King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Director: Ishirō Honda
Screenwriter: Shinichi Sekizawa
Starring: Haruo Nakajima, Shoichi Hirose, Ichirō Arishima
Note: This is a review of the original Japanese cut.
The Godzilla franchise is unique in that our imagination is a crucial component to enjoying any of its films, as much a part of the film as anything on the screen. To watch a Godzilla movie is to be 7-years old, playing with action figures and destroying cities made of cardboard. The third entry in the series, King Kong vs. Godzilla, gives many of us our first taste of that true adolescent energy – this is a film that takes more than simply accepting the fantastical, it demands that we enthusiastically suspend our disbelief.
An American military submarine crashes into an iceberg, unleashing a trapped Godzilla back into the world. Meanwhile, Mr. Tako (Ichirō Arishima), the head of a pharmaceutical company, grows exasperated with the programming his brand are sponsoring. In a rather extreme move, he enlists two men (Tadao Takashima and Yū Fujiki) to travel to Faro Island to retrieve King Kong and use the beast to boost his ratings. Shockingly, this does not go to plan and Japan unwittingly becomes the battleground for the world’s two biggest monsters.
King Kong vs. Godzilla sees Ishiro Honda return to the series he began in 1954 after Motoyoshi Oda took over directing duties for the first sequel Godzilla Raids Again in 1955. With Honda comes the satirical tone that Godzilla was built on, an element absent from Oda’s film. Kong’s cautionary tale of man destroying nature and Godzilla’s nuclear bomb allegory are downplayed, with Honda setting his sights on the television and advertising industries. The excitable Mr. Tako plays like the J. Jonah Jameson (Spider-Man franchise) of Japan, furiously determined to get footage of Kong at any cost, even if it means endangering the Japanese population. Like Carl Denham in Peter Jackson’s King Kong or Preston Packard in Kong: Skull Island, the stand-out characters are the ones driven to the verge of madness by their obsession with these commanding creatures, and Mr. Tako remains the sole human highlight of the film. However, this is a giant monster movie, and humans are not what we came here to see.
When viewed with a contemporary eye, it is easy to dismiss the Kong effects compared to Weta or ILM’s digital versions. More surprisingly, however, is how badly they hold up even to Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion effects from nearly 30 years prior (1933). This is undoubtedly the worst Kong has ever looked on screen – at a distance he resembles a man covered in roadkill, yet facial close-ups reveal that it may not be dead after all. Godzilla fares slightly better with a more lizard-like design than in his previous two incarnations – the lack of multimillion-dollar effects doesn’t wound the atomic dinosaur quite so much. For him, it’s all part of the charm.
Kong’s appearance isn’t the only problematic element of the film. Arrival on the ape’s native island gives way to a mass wave of blackface, with every tribesperson, young or old, portrayed by a Japanese actor in make-up. Likewise, a simple and cowardly crewmate named Konno provides an even more dated display of Black characterisation that will leave most viewers drawing air through their teeth. That’s not to mention the almighty cigarettes used to broker peace between Kong’s pursuers and the tribespeople…
The featured newspaper headline “Godzilla Awakens Again and Wreaks Havoc” may serve as a blueprint for every film in the franchise, but it’s in Honda’s hands that Godzilla is at his most effective. The effects and racial insensitivities may be funny and/or cringe-inducing at times, but the curiously serious tone that Honda strikes is not, and while there is more comedy here than in either of the two monsters’ previous films, underneath it all is the same feeling that pervades the 1954 film – that this planet may be our home, but there may be more danger here than we can fathom, and we will only know about it when it’s too late.
Viewers of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 US Godzilla reboot often criticised the lack of monster action to be found in the film, however King Kong vs. Godzilla may just make them feel lucky. Although their own individual scenes are interspersed throughout, it takes the two kaiju a full hour to finally meet, and their first brawl is over within a couple of minutes, teasing you until the finale. And is it worth it? If your idea of a good time is watching two men in rubber suits summersault into each other, then yes. Over the course of the film, we get to see Kong get drunk on berry juice, knock himself out during a fight, and attempt to stuff a tree down Godzilla’s throat. Say what you will, but it’s hard not to take some amount of joy in sights such as these.
Undoubtedly, whether you’re laughing with the film or at it, there’s an endearing quality to this style of filmmaking that makes it ultimately enjoyable. Dated though it may be, some respect is due for the first meeting of these two kings.
Written by Scott Z. Walkinshaw
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