Sunday, 24 May 2020
King Kong Vs Godzilla
King Kong Vs Godzilla
(aka Kingu Kongu tai Gojira)
Japan/USA 1962 Directed by Ishirô Honda
Toho/Criterion Collection Blu Ray Zone B
So seven years after Godzilla Raids Again (reviewed here) had, presumably, ended Gojira’s onslaught on the Japanese and US box office, there was still a lot of interest in King Kong and Toho Studios wanted to celebrate their own 30th anniversary with a slate of big films including something with the much loved giant ape in it (Kurosawa was also coaxed, grudgingly, into making the second and final sequel movie in his career with Sanjuro, his follow up to Yojimbo). So the Japanese did a rights deal with US studio RKO, who still held the rights to King Kong and... wondered who he could fight in his film. The answer was, of course, Godzilla so... in a way, King Kong saved Godzilla because the Godzilla cycle really took off after this movie and hasn’t really stopped for any great length of time since.
When I took out the next disc of this epic Criterion set, I was dismayed to find that the version of King Kong VS Godzilla was the butchered, re-edited version with loads of stuff missing and some terrible fake TV broadcast news sections inserted all the way through to try and explain the story. It’s a truly awful version of the movie and, until now, the only one I’d ever been able to see, alas. Once the film finished... and the American version truly is a dreadful way to experience this movie... I was all ready to ‘tweet angry’ at Criterion to complain about their bad judgement in only including the stupid US version.
However, just before I did this, I came upon an article which explained that the original Japanese cut of the movie is, indeed on this set... it’s just ‘hidden in plain sight’ on the eighth disc as an extra. It seems weird to me that the one film which is, I suspect, the main draw for a set like this for a lot of people, is kinda tucked away at the back of the set like it’s somehow not the most important movie on here. However, it’s not been treated that well either in that, the scenes on this version of the film that are in the American version are proper Blu Ray quality while the scenes which are unique to the Japanese version are, in a lot of cases, only in DVD quality and, in some instances, the change over from one source to another can be quite jarring. So... yeah, a little disappointed but at least it’s on here (unlike the US version of Godzilla Raids Again... yeah, thanks Criterion).
The film in summary is very simple. Godzilla emerges from the ice in the form of an iceberg... presumably that’s what the island he was frozen on has become in the seven years since the last movie... pulling himself out of his deep freeze due to shear strength of will it seems to me. Meanwhile, two TV reporters go to Faro Island (not Skull Island as in the original Kong movies) to get some unique red berry juice and also look into the local legend of a legendary evil God-like presence living on the island. It is, of course, King Kong who, after fighting a giant octopus, falls asleep while drinking some of the berry juice and so is towed back to Japan in time to fight against Godzilla. There’s also a sub-plot about one of the reporter’s brother, who has invented an unbreakable steel wire which dovetails into the main plot towards the end of the film when the authorities lift Kong by helium balloons attached to this wire to get the slumbering beast closer to Godzilla. It’s all very silly in both cuts of the movie but the US version renders it completely ridiculous with bad dubbing changing the actual dialogue and, also, turning into a bizarre ‘selected highlights’ edition by cutting in and out of scenes for more explanatory exposition by the added American and Japanese news teams. The US version also includes terrible dialogue choices like “King Kong can’t make a monkey out of us.” They leave out a lot of the ‘TV ratings war’ satirical edge that Honda has in his version too, with all the re-dubbing.
Another thing the Americans really overdo on their cut of the movie is keep mentioning the atomic bomb. Every time the authoritarian Japanese scientist turns up and everyone is overdubbed with completely different dialogue, people just keep asking him if they’re going to drop an atomic bomb on The Big G. Really weird and almost a subconscious but punishing reminder of the horrific US triumph over the Japanese during the Second World War. On the Japanese version, the Hydrogen Bomb is only mentioned once and very briefly. This could be so that, as every Japanese person will remember, Gojira was woken and reborn from the atomic bomb tests so... well, it’s not going to do any damage to it at all if they use such devastating force. So it’s a bit of a weird and persistent inclusion on the US cut.
