Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Series Report Card: Godzilla (1962)
3. King Kong vs. Godzilla
Kingu Kongu tai Gojira
After the mediocre critical and fan reaction to “Godzilla Raids Again,” the King of the Monsters was put in cold storage for seven years. During that time, Toho produced a number of other science fiction and giant monster movies, from “Varan the Unbelievable” and “The Mysterians” to eventual Godzilla co-stars “Rodan” and “Mothra,” most of them in searing color. Meanwhile, in America, original King Kong creator Willis O’Brien was shopping around a sequel to his seminal monster movie in which Kong would have battled a giant version of Frankenstein’s Monster. Through a convoluted series of events, the King Kong sequel idea made its way to Toho. Godzilla’s first film was inspired by Kong and, even in the early sixties, the giant gorilla was far more popular in Japan then their native monster. Even then, the studio realized that if Kong was to fight someone, it should be Godzilla. (The giant Frankenstein would eventually show up in a different movie.) “King Kong vs. Godzilla” was the first time Godzilla was seen in color. In addition to inspiring later monster crossover flicks, it revived interest in Godzilla and set the precedence for the many sequels to come.
It also signaled a major shift in tone. “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” at least in its original Japanese version, is boldly comedic, a satire of corporate advertisement. The film even seems to mock the sci-fi films of the era, when the sinister-narration-assisted opening shot of Earth is revealed to take place on a television set. The plot isn’t motivated by concerns of nuclear war but rather the petty whims of a pharmaceutical company’s advertising wing. You see, the science show the company sponsors has shitty ratings. The boss, Mr. Tako, decides a giant monster would be the perfect mascot for the company. Luckily, one of the show’s researchers says such a beast lives on near-by Faro Island. This, of course, turns out to be King Kong, who is quickly subdued and brought to Japan. Simultaneously, an American submarine crashes into the iceberg containing Godzilla, freeing the monster, setting him on a warpath towards Tokyo, naturally. It’s only a matter of time before the two titanic beasts met up and start rumblin’.
The advertising satire winds up being far more entertaining then it has any right to be. Upon arriving on Faro Island, hero Sakurai and comic relief sidekick Kinsaburo bribe the natives with cigarettes. Even a little kid wants one of the smokes. The native islander shtick is either hacky sci-fi writing at its best/worse or an intentional parody of similar portrayals in older films. When Godzilla first appears, Mr. Tako isn’t worried about the monster stomping on innocent people. Instead, he is enraged that another giant creature would dare steal his company’s lime-light. When Kong is discovered, and takes over the press, he is overjoyed, happy to see Godzilla out of the papers. Even when the giant ape is wrecking Tokyo, Tako is more concerned with his company’s image. You’d think the gorilla smashing a city would be bad for publicity… Some of Tako’s more slap-stick moments are hard to take but the film’s sense of humor proves surprisingly fresh.
The shift in style also affects the film’s content. The movie is goofier overall which makes some of the sillier plot developments easier to swallow. A minor subplot involves Sakurai’s sister and her boyfriend Kazuo. Kazuo, out of nowhere, reveals that he has invented a super-strong but super-thin wire. This winds up being Chekov’s Wire. Later in the film, with the assistance of some huge hot-air balloons, the wire is used to transport Kong from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji. Another silly element involves the Japanese Self-Defense Force digging a massive hole in the ground, big enough to trap Godzilla. I mean, that’s a real big hole. But the movie goes one step further, covering the hole with a grass-covered mesh. Godzilla winds up falling for a trap that wouldn’t fool Daffy Duck. There’s even some dry humor when Japan’s prime minister keeps a stiff upper lip when faced with the news of the competing giant monsters. As absurd as some of these plot developments are, the audience takes it in stride. The script’s good-nature goofiness makes just about anything possible.
Ultimately, we’re here for the monsters and the film recognizes this. Both Kong and Godzilla get stand-out moments of their own before facing off. Godzilla was given a fearsome redesign for this film. His head is more crocodilian, topped off with striking yellow eyes. His back spines are larger and more jagged, his claws sharper and more pronounced. More muscular arms and bulkier thighs make him the kaiju-equivalent of a power-lifter. Even his roar is changed, gaining a slightly higher pitch, becoming the familiar skreeonk used throughout the rest of the series. It is surely one of the best looks the monster would sport during the Showa era.
King Kong fares less well compared to his rival. In order to compete against Godzilla, Toho gave Kong a major size boost, quadrupling the big ape in size. Even more strangely, Kong was given a super power, drawing his strength from lightening and gaining a fatal electric touch. Perhaps these were hold-overs from the earlier Frankenstein concept? Kong proves to be an awkward fit for Toho’s house style. Despite obviously being the more sympathetic of the two monsters, Kong still stomps on homes and shatters skyscrapers with giant knuckle sandwiches. Most notably, he lifts a train, brutally killing all but one of its occupants. That scene exists mostly to get Fumiko in the big ape’s mitts. Because you can’t have a Kong movie without him climbing a building with a lovely lady in his hand. However, it’s a little out of character for this Kong, who showed no previous attraction to human females. Secondly, Toho’s jumbo-sized Kong looks a little silly straddling the Diet Building’s famous pyramid roof. (To show that kaiju know no political affiliation, Kong wrecks the Diet too, just like Godzilla did back in ’54.)
