What was to prove the most successful of Toho’s Godzilla films is, to me, at times one of the hardest to watch in the edited, Americanized edition, even though it included two of my favourite movie monsters. But even in the Toho version, King Kong is not the Kong of the beloved 1933 film. That Kong had majesty and flair. This one, well… read on.
The film was released for Toho’s 30th anniversary, in 1962. Toho paid a huge royalty to RKO to use the King Kong name in a kaiju film, and then made it grow bigger in order to tussle with their own, towering Godzilla. But for all the love and attention lathered on their new Big G costume, Kong looks shop-worn and sad. The huge cost of the royalties ate into the special effects budget.
I had not seen the original Japanese version of this film until the Criterion Collection of Godzilla films came out; the Criterion Collection features the 1963 US release on its second disc, not the original 1962 Japanese version; which is hidden away on the Supplements disc (but not listed anywhere in the print component). And it was worth the wait: the original is so much better than the edited version.
The other copy I have of King Kong vs Godzilla is a 2003 DVD with the same US release. Like most early US releases in the franchise, this one is a mess of inserted scenes and edits, cuts, a worse replacement soundtrack, talking heads, an annoying narrator mansplaining everything, and clumsy, dubbed dialogue. And way too much America in it. But let’s look at the Japanese original, first. Spoiler alert, by the way.
For the first time in the franchise, the film was made in colour (Tohoscope), which would affect the way the special effects crew created miniatures and the monster suits. It featured another great soundtrack by Akira Ifukube, sadly cut out in the American edit (damn) and mostly replaced with music from The Creature From the Black Lagoon and other American film sources. You can hear some of the original on the CDs of the Godzilla soundtracks; the opening of the Japanese version reminds me of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana).
The plot pits Godzilla, a monster from the north (last seen buried in ice and snow on a distant, northern island near Japan), and King Kong, a tropical monster, last seen dead at the foot of the Empire State Building, in New York. I’ve read the film was also an allegory of the fight between the rising economic might of Japan (Godzilla) and the USA (King Kong). And might have been an allegory for the fight between the office worker (Kong, the “salaryman”) and G, his boss. Or even between competing corporate interests. If so, then there isn’t a clear winner.
The writers had to come up with a reason both kaiju were still alive. That was easy for Godzilla, but for Kong, they simply ignored his earlier demise in NYC, and recapped the original story, albeit more comically.
The story has quite a bit of wry satire in it, especially about business, media, and corporations, most but not entirely lost in the Americanization. And unlike previous films, there are no scenes of humans being stomped on, crushed, set alight, or eaten. Buildings get destroyed, vehicles, trains, boats, planes… and we assume people are in them, but from this film on, G would not be seen killing humans so directly.
The Japanese version opens with shots of “Miracle Series,” a dreary TV science show sponsored by Pacific Pharmaceutical Co. It’s clearly an awful show, because we quickly see the face of Tako, the bored and angry company executive watching from his corporate office. He rants about how poorly the show is faring with other workers and its small audience but is interrupted by a call from the company’s president, who also complains the show is boring. Something must be done to improve ratings.
The TV show presents a report from the Bering Sea about melting icebergs and abnormally warm temperature in the ocean. Cut to the Arctic Ocean aboard the Sea Hawk, a U.N. nuclear submarine (who knew the UN had its own navy!) with a bunch of scientists aboard staring at a picture of a ‘berg with flashing light coming from it. The sub tries to dive.
Bizarre cut: a TV ad for Pashin, the drug company’s product to provide “enthusiasm, stamina, and energy… the fountain of youth!” Sounds like some form of speed. Or maybe Ecstasy. Was that just a wacky means to introduce the actor presenting it?
