Sunday, April 20, 2014

KING KONG vs. GODZILLA (1962): 30 Days of Godzilla



Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to witness a cataclysmic, catastrophic clash of titanic terrors! Get y'er front-row seats to the knock-down, drag-out battle of the century! Tonight Japan's reigning monster supreme Godzilla goes toe-to-toe with the American ape of astonishing strength: King Kong! When the dust finally settles on the ruins of Japan, who will emerge the new King of the Monsters?

Released in 1962 in Japan and then internationally in 1963, King Kong vs. Godzilla put two of the world's most iconic giant monsters into mortal combat. In colour and in widescreen format for the first time in either of the characters' histories, King Kong vs. Godzilla represents a number of other noteworthy firsts within the Godzilla franchise. King Kong vs. Godzilla marked the first time that the Toho company worked directly with US producers. At the same time, as the median age of monster-lovers began to drop in the US and Japan as more kids flocked to monster-centric toys and material in magazines and on TV, King Kong vs. Godzilla marked Toho's first attempts to present a more comedic and kid-friendly Godzilla. Special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya desired to make the monster more commercial and yielded a version of Godzilla that fought more like a wrestler than an animal and who embodied all the physical boasting and showboating of a human heavyweight contender. Despite all the firsts, King Kong vs. Godzilla also continued one of the series's most frustrating traditions: the butchering of the Japanese original by American distributors and producers.

The bigger they are, the harder they brawl.
So how exactly do Godzilla and King Kong cross paths? It all begins with Mr. Tako, the director of a major pharmaceuticals company (Ichirô Arishima), who concocts a cockamamie plan to kidnap King Kong from his home on Faro Island (a stand-in for Skull Island) in order to use him as a promotional tool in Japan. He dispatches two men named Sakurai and Kinsaburo (Tadao Takashima and Yû Fujiki) to bring back the beast. Meanwhile, Godzilla awakens from his seven-year slumber encased in the iceberg where we last left him at the end of Godzilla Raids Again. Pissed and ready to rumble, Godzilla heads for Japan where Kong too has broken free. The two legendary monsters tangle, with Godzilla getting the upper hand, but Kong is given a rematch when the Japanese Self Defense Force decides to dumbo-drop Kong at the base of Mt. Fuji to halt Godzilla's path of destruction. So who wins in this East meets West conference of kaiju calamity? Despite years of rumours that the ending differed depending on which version you saw, the answer is the same for both the Japanese and international release. It's an apparent draw. Kong and Godzilla tumble into the sea, locked in battle. Godzilla returns to the sea from whence he came and Kong swims slowly back to his home on Faro island. No word has yet meet made about a rematch.

Godzilla gets a pre-fight peptalk with coach and maker Eiji Tsuburaya
King Kong vs. Godzilla is a really big departure from the tone of its predecessors. It's a silly movie and it knows it. Despite Ishiro Honda returning to the Godzilla franchise as director, gone are the dark nuclear undertones and the emphasis on fearsome creatures. King Kong vs. Godzilla is a candy-coated spoof of commercialism that fully embraces the kid-oriented trajectory of kaiju movies at the time. Many fans hate this film for its softening of Godzilla. I say, however, if you have any remnants of childhood whimsy in your heart, it's hard to dislike the original Japanese release. You have to be a real hardass to gripe about the lack of serious Godzilla destruction when you're watching two of the world's most beloved monsters slapping each other silly like a couple of palooka boxers or tossing each other into famous landmarks like a pair of colossal WWE wrestlers. The original Japanese release may be silly, and it may be a bit of a hot mess, but it's incredibly satisfying in that Saturday Morning Matinee way.
Stay classy, Hokkaido
The US release doesn't fare as well, in my option. Re-edited, re-scored, and re-dubbed with American scenes, it's a tedious and boring revision that sucks almost all the fun out of the otherwise amusing Japanese monster antics. Chief among its problems are new scenes starring Michael Keith as UN newscaster Eric Carter. I'm not sure what the producers were thinking (I know what kids love more than giant monsters: stuffy international news anchors!) but these scenes, in which Carter comments on the action, pack more snooze power than a Kong-sized bottle of Ambien. Reporting live from UN Headquarters (aka. a hastily decorated sound-stage that might as well be someone's guest bedroom), Carter's scenes do nothing more than take the wind out of the film's sails.

What's going on here? Are Godzilla and Kong going to end this feud with a thumb war?
For his big in-colour debut, Godzilla got quite the makeover on his third outing. In Godzilla Raids Again, he was slender with a lean suit, small head, and pronounced ears. For King Kong vs. Godzilla, the G-man got a dramatic upgrade with a more reptilian style, bulky and stocky legs, a thick neck, and a head with a clear lack of ears, fangs, and forward-facing eyes. This suit also gave Godzilla exaggerated spike-like claws and three-toed feet. Given the popularity of King Kong vs. Godzilla and its marketing material in America, not to mention Godzilla's closer adherence to dinosaur physiology, this Godzilla suit has become a favorite among American kids and fans.

Somewhere Willis O'Brien weeps.
Toho's depiction of King Kong, on the other hand, is a hairy, fat failure. He's a grotesque stumbling oaf who rolls around in the dirt and occasionally knocks himself unconscious with accidental blows to the the head or an overdose of alcoholic red berry juice. The fact that he even gets the upper hand on Godzilla is itself a travesty. In addition, the costume is disgraceful. It looks like a moth-eaten dog blanket someone found under a back porch. The design of Kong's head is an unforgivable slap in the face of Willis H. O'Brien's original 1933 design work. By comparison, Toho's Kong has a face like a wad of chewed gum. Disappointing. There may not have been a winner declared in the actual kaiju battle, but Godzilla clearly took home the gold for style.


Where does Godzilla go after grappling toe-to-to with a superstar like King Kong? Well, if Godzilla represents the ugliness of the nuclear age, perhaps it's time he faces the destructive maternal beauty of mother nature itself. Tomorrow, Godzilla returns to take on a new high-flying foe: MOTHRA! 

It's MOTHRA vs. GODZILLA (aka. Godzilla vs. The Thing) for our next installment of 30 Days of Godzilla.

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