I don't know what the hell it is with third films always being such a titanic step down in quality, but at least Daimajin Strikes Again comes by it honestly: it was Daiei's third film in the loosely-connected series within the span of eight months in 1966, meaning it was also screenwriter Yoshida Tetsuro's third Daimajin movie in the same span, and there's only so many ways you can re-arrange the same essential plot elements in such a brief window of time without it starting to take a toll on one's creativity. What's odd, actually, is that compared to Daimajin and Return of Daimajin, the third film arguably has the freshest plot, recycling elements from the original movie but not largely remaking it, as was generally true of the first sequel; and despite that, it feels far more stale. Blame fatigue, blame the strained budget: I have no idea if Daimajin Strikes Again was or wasn't made on whatever scraps the first two films left over, but I do know, if only from the evidence of my eyes, that it's a lot chintzier than they. The effects work, a major highlight of the first two movies, is positively threadbare here; the sets look like sets, and not in the beautifully theatrical way that they do in Return of Daimajin, but in the way of "we threw some dry ice and food coloring at a concrete pool - poof! instant deadly sulfur pit".

Or just blame the kids, as most negative responses towards the film seem to do. It's certainly the biggest single shift between this film and the two earlier pictures. Instead of following the adult members of a noble family being persecuted by an evil warlord, Daimajin Strikes Again makes as its protagonists a quartet of peasant boys: Tsurukichi (Ninomiya Hideki), Daisaku (Hori Shinji), Kinta (Iizuka Masahide), and Sugitatsu (Nagatomo Muneyuki). Any Daiei daikaiju eiga centering on young boys can't help but make us think of the company's Gamera films, with their litany of awful little children befriending that series giant turtlebeast - of which, to be entirely fair, only one existed by the end of 1966, from the previous year's Gamera. And given that the strength of the first two Daimajin pictures was their immense gravity and surprising effectiveness as jidaigeki - feudal period epics - it's especially frustrating to have hit the point where the producers seem to have decided, "hey you guys, we can totally make this a frothy kids' movie!"

For all that, it's still a better kids' movie than the Gamera pictures. It would be unfair to pretend that I know anything whatsoever about the short stories that Japanese parents tell Japanese children when tucking them in for bed at night, but with my isolated, culturally European worldview, I can't help but think that Daimajin Strikes Again is basically a fairy tale: complete with four very brave boys walking through the forest where they meet a strange old woman (Kitabayashi Tanie), have to hide in a cave in a mountain to survive a snowstorm, and eventually save their daddies from a wicked warlord, Arakawa (Abe Toru), whose characteristics don't really extend beyond his all-purpose villainy, stealing local woodsmen (shit, what occupation is more Brothers Grimm than a woodsman?) to build his evil palace and throwing them into the sulfur pits when they can't work any longer. The film's shallow slip of a narrative isn't so bad when you think of it that way; and while I much prefer the more well-established dramatic stakes of the other two films, the basic, elemental situation that Daimajin Strikes Again presents for itself has an appealing cleanliness and directness to it, taken on its own terms.

The next problem, and the unanswerable one, I should think, is that if Daimajin Strikes Again is thus apparently a children's film, it commits a sin common to so many children's films: it wants to try an snooker children. There are opinions and then there are damn facts, and it is a damn fact that this film suffers from worse sets, blander cinematography, and sloppier editing than the preceding pair of Daimajin vehicles. I don't know what director Mori Kazuo (the third veteran of the Zatochi series to helm a Daimajin film) had to work with, and I will not blame him for anything; but whatever caused it, there's very little of the sweeping visual grandeur and drama that made the first two such delightful, memorable experiences. This is especially true near the end, when the boys conjure up the protector god whose avatar is a statue standing imposingly at the very top of a mountain peak: though there are some individually impressive shots (the first image of the static statue is absolutely terrific), and the decision to stage much of Daimajin's rampage in the snow adds a level of visual flair that distinguishes it nicely from the other two films, there's not so much sense of raw power being unleashed and treading around; no cosmic overtones to the action. In a couple of different moments, the framing and the dubious compositing of effects all together have the absolutely terrible effect of under-emphasising Daimajin's height at exactly the point in the story when his sheer scale is meant to be driving a mortal panic into the bad guys. The film doesn't have the weightiness that the first two ended on; it's awfully disappointing to have two such robust climaxes give way to stock-issue daikaiju tromping about.

Well, stock-issue-esque. Daimajin Strikes Again suffers mightily as the third Daimajin film, but as a daikaiju eiga from 1966, it's actually quite impressive, all things considered. The human element is a bit wan, and the four boys are a bit hard to parse: the one who's a bit older, the one who's more servile, the one who's kind of the main hero if any of them are, the one who's left over. But taken as a group, they're not unnecessarily annoying, which is always a plus for children in monster movies. And while the action is a step down at least from the heights of the first two movies, it's still able to hold its own with anything in any of the Gameras, or any of the middle-tier Godzilla films. If Ifukube Akira's score is just openly pilfering from his Godzilla cues at this point, well, those cues are pretty damn terrific in the first place. And so it goes. The film is derivative, undernourished, and a bit tacky, but it's solidly average to above-average within its genre, and only the inordinate success of the first two movies in the trilogy make that very satisfactory achievement seem somehow wanting.