We’re in the TV studio for a comic routine by two actors after the filming of the commercial. One of the pair has been given the task of “lifting” the TV ratings of the show and wants the other’s help. “I’m not a crane,” the other replies. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck. They head to the boss’ office to look at the “herbs” a scientist has brought back from his trip to a remote island (actually large, red berries). Do they have anything to do with the ad for Pashin? Well, the berry juice will resurface in a later scene,
Animals seem to find these berries “irresistible.” Why is never explained. But the previously bored exec doesn’t want to hear about the fruit sitting in jars on the table. He wants to know about the strange event the islanders told the scientist was going to happen. “The Mammoth Evil Spirit has awakened,” the scientist says. And a trip to that island to investigate will be the hook to engage the show’s audience.
A comedic home scene results in the reveal of a “nuclear age fibre” that’s as thin as thread, but stronger than steel. Not quite a non sequitur: it’ll come in handy later. What a TV guy is doing with something that futuristic isn’t explained. We also learn that the competing TV network (sponsored by a competing drug company) is sending a ship to the north sea to investigate the warming waters. One kaiju per network.
Then at 0:11:40 we’re back aboard the sub again. Yes, I know, it’s confusing. The dual plots bring the two kajiu discoveries together slowly. The time between their meeting is used to develop the numerous subplots and characters. Because there is so much going on, the film seems to move along quickly.
The sub runs into the glowing iceberg (doh… who’s steering this ship?). A UN sub must be piloted by a committee…
And then we’re back in Tokyo (yes, it’s a choppy film… maybe that’s one reason it was edited and re-organized for its American release) celebrating the “expedition to gather data” (how’s that for a catchy title?) the TV network is sending to Faro Island. The pair of comic actors get to ham it up again.
And… back to the iceberg, which is breaking apart over the sub, still trapped by the ice. The crew struggles with the flooding sub, but futilely; it catches fire and it sinks. The escape hatch is jammed and… we hear the Big G’s roar. This is one of the rare times in the film where people die because of G.
Then we’re aboard the first TV network’s southbound expedition ship, which has managed to travel about 5,500 kms in a few minutes, approaching Faro Island; a rocky matte painting not unlike that used in the original King Kong movie.
Look! Island natives… well, okay: Japanese actors in blackface (couldn’t do that today!)… watch the arriving expedition. They capture the three who landed (only three? That’s not much of an expedition…) and take them to their village (looking remarkably like King Kong’s original islanders…). The chief shouts in pidgin English for them to leave and go back… sigh… to placate him the TV explorers give him a transistor radio playing pop music… the village dances… (music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, yes, but can they really get reception out here in the middle of nowhere?). The explorers hand out cigarettes to everyone, including the children. So now they can stay, albeit leaving a stinky legacy of cancer and miserable, slow death by smoking.
But… a lightning flash and the natives launch into the song and dance ceremony to placate the “evil spirit.” It’s a cast of hundreds. Then we hear the roar of the beast… you’ll note with both kaiju we’re introduced to each first by a roar but no flesh.
Cut to a TV screen back in Tokyo and a lion roaring, and two of the female love interests chatting about the voyage to the north. Then we’re on that ship while the crew reports the submarine’s sinking. Cut to a US Navy helicopter looking for the sub. They descend towards the emergency marker and at about 0:26:30 we see (and hear) Godzilla emerge from the iceberg.
Cue the model tanks and artillery firing wildly. Somehow we’ve gone from the deep ocean to some military base on land where G is wading ashore into the fire. Not quite sure how we got there so quickly, or where it is. Or why the army keeps trying the same old methods when they never worked before. G destroys the base, melts a few tanks, and uses his atomic breath to set everything on fire. When will they ever learn?
A government official (Dr. Shigezawa) coming out of the parliament buildings tells the media Godzilla wasn’t dead, just “hibernating in the frozen sea” and “Yes, he’ll come to Japan without fail” because of his animal “homing instincts.”
