Kong count #5 – King Kong vs. Godzilla

This is daunting… what can I say about King Kong vs. Godzilla that hasn’t been said ad nauseum? I’ll strive not to be just the 453rd doofus this week you’ve heard say “actually, the US version doesn’t have a different ending”, but with a work this beloved, this core to the very genre, this may not be novel information or a fresh perspective. I even toyed with the idea of making a case that it’s overhyped, just to be contrarian, but decided that would be disingenuous. The film is wonderful, and its impact immeasurable.

king-kong-vs-godzilla-1

Mothra might have gotten the ball rolling on the lighter, more anything-goes tone for the science fiction oeuvre at Toho, but the studio’s 30th-anniversary celebration runs with it. Even the first shot makes this clear: Panning through space with ominous narration is something you’d expect from one of their SF flicks, but upon revealing that this set-up is just a show the characters are watching on TV, you’re simultaneously hit with a punchline and a revelation that this movie will be much more in line with their salaryman comedies (Ichiro Arishima’s performance as Mr. Tago is particularly deserving of every gif that’s been made of it). This keeps up throughout, including the climatic battle being more of a fun wrestling match than the horrific deathbattle in Godzilla’s previous outing. Mothra set up that it was okay for kaiju to make it through a movie alive, and King Kong vs. Godzilla codified it.

king-kong-vs-godzilla-2 kkvsg

This brings us to the film’s next revolution: It’s a “vs” movie. While not the first ever cinematic universe or crossover (see Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man), it was certainly a shake-up for Toho, leading to the nigh-standardization of monster movies as a title bout (Mothra vs. Godzilla, Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Sanda vs. Gaira), which of course continued out of the sixties and into the works produced by other studios as well. It also re-introduced Godzilla for the modern age, after seven years out of the spotlight. It’s hard to imagine, but without this film, there might be no “Godzilla series”, just an awkward duology along the lines of The Amazing Colossal Man; heck, we might have never even known his beam is blue! This film set Godzilla in place as the studio’s headline monster, as its cheif representative when doing business with the foreign agent that is Kong.

king_kong_vs_godzilla_poster_01 king-kong-vs-godzilla

That international aspect is another element of King Kong vs. Godzilla that changed the game. Toho’s previous partnerships with Hollywood hadn’t gone that fantastically (e.g. Varan the Unbelievable), but a mash-up of Toho and RKO’s headliners was a sure-fire way of drumming up interest on both sides of the Pacific, and it’s hard to not see this as a factor directly leading to American co-productions like Frankenstein Conquers the World, Invasion of Astro-Monster, War of the Gargantuas, King Kong Escapes, and Latitude Zero (what is it with co-productions and giant octopodi?), and by extension the later Gamera films as well (heck, even You Only Live Twice!). Those movies were produced utilizing western actors, and thus helped nearly end the practice of American companies doing reshoots with their own actors after the film was licensed (well, aside from the later exceptions like Godzilla 1985 and Power Rangers).

king_kong_vs_godzilla02  king-kong-contra-godzilla

That brings up the unfortunate aspect to this being an international co-production: the distribution. It seems like once a week or so, there’s a post on social media asking if we’ll ever get a complete box set of all of the Godzilla films, and we have to give the same disappointing stock answer: no, because Universal has perpetual rights to King Kong vs. Godzilla. To make matters worse, they have perpetual rights to the US version, which inserts awkward American actors, tries to be a non-comedy, and swaps out Ifukube’s music with library stock (notably including Creature from the Black Lagoon). Universal can’t put out a subtitled version without licensing the Japanese cut from Toho (which they have no incentive to do; they have thousands of their own movies that they haven’t released, why license other people’s?), yet other companies can’t license the Japanese cut without getting Universal’s blessing (which they have no incentive to give), so we have a stalemate.