One thing the Japanese version also seems to forget though, especially since it’s the director of the original Gojira movie at the helm here, is that electricity didn’t stop Gojira either. Indeed, in this movie, this actually works on the monster, contrary to everything we already know about it. That being said, the electricity only makes King Kong stronger... he’s seen literally eating it from wires at one point... and, towards the end of the movie, lightning strikes fix it so that Kong can actually channel electricity through his fingers. So, yeah, not a lot of continuity with the original Kong in this one then. Although, to be fair, this idea might have been inspired by a famous, 1930s publicity still montage which pictures Kong with a load of lightning behind him in the sky.
The fights are entertaining in this movie. They are more comical and a bit like a wrestling match... much to the dismay of director Honda, who wanted to keep the monster elements more serious than the rest of the movie... but they are quite watchable and this is pretty much the direction that the majority of the Showa Era films would go when depicting their epic battle sequences. That being said, the fight scenes in the Japanese cut seem just a little bit longer and more consistent somehow than the US version, which seems to chop and change and then leave the action very quickly at the first chance. Not sure why this is, to be honest. They do both include a beautifully silly moment, though, where Kong uproots a tree and shoves it down Godzilla’s/Gojira’s throat... only for The Big G to fire it up and then spit it out at Kong as a flaming projectile. Nice stuff. Also, the effects work on the giant octopus which fights Kong at the start, apart from a comical moment where it sits on Kongs head and engulfs it, is actually pretty realistic and probably the most interesting effect in the whole movie.
Both cuts feature some very colourful scenes on Faro Island with the indigenous population there, although, all the of the islanders appear to be Japanese actors wearing black face so, yeah, they wouldn’t get away with this kind of approach today. They also show the influence of the US producers in some places, like the inclusion of the vinyl album cover of Hollywood Love Themes one of the Japanese characters has on the wall of her house.
A huge difference between the Japanese and American cuts is the score. The Japanese version has a proper score by famous Gojira composer Akira Ifikube, which brings back themes from his first one and is generally appropriate and well spotted. For example, when Godzilla is finally identified emerging from the ice, the famous, ponderous Gojira sub-theme swells up on the soundtrack and has a lot more impact than the throw away attitude of the American cut of the same scene. The US version’s treatment of the music is just preposterous. Hardly any of Ifikube’s score is retained and there’s generally a lot less music in this version of the movie anyway. Instead, when they feel it is called for, the Americans needle drop old 1950s sci-fi B-movie scores in instead and it can be very jarring, I can tell you, when King Kong takes on either a giant octopus or Godzilla himself when all you can hear on the soundtrack is the famous three note sting based music from Creature From The Black Lagoon (which I reviewed here). It just pulls you out of the movie completely. Of course, Ifikube kinda got his revenge on the US decades later in the first of McG’s Charlie's Angels movies when, all of a sudden on the soundtrack, the Godzilla sub-theme swells up... which caused me and, I assume, many others, into believing there would be some kind of visual Godzilla reference making its way into the shot. It’s kind of disappointing it didn’t and, since it completely pops you out of the movie because the soundtrack is telling you ‘Godzilla is here!’, I have no idea why it turns up in that first Charlie’s Angels movie at all, truth be told.
And there you have it. King Kong VS Godzilla had and, I believe, still has the highest Japanese box office gross of any of the other Gojira films. It’s an important movie and well done to Criterion for including it, no matter how well hidden and only partially restored in terms of quality, on their big Godzilla box set. I was hoping the obvious Blu Rays of Mothra, Rodan and King Kong Escapes would also make their way into this box due to their obvious connections to these films, many of which are sequels or prequels to these three films but, alas, Criterion didn’t quite push the boat out as far as they could when they put this impressive set together.