Tom Watches Movies: The King Kong Retrospective Part 2 – Turning Japanese
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King Kong may be an icon of American cinema, but that hasn’t stopped him from making a few appearances in films made outside of his home country. The Kong franchise was largely a thing of the past in America through the 40s, 50s, and 60s, with Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake still a ways off. Overseas, however, Japanese studio Toho was keeping Kong on movie screens, both in a solo adventure and a sparring match with their own favorite monster, Godzilla. The films were largely met with derision and dismissal by American critics, but King Kong vs Godzilla in particular was a massive success in Japan, and one that shaped the Godzilla franchise for the foreseeable future.
King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) Dir Ishiro Honda
The sad truth about genius is that it often goes unappreciated. Such was the case with Willis O’Brien, the effects maestro whose efforts created the legendary visuals of the original King Kong. Despite his work on Kong, O’Brien had difficulty finding another vehicle, as most studios balked at the cost of stop-motion animation. When working on The Lost World in 1960, O’Brien was forbidden from using stop-motion, and before that several other projects were either canceled or taken away from him. Eventually O’Brien decided to take matters into his own hands, producing his own treatment for a King Kong sequel. The proposed film would have seen Kong face off against a creature created by the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, culminating in a spectacular battle on the Golden Gate Bridge. O’Brien took the project to producer John Beck, who liked it enough to buy it….and then show O’Brien the door.
Under Beck, O’Brien’s script treatment underwent several alterations, eventually becoming King Kong vs Prometheus. Finding a studio for the feature proved difficult, but eventually Japanese studio Toho showed interest in making the film. Toho had a condition, however. Their thirtieth anniversary was coming up, and they had plans to bring Godzilla back as part of the celebration. Toho’s proposal was to drop the Frankenstein element entirely, extensively rework the script, and have Kong battle Godzilla. Beck accepted, and the resulting film was a massive success. Until the release of Shin Godzilla in 2016, King Kong vs Godzilla was the highest-grossing Japanese Godzilla film, and its success mapped the future of the series for the next decade.
Although Godzilla’s first monster-on-monster fight happened in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, it wasn’t until King Kong vs Godzilla that the monster brawl formula really caught on. The film was also much lighter in tone than its predecessors, more of a comedy than the somber anti-nuclear parable of the original. This approach was a hit with audiences, and the Godzilla series began its slow decent into camp. In the same way that the original Kong was a landmark film in the US, Kong’s first Japanese outing was a massive trendsetter in Japan.
King Kong vs Godzilla opens with a pharmaceutical company sending two employees to a remote island in search of a berry with powerful medicinal properties. Upon arriving, the pair find themselves confronted by the native islanders (unfortunately portrayed by Japanese actors in black face) and the creature they worship as a god: the giant ape King Kong. Meanwhile, an American nuclear sub accidentally awakens Godzilla, who was frozen in an iceberg at the conclusion of Godzilla Raids Again. After Kong is brought back to the mainland as part of a publicity stunt by the pharmaceutical company, it’s determined that the only way to defeat Godzilla is to force a confrontation between the two.
King Kong vs Godzilla is a big, silly movie, but also an eminently fun one. While later films would become cheaper and cheaper, King Kong vs Godzilla is a lavish production with elaborate (for the time) sets and costumes. This was the first Godzilla movie to be filmed in ultra-widescreen “Toho-Scope,” as well as the first one filmed in color, and it’s also a showcase for some of the best work of Eiji Tsuburaya, the Tokusatsu effects god and one of the many effects artists inspired by O’Brien’s work on King Kong. Tsuburaya pulled out all the stops for King Kong vs Godzilla, with one sequence involving a live octopus trashing a miniature set, and even a brief stop-motion shot as an homage to the original film. Strangely though, Kong himself looks noticeably shabby this time around, with odd-looking arms, a static expression, and an overall sense that the suit must have smelled of must and moths.
That one quibble aside, King Kong vs Godzilla is a ton of fun if you’re the kind of person who can happily watch old-school Japanese monster movies. It’s extraordinarily goofy, but in an endearing way. And if endearingly goofy is something you can appreciate, Kong’s next Japanese outing is worth a look as well.
King Kong Escapes (1967) Dir Ishiro Honda
In the late 60s, RKO (the now dead studio that held the rights to King Kong) commissioned Rankin/Bass Productions to create a King Kong animated series. The resultant series, The King Kong Show, ran for 25 episodes between 1966 and 1969, and saw Kong befriend a Johnny Quest-style family of science-adventurers. The show was successful enough that Rankin/Bass decided to follow through on an option with their contract with RKO that allowed them to produce one live-action film in addition to the series. Rankin/Bass, primarily an animation studio, didn’t have the facilities, money or know-how to produce a live-action film, however, let alone one on the scale of a Kong movie. The idea came up to approach Toho to co-produce the film, and Toho, eager to potentially follow up on the success of King Kong vs Godzilla, jumped at the chance. The partnership eventually led to King Kong Escapes, not only the silliest Kong movie, but one of the silliest monster movies ever.
King Kong Escapes adapts some of the ideas of the show (mostly Kong as a giant ape superhero who helps fight off a Bond-style supervillian and his robotic Kong doppelganger), but rather than a family, the human heroes are the crew of a UN science vessel, including the dashing captain Carl Nelson and Lieutenant Susan Watson. The baddies are the villainous Doctor Who (not that one) and Madame X, a mustache-twirling villain and femme fatale right out of a spy movie. Doctor Who is after Element X, a rare mineral with unspecified destructive powers, and needs Kong to help excavate it after his robot, Mechani-Kong, breaks down.
You’d be hard pressed to find a movie that feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life than King Kong Escapes. Even more so than the exceptionally goofy King Kong vs Godzilla, Escapes is bright, colorful, and action-packed, to say nothing of the mere presence of a giant robot King Kong with googly Simpsons eyes. It tops its predecessor in terms of visuals as well as sheer silliness, with an improved costume for Kong, as well as some lovely miniatures and sets.
Escapes also pays a bit more homage to the original Kong than Kong’s previous Japanese outing, with a Toho-style recreation of the famous Kong vs Dinosaur fight from the original, and a climax atop Tokyo Tower that cribs some visuals from the original film.
A lot like with King Kong vs Godzilla, you really have to have a high tolerance for camp and silliness to enjoy King Kong Escapes. Future installments of the franchise would try to take Kong into more serious territory, but both the Japanese films have few, if any, such aspirations – and there isn’t anything wrong with that, as there’s as much room for silly movies as serious ones (especially these days, when dark and gritty revisionist takes on genre properties are en vogue).
The days of camp and color are done for now, however, as next time we’ll be looking at the first attempt to update King Kong for modern audiences.