Friday, October 07, 2011
Monsterthon 2011: King Kong vs. Godzilla
This October is gonna be another month of monsters, and I'm going to concentrate on our friends the kaiju. They're not often scary, though they are awesome, and I may throw in some traditional horror stuff as time permits.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is a tough film to review because, like the original Godzilla, it exists in two versions, but with a much larger gap in quality between them. What's more, the "proper" version of the movie, the original Japanese release, is going to be inaccessible to most readers of this blog; there is no legal English-language release of it, nor is there likely to be anytime soon owing to complicated legal issues. This is the 21st century, though, so… well, I'll let you do the searching.
In any case, this is a lot of fun. Godzilla returned after a 7-year hiatus to battle the original icon of giant movie monsters in a big splashy color Tohoscope production to commemorate the studio's thirtieth anniversary, and not only did the filmmakers deliver the spectacle, they packed in a sly, satiric attitude and some jabs at the world of advertising and publicity. While Godzilla's original rampage was deadly serious business, and the follow-up a straightforward sci-fi thriller, King Kong vs. Godzilla shows Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya, and company loosening up and having a little fun with their larger-than-life superstars.
The film, oddly enough, revolves around the advertising department of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, who are sponsoring a very boring science show and desperately need more and better publicity. When a scientist who has discovered a narcotic berry on remote Farou Island reveals that the islanders of the region worship a mighty thunder god, the high strung Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima) sends two of his best men on an expedition to find the beast. While this is happening, Godzilla breaks free from the icy prison he was contained in at the end of his last outing and goes on a rampage in the north of Japan. The adventurers have discovered the Farou Island monster, the giant ape King Kong, and Tako sees an opportunity for publicity by having Kong brought over to fight Godzilla. The Japanese port authority objects, but Kong escapes the company's attempts at containment and soon enough is facing off against the scaly menace.
This project has a rather checkered history; Willis O'Brien, who animated King Kong back in '33, had an idea for a sequel with the monster fighting a new creation of Frankenstein, a concept which later transformed into his battling a dinosaur like creature called the Ginko. Producer John Beck bought O'Brien's story and sold it to Toho, and the aging animator was left out of the loop as Kong now fought Japan's monster icon, using men in suits instead of stop motion. O'Brien died shortly before the film's US release and American monster fans looked on the Japanese effort as a kind of blasphemy, a perception which still lingers on in Kong fandom.
The other problem is that Beck and Universal-International severely recut this movie, and managed to do a much worse job of it than had been done on the first two Godzilla films. A number of scenes were cut and reduced with no consistent pattern other than to make the movie shorter. While the Japanese version is a little on the long side, any gains made in cutting it down were offset by the addition of a number of bland expository sequences featuring MIchael Keith as Eric Carter, an international news reporter who doles out great lumps of plot exposition as well as stuff we didn't really care about anyway (as in a segment with Harry Holcombe as a scientist who explains Godzilla's biology using a children's picture book on dinosaurs.) Worse, the dubbing turns one of the characters into an unfunny buffoon and generally makes the comedy very broad and cartoonish, turning the tone more towards outright camp than anything else. (And because why not, much of Akira Ifukube's score was replaced with stock Universal music.)
The humor in the original version is not exactly subtle, but there's a cleverness to it that indicates the filmmakers were starting to play around with the genre itself. The human action in the film revolves almost entirely around publicity and advertising, with the traditional military and science figures playing strictly supporting roles. Tako loves the idea of using Kong as a challenge to Godzilla and promoting it like a wrestling match, at one point getting into an argument with bystanders over who is stronger. There's some slightly uncomfortable material involving "natives" who are clearly Japanese people in blackface, but the explorers winning the tribe over with portable radios and cigarettes is a nice touch. There's none of the truly heavy drama of earlier Godzilla films; characters are imperiled in a couple of scenes but for the most part the humans are insignificant, comic in their failed attempts to herd or control the creatures.
This is the first film where Godzilla and Kong appear in color, and while the effects are mostly up to Tsubaraya's high standards (some very bad traveling mattes notwithstanding), Kong himself doesn't fare too well. The suit is ropey, raggedy, with floppy elongated arms and an ashen face that looks like death warmed over. That having been said, suit actor Shoichi Hirose brings a lot of nice body language to the big ape, taking advantage of his more human-like nature to give him some nice comic reactions and subtle gestures. Godzilla has an excellent look, though, very close to the old-fashioned concept of a dinosaurs as slow cold-blooded creatures.
The bout between the two monsters delivers what it promises. It's booked like a wrestling match, with both the participants made to look strong (a long-standing rumor had it that Godzilla wins in the Japanese version and Kong in the U.S., but the ending is mostly identical.) Kong drawing strength from lightning and even gaining electrical powers near the end is an odd touch, but in the film at least he's associated with the Farou Island thunderclouds so it's not completely random.
In its original form, King Kong vs. Godzilla is an extremely satisfying match. Like most of Toho's sci-fi/fantasy spectaculars from this period it's colorful and imaginative, and has a light self-aware touch that helps transform Godzilla himself into a company icon, legitimized by going the distance with a legend. The American version loses a lot of the original's energy and broadens the comedy to make it seem like pointless wackiness, but it does still deliver what it promises.
Unfortunately, you the viewer will likely have a hard time seeing the original version. Universal's deal gives them the right to distribute their version of King Kong vs. Godzilla, and explicitly not the Japanese cut. Toho tries not to undercut its international partners by offering foreign language versions on its own, so the only way to see the Japanese version legally is without any subtitles. (Also Japanese DVDs tend to be very expensive.) Neither side has, as yet, any particular reason to want to come to terms and arrange for the full cut to be released subtitled, so the only way people like you and me can see it is through less than legal means. In general I recommend people pay for their media consumption, but I can't tell you what to do.
So you see my problem. Well, the link to the official R1 DVD of the US cut is up top, and it is a nice looking disc of what is still basically a fun monster movie. I own it myself. The other version is… out there. The Club waives all responsibility.
Based (uncredited) on a concept by Willis O'Brien, John Beck, and George Worthing Yates
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa, and in the US by Bruce Howard and Paul Mason
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Grade: A- (Japanese), C+ (U.S.)