HCF REWIND NO.117. KING KONG VS GODZILLA AKA KINGU KONGA TAI GOJIRA [Japan 1962]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU RAY
RUNNING TIME: 97 min/ 91 min [US version]
FEATURED MONSTERS: GODZILLA, KING KONG, GIANT OCTOPUS [unnamed, oddly]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mr. Tako, head of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, is frustrated with the dull television shows his company is sponsoring and wants something to boost his ratings. When a doctor tells Tako about a giant monster he discovered on the small Faro Island, Tako believes that it would be a brilliant idea to use the monster to gain publicity and sends two men, Sakurai and Kinsaburo, to find and bring it back from Faro. Meanwhile, the American submarine Seahawk gets caught in an iceberg. Unfortunately, this is the same iceberg that Godzilla was trapped in in 1955 and the submarine is incinerated by the monster, who breaks out and attacks a nearby Arctic military base. Back on Faro Island, the visitors get the confidence of the natives and soon encounter their god, a huge gorilla called King Kong…..
This remains probably the most widely circulated and seen Godzilla film outside of Japan, and this is a huge shame, because it’s nearly always been in its shoddy, insulting American version which all-but ruins the film and has probably been the major contributing factor in the movie being widely regarded as a classic ‘so bad it’s good’ film. Out of all the Godzilla films, King Kong Vs Godzilla needs to be in its original version to be properly judged, and sadly at the time of writing it has not been released outside of Japan. This review is primarily of the original version, and I urge anyone who has been reading my reviews of Toho’s monster movies to hunt it down [it’s easy to find and buy legally if you don’t mind importing]. A total contrast to the first two films of the series, it’s a light-hearted, action-packed romp that is partly intended as a satire but is in no way meant to be taken seriously. It remains the most overtly comic Godzilla film. Many later films would have comedic moments, usually involving the monsters, but were rarely out-and-out comedies even if they sometimes had their laughs, intentional and unintentional. This means that this film almost stands apart from the others. It’s hugely entertaining and it’s one I put on often, though it has considerable technical flaws that prevent from being one of the top-draw Godzilla films.
It began life as a treatment written in 1960 by Willis O’ Brien [the special genius behind King Kong] called King Kong Vs Frankenstein. It had a descendant of Dr Frankenstein creating a large creature from the parts of animals. It is captured and taken to the US, as is Kong from Skull Island. They escape and fight. Producer John Beck took over the project, removing O’ Brien in the process, and commissioning a script called King Kong Vs Prometheus. No studio was interested, so he sold it to Toho Studios who used very little of the original script and were more interested in buying the rights to Kong. They decided it was time to revive Godzilla after eight years, but the huge success of Mothra combined with producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya’s wish to appeal to children meant that this new widescreen and colour film was decidedly different in tone from the first two. The gamble certainly paid off commercially as it remains the most popular Godzilla film based on admissions. Sadly the full 35mm master went missing so Toho had to reconstruct the movie many years later when releasing it for home viewing, using a heavily edited version as the basis and adding other bits and pieces from lesser prints, meaning the quality varied a lot until they had the technology to restore it digitally.
The first half is more about Kong than Godzilla, though Shinichi Sekizawa’s story is more than anything else an attack on rampant commercialism, and you get a sense of this right away when Mr. Tako decides to capture a monster to advertise his products. Played by Ichiro Arishima who is sometimes called the ‘Japanese Charlie Chaplin’ in a very ‘broad’ manner and very clumsy, he quickly overshadows the other human characters and it’s a shame he virtually disappears half way through. Considering the trouble his actions cause, it’s odd how he never gets his comeuppance. The film’s main theme is most explicitly spelt out when Tako gets angry at seeing the image of Godzilla everywhere and is later over the moon when Kong is bigger news. Though they cause much hassle and terror, the monsters are treated more as tools for capitalism more than anything else, especially Kong, who spends quite a bit of the movie being transported. The other human element in the film introduces a situation- a triangle between a man, his girlfriend and her disapproving brother – that Sekizawa would re-use more than once, but here it’s introduced as quickly as possible in order to get to the action.
