Written by: Shin'ichi Sekizawa
Directed by: Ishirô Honda
Starring: Tadao Takashima, Kenji Sahara, and Yû Fujiki
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“King Kong could kill us all! You wouldn't care! Publicity is all you want! Publicity!"
As a longtime fan of professional wrestling, I can appreciate what Toho was up to with King Kong vs. Godzilla. With Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, the studio uncovered a true main eventer in the King of Monsters, a hoss that could go toe-to-toe with other creatures in the cinematic equivalent of prize-fights. So what if the concept was far removed from Honda’s haunting, horrific intentions? Giant monsters were all the atomic age rage, and Toho was among the first to figure out that watching them smash the shit out of each other rules.
Unfortunately, their first attempt at this gimmick, Godzilla Raids Again, fell a bit flat, perhaps because Godzilla’s first foe, newcomer Anguirus, is sort of a jobber who becomes a footnote in the overall story (that the film was rushed in order to capitalize on the original’s film success didn’t help matters, either). One could certainly see where Toho was headed, but their directions weren’t clear until seven years later, when they managed to import an American heavyweight that could truly headline alongside Godzilla: King Kong. A 30-year-old legend at this point, Kong was arguably the true King of the Monsters in 1962, and his matchup with his Japanese counterpart proved to be an iconic, cross-generational monster mash, not unlike The Rock’s confrontation with Hulk Hogan in the squared circle about a decade ago.
Such monster mashes weren’t exactly new, of course, what with Universal rallying its stable twenty years earlier. If we’re being honest, though, those crossovers were rarely graceful affairs, as one monster inevitably felt more like a guest star in their opposition’s film.
So it is with King Kong vs. Godzilla. As the title’s first billing suggests, it’s a Kong film first and foremost, albeit one that’s been transported to the mid-20th century. Our huckster in this version is Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), a pharmaceutical tycoon dismayed at the sagging ratings of his sponsored television shows. In an effort to boost ratings, he tasks a team of scientists with exploring a remote island that’s supposedly home to a legendary monster. Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated subplot, an American submarine (piloted by a charmingly clueless, slack-jawed captain) bumps into an iceberg and frees Godzilla from his frosty prison, thus sending the two monsters on a collision course.
Structurally, King Kong vs. Godzilla shares the flaws of fellow monster bashes, particularly in its arbitrarily contrived showdown. The first half of the film is essentially a remake of the original King Kong, albeit interspersed with Godzilla’s latest resurrection. Either of these stories could likely sustain its own film, but it’s wisely framed as a Kong retelling, right down to Toho’s recreation of the mystical Skull Island (here repurposed as Faro Island).
Faro feels a little more hemmed up and less fertile than its American counterpart, but Honda’s garish Tohoscope photography reflects the exotic trappings and anticipates the comic-book stylings of the eventual clash. A less brooding, ominous take than the '33 film, Honda’s effort inspires more awe than terror (it doesn’t help that his man-in-suit Kong looks ridiculous) and thrives on the sheer spectacle of giant monsters throwing down with each other (he even provides an undercard bout when Kong takes on a giant octopus that proves to be pesky throughout the film).
This narrative framework also rightfully keeps Kong a sympathetic figure in this titanic throw-down. In just a few years, Godzilla would go onto become more of an antihero (before transitioning into full-blown heroic defender), but King Kong vs. Godzilla clearly establishes a line between face and heel (there’s even a radio broadcast that basically coaches audiences—Kong is merely an unwitting, wronged creature, while Godzilla is indeed a full-blown monster). By doing so, the film brings a bit of order to its chaos, as Kong is positioned as the good guy who will rid Japan of its latest Godzilla invasion, so it’s not an empty spectacle without stakes. Later Toho rumbles would be more organic, but this one has an especially playful, sandbox quality that primarily serves to settle a schoolyard debate: who would in a fight—King Kong or Godzilla?
When the film gets down to settling that, it’s thrilling, light-hearted entertainment. Sure, the human element is rather expendable, and this film marked Godzilla’s transformation into Toho mascot, but these feel like trifles once the two monsters start romping and stomping all over Japan and each other. Their confrontation is well-booked, with each one given moments to shine (in wrestling lingo, both are able to “keep their heat,” so to speak) during multiple bouts. Admittedly, a lot of the appeal comes from the names on the marquee—holy shit, it’s KING KONG and GODZILLA fighting—which would have been easy to coast on; however, Toho invested in the complete grandeur of the event. With means that would be considered limited by today’s standards, Honda and effects master Eiji Tsuburaya conjured up one hell of a spectacle with their menagerie of miniatures.
There’s some interesting stuff scattered about the edges of the mayhem as well. Despite its reputation as the film that put Godzilla on the path to being a cuddly hero, King Kong vs. Godzilla has some satiric bite. Whereas Cooper’s film slightly nudged hucksterism and show business, Honda’s film makes some prescient observations about the vapidity of television culture, where educational programming is tossed aside for silly spectacle. Mr. Tako is an easily-lampooned fool who cares not for the destruction caused by these monsters so long as he captures it on film. He’s not unlike Carl Denham in that respect, but he seems even more over-the-top than his counterpart and perhaps reveals the showbiz industry’s precipitous drop in the span of 30 years.
Mostly, though, it’s all right there in the title: this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, and it delivers the cartoony, comic-bookish thrills the marquee entails. Toho would produce better clashes over the years, but few had the purity and intrigue of this, their first proper monster mash. Most of that does owe to the fact that, try as Toho might, no other monster could ever match the prestige of Kong—this truly was a matchup of the ages, a true once-in-a-lifetime event, as the American beast would only return for 1967’s King Kong Escapes. By that time, Toho had crafted an entire universe and populated with monsters, many of whom would clash with Godzilla for decades to come. Few of those clashes could match the magic of King Kong vs. Godzilla, which is the Kaiju equivalent of Hogan body-slamming Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III, a watershed moment that established the genre’s reign of dominance in Japan for years. Buy it!
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