheer walls of water forming a dramatic backdrop for the harshly lit god to stand out as though emerging from primordial waters, with Ifukube Akira's score (good lord! How did I forget to mention before that the great Ifukube scored the Daimajin trilogy?) beating out on the soundtrack with primitive intensity and just a little bit too much of his iconic Godzilla themes, adding a sense of world-ending grandeur to the sequence. Certainly the fight between Daimajin and Mikoshiba's men is gorgeously frenzied and desperate, a perfect match of the typical daikaiju fight sequence repurposed with low-tech weaponry to greater effect than in the first movie.

The closest thing the movie has to a flaw - which I'm not ready to concede it does - is that it's so rigidly trapped within the rules of a very arch, artificial variant of the jidaigeki genre that it runs the risk of seeming brittle and inhuman. But frankly, the film's performative style matches so well with its deeply precise images and its unexpectedly religious storytelling that I'm not about to blame it. Even more than most movies which end with a giant monster stomping on people, Return of Daimajin is not to all tastes, but it's hard to imagine it being a better version of the particular genre hybrid it's aiming for.