Kong looks silly for other reasons too. The gorilla suit used here is widely regarded as one of Toho’s least dignified kaiju suits. It truly is an unglamorous design. The brown fur is matted and ruffled. Kong’s exposed breasts make it look like he has Salisbury steak stapled to his chest. Awkwardly, the gorilla’s arms randomly change in length. In some long shots, he has clownish long arms, the motionless hands flopping back and forth. In other scenes, he has shorter arms and opposable fingers. The suit is weak looking but the hand-puppet used for close of his face is even worse. The eyes are too wide, shifting wildly, while his jaws extend out comically far. During his big entrance, Kong grapples with a giant octopus. You know something’s wrong when the octopus, brought to life through a combination of a real animal on miniature sets and a saran-wrapped puppet, outshines the top-billed beastie. No scene is more ridiculous then when the empty suit is air-lifted by the balloons. Man, does that look bad. Eiji Tsuburaya supposedly had a great love for Kong and wanted to put his own mark on the famous creature. Unfortunately, that’s what he wound up doing but in all the wrong ways.
The movie takes its time getting the two colossal combatants together. The kaiju cross paths at the film’s middle point. However, Godzilla gets the big monkey to flee with one blast of his fiery breath. The two monsters don’t come together until the final twenty minutes. The fight is worth the weight. The iconic tussle is given an iconic backdrop, the kaiju battling up and down Mount Fuji. Ironically recalling earlier comments, the fight is rather blatantly patterned after pro-wrestling bouts. Kong slides into Godzilla, rolling a ridiculous looking model down the mountain side. The gorilla sneaks up on Gojira, yanks on his tail. Kong tosses giant boulders at Godzilla, Godzilla kicks huge stones onto Kong. The monkey tackles the dinosaur and Godzilla thuds Kong on the head with his tail. Even with the lackluster gorilla suit, I imagine monster kids in 1963 were more then satisfied with this brawl.
The fight also predicts the direction the Godzilla series would take in future sequels. The two mothers are far more anthromorphized then in previous encounters. Of course Kong beats his chest. In order to compete, Godzilla has a habit of waving his arms around in victory. The combat is far more exaggerated and comical. Kong spins Godzilla around by his tail and flips him over his shoulder. In probably the film’s most iconic moment, Kong shoves a tree down Godzilla’s throat, causing his atomic breath to backfire on him. The fantastic suit performances are sometimes interrupted by unconvincing stop-motion or puppet work. Godzilla developing a weakness to electricity, contradicting the previous film’s events, might be a screenwriting cop-out. Sure. But you can’t deny its cool when the two monsters tear through Atami Castle before making their climatic tumble into the sea.
For both monsters’ belated return to the big screen, Toho reassembled Godzilla’s original fathers. Ishiro Honda was reportedly unhappy with the film’s more comedic tone. If that’s true, he didn’t let it get him down. Honda’s direction is as sharp as ever. I especially like a sharp cut between Kong’s roaring face and a roaring lion on television. Also back is composer Akira Ifukube. Boy, was he missed. Each monster gets an immediately recognizable theme. Godzilla’s iconic military march is refined into its more famous sound. Kong is signaled by a low woodwind and a following rumble. Even the big octopus gets its' own theme. The score is excellent and one of my favorite Ifukube works. Even the cast is solid, featuring future Bond girl Mie Hama, the stone-faced Sensho Matsumoto, and lovely “Sex and Fury” co-star Akemi Negishi as the most attractive dancer on Fero Island.
The original Japanese version is a real hoot, a delightfully comic-book duel between two of the greatest monsters to grace cinemas. The American version of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” meanwhile, is a far less smooth affair. The majority of the humor is excised, all the advertising satire removed. Any of the humor that’s left is obscured by the awful dubbing, new lines about corns and atom bombs inserted. The new audio frequently doesn’t match the actor’s lips and none of the voice-over actors even attempt a Japanese accent. Worse, the action is constantly interrupted by new scenes filmed for the American version. The entire film is framed around a news broadcast, featuring a smug newscaster, a bland Japanese correspondent, and a rambling science expert who drops completely useless knowledge nuggets. The new edit even has the gull to cut away from the monsters back to these lame-os. As obnoxious as that is, at least most of the monster fight is retained. Less forgivable is Ifukube’s score being completely traded out for stock music. Listen for the notorious motif from “Creature from the Black Lagoon” to pop up a few times. Unfortunately, Universal maintains the North American rights and has shown no interest in releasing the Japanese version over here, not even on the upcoming Blu-Ray. Luckily, the Japanese original can be found with a little internet effort.
“King Kong vs. Godzilla” would be the most attended film in the Godzilla series and a huge hit for Toho. The movie’s success would prompt Toho to give Godzilla another chance, birthing the long-running, much beloved series. The film not only made future team-ups mandatory, it also signaled the series shift towards a lighter, more kid-friendly tone. [Kingu Kongu tai Gojira: A-] [King Kong vs. Godzilla: C]