The early Kong-related scenes involving encounters with island natives who worship a monstrous god partially replay similar scenes in King Kong and not too well, though a large octopus who for some reason attacks the native village is impressive and actually ought to be as it was real! Sadly, when Kong appears to save the day one can only shake one’s head in incredulity at the awful ape suit with its moth-eaten hair, deformed overlong arms and corpse-like, immobile face. Things are not helped by the guy inside the suit hardly ever behaving like an actual gorilla. Godzilla fares better; while he is given a few anthropomorphic things to do like clap his hands, the new suit design remains one of the best ever with increased bulk, longer tail, and a larger head with a more pronounced snout, all making him look very reptilian and actually quite evil. Once Godzilla, after the drawn out but very suspenseful submarine sequence, has, in a good entrance with the camera observing him smashing out of the ice from a distance, escaped from his iceberg prison and heads for Japan, the two monsters are rarely absent from the screen. Efforts are made to tie them with the human protagonists, right down to Kazuo having to rescue his girlfriend Fumiko twice, once from each monster, and the amazing super-rope invention Fumiko’s brother Osamu shows off near the beginning of the film coming in very handy to lift up Kong. The plotting is sometimes child-like, and while Godzilla is the villain, a little boy actually wants to go and see him at one point!
Probably due to the amount of monster footage, there isn’t much actual city-smashing, and this may also be why the effects rarely reach the high quality of those in most of the previous Toho science-fiction pictures. The miniatures sometimes look cheap and there is some atrocious matting where figures look like blurry ghosts. A couple of brief stop-motion bits are incredibly jerky and stick out like a sore thumb. Now despite all the action in the film the high point of course is the final fight [there is a tiny one earlier in the picture] on Mt. Fuji between the two monsters. Going on for almost fifteen minutes, it’s a truly crazy and funny spectacle which remains one of the most entertaining battles of the whole series. Kong does a forward role and smashes into a rock, Godzilla is lifted up by his tail and swung around, they play ball with boulders, and the two combatants go to a castle simply to smash it up together. Incidentally, the claims about Godzilla winning in the Japanese version are false. Kong still wins over Godzilla, though it’s quite an ambiguous ending really.
Honda sometimes has trouble with the alternating between comedy to seriousness, though he never lets the pacing slack. The cast either take things overly seriously or mug frantically; it works, kind of. Kenji Sahara returns for one of his most likeable performances but Mie Hama [later in You Only Live Twice], though pretty, is rather bland as the woman who for a while plays the Fay Wray role for Kong in a random sequence that just seems to occur because of what happened in the 1933 film. Akira Ifukube’s score is very good though maybe a bit too serious. His main title theme combines a speeded-up varation of the chant in Varan The Unbelievable with a theme for Kong playing on top and every now and again part of his new Godzilla theme playing underneath in the lower registers at the same time. Godzilla’s three-part theme consists of a dissonant swirl, a sped-up version of the slow ‘rampage’ theme from Godzilla and then a variation on Varan’s secondary theme, a majestic march signifying unstoppable power. The octopus is cleverly scored with undulating notes that seem to merge into each other, and then there’s powerful, throbbing monster battle music in quite an impressive score whose diversity outweighs its borrowings from earlier material. King Kong Vs Godzilla needs to be seen for what it is; an amusing lark that pointedly comments on an aspect of our society that still dominates it. Some fans of the 1933 King Kong [and I am one] seem to miss the point when they get all offended by the man-in-suit ape who is also….yes….a drug addict, though that suit still remains pretty unforgivable, and as for Godzilla, his most exhilarating adventures were to come.
The Japanese version opens with a shot of the Earth from space, followed by a sight gag revealing it to be part of a TV show. The US version also opens with a shot of the Earth from space, but then, after a quote from Hamlet [?], awkwardly cuts to another scene. That should be enough to tell you of the differences between the two versions! If you’ve read this review and haven’t seen the film, and want to, my advice is skip the US edit. Toho did actually prepare an ‘International version’ dubbed at Frontier Enterprises, and it has occasionally turned up in some countries, but seems impossible to see these days, so we are stuck with John Beck’s messy edit. They removed lots of Japanese footage, though to be honest, nothing essential, and the odd re-edit, such as making the submarine sequence into one whole scene, is not too bad. What are so shoddy are the terribly acted and written scenes of people reading the news telling us what is happening, including a jaw-droppingly stupid bit where they pull out a children’s book about dinosaurs, and the dumbing down of the script, a script which now ignores the first two Godzilla films for a start. They also removed of much of the satire and replaced it with more juvenile humour [though I still chuckle when I think of the “King Kong won’t make a monkey out of us” line, I must admit]. Bad printing makes the often poor special effects look even worse, and they removed nearly all of Ifukube’s score and replaced it with bits and pieces from a variety of American science-fiction soundtracks including most obviously The Creature From The Black Lagoon. What a shame.