At least Universal takes good care of their prints, so while their Blu Ray is an inferior cut, it looks great. Toho, conversely, destroyed the King Kong vs Godzilla negative for the 1970 Champion Matsuri edition (losing a third of the movie), and as a result home video releases have been a mess ever since, and pretty much every one has been some mix of 35 mm, 16 mm, original negative, and US version sources, with distracting missing frames exacerbating the changes in footage quality. Japan only last year finally got a proper version, rather than a reconstruction, so hopefully this one becomes the new standard and doesn’t get lost or damaged, but it seems the English-speaking world will forever be limited to imports and fansubs if they want to see it… while I don’t watch tokusatsu dubs often, I do wonder if a proper one for this film could raise its esteem in the west? It might be too late for that, though.

mr-tago

So, yeah, if you’ve only seen the American version, I’d implore you to track down the Japanese cut, especially now that we finally have a reasonable transfer (I imagine that anyone reading this would already have the Japanese version, but you never know). Hopefully this was a little helpful in understanding just why this movie is such an instrumental classic. Legendary has pulled off a miracle in clearing things up for a remake in 2020 (there have been numerous attempts in the past), and it has the potential, if the 1962 version is any indication, to spur on something enormous.

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2 Responses to Kong count #5 – King Kong vs. Godzilla

  1. John Summers says:

    Ah, King Kong vs Godzilla is definitely one of the most important movies in the franchise. However, despite my love for the original Japanese version there are a couple of aspects about it that bother. One is about the choices made to Kong and Godzilla in the movie itself, and the other deals with Toho’s stance on the ending of this movie years after the fact.

    1. I know King Kong had to have his size increased and be powered up in order to make his fight with Godzilla interesting, but why did they decide that giving him electricty powers would be the best way to match Godzilla? It’s something I could never wrap my head around. I heard that this was a leftover from the King Kong vs Frankenstein script, but why did they still decide that this method was still a good one? The original version of King Kong was an ape-like beast god with no flashy superpowers. Why in the world would electricity suddenly empower him? If lightning struck Kong, I think it would harm him rather than empower him.

    I can buy that Godzilla has nuclear powers since he was mutated through nuclear fallout, but I could never buy the “Kong is empowered by lightning” because I could never find a suitable explanation as to why this would be. Also, in this movie Godzilla has a weakness to electricity. I’m sorry but WHAT!? Godzilla was not weak to electricity in 1954, so why would another member of his species be vulnerable to it?

    I apologize if this getting ranty, but this bothers me since I can’t really find any logical reasons behind these changes. It’s like the people behind this movie threw their hands up in the air and said, “King Kong is now empowered by lightning and Godzilla is now weak to it because… he needs something else to help him stand up to the King of the Monsters in addition to a size increase so just roll with it.” It’s really more how they went about making Kong a more worthy opponent to Godzilla that bothers me.

    I thought of an alternate method to power up Kong against Godzilla without involving lightning. Have Toho’s take on King Kong be mutated through nuclear fallout, but instead of gaining any overt powers, he just develops a resistance to radiation that would discourage Godzilla from using his atomic breath and force the two to have a more physical fight. Also, I would make Kong strong enough so that when he claps his hands hard enough he could produce powerful and deafening sonic claps. Sonic claps would just take a large amount of physical strength to produce which Kong has plenty of. Imagine if Kong did that to Godzilla at a close enough range, Godzilla’s eardrums could pop out disorienting him and allowing Kong to get some hits in while Godzilla regenerates. I still like the movie, but this is one aspect about it that I will never like.

    2. Toho’s stance on the ending also bothers me, and it’s not the fact that King Kong won. Godzilla was the villain in this, and King Kong was the more heroic monster so it makes sense for him to be the one who triumphs in the end of this story. Toho even said that Kong won in 1962. However, Toho themselves reversed their stance on this around 1984. I once heard that August Ragone sat down with Ishiro Honda and Shinichi Sekizawa sometime in the late 1980s, and they said that the fight was a draw.

    So it looks like they only stated that Kong won in 1962 since he was the more popular monster at the time. Really Toho. You couldn’t let this one go. This just seems to be a very petty move. By doing this, you sunk to the level of an immature fan who can’t stand the fact that his favorite monster lost.

    So what if Godzilla lost to Kong in 1962. It’s not the end of the world. Godzilla also lost to Mothra’s offspring. You don’t seem to jaded over that. You still produced more official movies with your character than Kong would ever hope to have. At least you were able to move on from the original 1954 movie but still respect it and bring new things to the franchise. King Kong despite being such a beloved character has had this poisonous infatuation with the 1933 original to the point where it could never truly learn to move beyond it but still respect it. He was doomed to rushed or unnecessary sequels, remakes of varying quality, some cartoons of debatable quality, spiritual successors, thinly veiled not-Kongs that are either hilariously bad or just downright terrible, Kong-lite movies, and parodies and spoofs.

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