Now we see the pharmacy exec all riled up because the media is full of “Gojira, Gojira, Gojira” which is helping his competition (which sponsors the other TV network). Nothing has been heard of the “Mammoth Evil Spirit we poured a fortune into.” This leads back to a scene on Faro Island where the pair of plucky explorers are heading into the jungle with some bearers. A shot fired from a gun is answered by a monster’s roar, and everyone flees. It’s like Abbot and Costello meet King Kong.
Back at the village, the islanders are still praying to their idols while the trepid explorers recover from their flight back. They send a child out to get some of the berry juice to help one sleep and recover. But a giant octopus slithers up on land and destroys the hut where the child and his mother have gone to get the juice. The villagers throw spears, the explorers fire guns, but the giant is unharmed. To the rescue comes Kong (at 0:37:35); he battles the octopus, which eventually flees back to the water (allegedly to become lunch for the crew).
But Kong’s not very bright: instead of heading back to the safe jungle, he grabs a bunch of pots of berry juice and drinks them all, then falls down in a stupor while the natives dance around his body (those native women wearing coconut-shell bikini tops are quite alluring…). One of the explorers says they need to build a raft for Kong… and the scene shifts to the drug company where the exec is ecstatically announcing “Who cares about Godzilla now?” because the news is all “King Kong, King Kong, Kong Kong…” and Kong is on a ship headed back to Japan.
At 0:44:15, a woman in the office asks a co-worker, “Who’s stronger: King Kong or Godzilla?” Which is basically the main theme of the film. “Idiot!” another replies, “It’s not a wrestling match!” Well, yes it is, but just not right now. And the exec hearing that question comes back and says, “Fantastic! I like that idea! King Kong vs. Godzilla…” The audience figured that out a long time ago.
Kong is seen on a giant raft (who built it and how? How did they get the kaiju onto it?) being towed back to Japan behind a freighter. The executive arrives by helicopter to see the captive. More comic banter while the exec decides what advertising slogans to use. But the Japanese Navy won’t let the ship enter Japanese waters with Kong.
Back in Tokyo, there’s more love-interest action, but we also learn people are evacuating the city before Godzilla arrives. And one of the girlfriends, Fumiko, is on a train heading north. As expected, G appears stomping his way south at 0:50:32. The train is warned, and stops, the passengers fleeing in a panic (to waiting buses… hmmm…). In previous films, G would stomp the train and chew on a few cars while passengers fell to their deaths. But this is apparently a kinder, gentler G we see.
The buses are full and about a dozen passengers are left behind, the girlfriend among them. G trashes the train, but the boyfriend has arrived to find her. Fumiko is rescued as G stomps by the couple. The rest of the left-behinds seem to have vanished.
At 0:55:21 we see the army brass saying the UN has suggested an “H-bomb attack for the sake of peace.” Pretty twisted logic, that. Almost as twisted as the NRA’s “more guns mean less killing” logic. Another officer suggests electrical wires with one million volts (remember: 300,000 volts didn’t even faze G in the first film). Japan won’t consider the H-bomb.
Meanwhile, back at sea: Kong is “growing restless” thrashing about on the raft. There’s a fight over what to do and the exec accidentally pushes the plunger meant to set off the TNT around the raft. But… nothing happens. So the explorers fire at the TNT and set it off. Big explosion; water erupts, raft vanishes. Is Kong killed? Nope: he’s just really, really pissed. And wet. He wades ashore.
The army plans a trap for Godzilla, using dynamite and poison gas, but are told Kong is rampaging northward. Dr. Shigezawa says “King Kong instinctively senses Godzilla’s presence and is moving in his direction.” Let’s hope so: two-thirds of the film is over and the two haven’t met. But at 01:00:42 they see each other. The game is afoot! It’s the “battle of the century” (where have we heard that before?). Okay, no it isn’t… there’s some rock throwing by Kong, some atomic breath fire-starting by G, then an apparently cowed Kong wanders off.
G is lured towards the army’s pit and falls in. The gas is detonated. Is this the end of Big G? Nope. He’s just pissed.
Kong heads into Tokyo, and civilians evacuate. And then G heads for the city, too. The high-voltage wires deter him, for now, but Kong walks right through them, making Kong electrified. Kong rampages, destroying a commuter train full of evacuees, apparently not sharing G’s new attitude towards civilians. And at 01;13:30, Kong picks up Fumiko, who had been a passenger, from the wreck; a beauty-and-the-beast moment (stolen from Fay Wray’s capture in the original). The army holds fire to avoid killing her.
Kong climbs atop the parliament building with Fumiko in his paw. Not quite the Empire State Building in NYC, but it will have to do. The army prepares an extract from the magic berries to knock Kong out. Accompanied by the sound of drums played by the TV guys (and a recording of the native ceremony), Kong succumbs. Fumiko is rescued by her boyfriend.
Now the government steps in and decides to let G and K fight it out, an official saying “Heroes cannot coexist. We’ll let them destroy each other.” The magic thread seen before now gets used to airlift Kong to G’s location near Mt Fuji. And at 01:25:45 they’re at it again, this time finally mano a mano.
It’s about as realistic as a WWF wrestling match; lots of gestures, screaming, and rolling around. At one point, it looks like G has won, but after a lightning strike, K recovers and they keep at it. Forest gets set ablaze, buildings are trampled. A beautifully-modelled classic structure (the Atami Spa) is destroyed. Godzilla was said to be extremely sensitive to light in the previous film, but has no problem when fighting K or rampaging around Japan in daylight.
The two grapple and fall together into the ocean. Last glimpse: Kong swimming out to sea, heading home; Godzilla disappears below the waves, his fate unknown. K won’t return to the franchise until the recent Universal Monsterverse films (Kong: Skull Island in 2017, Godzilla vs. Kong in 2021, and its sequel coming in 2024). G, of course, has many more appearances to put in. But for the next two decades, this will be one of the high points of his career.
One thing to note in the choreography: Both Kong and G act like giant people, less like giant animals. G is clearly aware and reacts to events quite differently from the way he did in previous films. From here on, G would be far more human-like (anthropomorphized) in his film behaviour.
Overall: the Japanese version is a sometimes funny, light, occasionally romantic action film that included kaiju. Lots of ideas and scenes were stolen from the early King Kong movie. William Tsutsui, Author of Godzilla on My Mind, said in an interview in 2021 before the release of the Universal Godzilla vs Kong movie,
Back in 1962 when the original “King Kong vs. Godzilla” came out, there was a legend that they made a Japanese version where Godzilla wins and an American version where Kong wins. The reality is that the original movie was a draw. Basically, Kong swims off in one direction, and Godzilla swims off in another. The reason, of course, is that the studio wanted to make a sequel. That sequel never happened, so we’ve had to wait decades for a rematch.
Missing are the connections between the A-bomb tests and Godzilla’s creation, as well as any discussion about his age. With this film, Godzilla would become an entertainment icon, not the manifestation of Japan’s fears of a nuclear holocaust. He’s even become a prop for a rom-com. Although choppy at times, with annoying jumps, the film works pretty well and is fun to watch. Not that the Americans could leave well enough alone. Their version just had to be different.
For example, the US version opens with a “UN reporter” Eric Carter (shades of the Steve Martin newscaster played by Raymond Burr from the 1956 American film) and a satellite connection in Chile, which has been devasted by earthquakes (WTF does this have to do with anything?) In his book, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, David Kalat calls the newscast scenes “leaden.” Turgid can also apply to his mansplaining. Why the editors felt they needed a talking head instead of action sequences baffles me.
The reporter then describes a new miracle berry discovered on a remote, South Pacific island, which is supposed to “produce a non-habit-forming narcotic effect.” But natives on the only island where it grows won’t let scientists take it because they use it to placate their god, an “enormous creature” who lives on the island. Sheesh. Talk about giving away the plot. Mansplaining again.
We see the corporate pharmaceutical execs talk about the berry they call “soma” and how to exploit the natives to get more. How very capitalist of them. The execs predictably laugh at the stories of the giant monster on the island, but the TV people are told to go to the island to either find the monster or make up a story about one for better TV ratings of the show the company sponsors (make up stories? fake news? shades of Fox Nooz!).
At one point, Dr. Shigezawa comments “The armed forces will defend Japan at all costs.” Fat chance; we’ve all seen that before. In the Japanese version, he talks about G’s homecoming; lost in the Americanized version.
What’s really telling is when Dr. Shigezawa tells reporters at 0:14:10 that “any way we can find to stop Godzilla must be considered.” When a reporter presses him that “You have considered using the atom bomb,” Shigezawa replies “Possibly, as a last resort.” That’s a big change from the original where the threat of the A-bomb was the overarching theme. And where, you might ask, would Japan (a non-nuclear nation) get such a bomb? The whole Japan-opposed-to-nuclear-weapons thing gets erased.
At 0:25:50 the UN reporter interrupts to bring in the “curator of the New York Museum for Natural History” to explain Godzilla and his past to the American audiences. Rather than explain the reason G was trapped in the ice (at the end of the previous film, a perfectly clear explanation), the “curator” goes off into wingnuttery and suggests G is a “cross between the gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Stegosaurus.” The former is a late Cretaceous dinosaur from 68 to 66 million years ago, the latter a Jurassic dinosaur from about 155 to 145 million years ago. And then he says this sort of dinosaur existed “between 97 and 125 million years ago.” ARGH! My inner paleontologist screams when I hear such codswallop. Come on…aside from the vast difference in ages, one was a theropod carnivore, the other a thyreophoran herbivore. I weep. For this cringeworthy scene alone I dislike it.
And then the “curator” says “In Mexico, they found a frog which they think lay dormant for two million years.” Aside from the bullshit of such a statement (there is a burrowing frog in Australia which can lie dormant for a few years, not millions of them), dinosaurs died out 65 MILLION years ago. Nothing could survive in any form of “suspended animation” that long. Period. Why didn’t they just explain why G was trapped in the ice in the previous film?
And later (at 0:41:02) he says that “Godzilla has a brain about this size,” showing what looks like a marble or cranberry. Well, that’s claptrap, too: the brain size would scale with the body and be about bus-sized. “He’s sheer, brute force,” the curator says, while Kong is a thinking animal…. his brain is…. about ten times the size of this gorilla’s skull.” Not only does that contradict the events, and the Godzilla backstory, it’s specie-ist and nationalist claptrap (thinking American Kong versus the brute Japanese Godzilla). And Kong is at least 25 times bigger than a modern gorilla, so his skull would match. Then, at 0:41″:32, he says “Being amphibian, Godzilla is probably lurking in the ocean depths off Japan.” ARGH! Amphibians are NOT the same as reptiles in pretty much every way.
Even though the Americanization is played as if this was the first time G had ever appeared, the helicopter pilots and every Japanese actor recognize who that big monster is the very first time they see him. So, no logic to these bizarre explanations of G’s origin.
And there are the political dimensions…where the USA and the UN come to the aid of Japan in this version, but not in the original. And how the corporate clowns of the original seem a lot less comical (the satirical aspects in the Japanese version are toned down to clumsy slapstick).
I won’t go on further about the US version, suffice to say it is the lesser of the two versions by several lengths and it has a flaccid ending. The continuity and the connection between some of the characters in the original (including much of the original’s satire) is lost or weakened. What with the edits, cuts, narration, and so on, the US version comes across as a weak copy. I can’t recommend you watch it unless you’re already seen the original and want to compare release versions. I am annoyed Criterion chose to put this version up front, and bury the original on the Supplements disc.
And now for something to make you smile… a fan flick based on the later, Monsterverse film and a popular ad for beans… but what the hell, it made me chuckle when I saw it.