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Japanese, 1967, Kaiju Eiga (Monster/Horror/Science-Fiction), directed by Ishiro Honda, starring King Kong, Godzilla, and Akira Takarada, Toho/Universal.
This month saw the release of Kong: Skull Island, a sequel to the original King Kong, with an upcoming spin-off crossover titled Godzilla v Kong. When I found out, my first reaction was “I’ve seen it all before” – and indeed, I had seen it all before, in the pop-culture classic King Kong vs Godzilla… Produced by the Japanese studio Toho in conjunction with Universal, the film was an effort to introduce Godzilla to America. It’s the only film where you can see a gorilla wrestle a radioactive mutant dinosaur!
Our story begins when a money-hungry Japanese pharmaceutical scientist and corporate CEO sends a group of his employees on a quest to the dangerous Skull Island, where they need to find a miraculous illness-curing berry. Instead of finding the fruit, they find something bigger, hairier, more dangerous, and more gorilla-shaped… Meanwhile, after a long hibernation in an iceberg off the coast of Japan, the terrifying Godzilla has broken free! The gigantic dinosaur-dragon is now causing chaos in Tokyo, destroying buildings with its giant tail and killing countless people with its nuclear blast breath. Something has to be done! The JSDF (Japanese army) springs into action with its best tanks and machinery, but they are soon overwhelmed by Godzilla’s power, and have only two options left: either the pharmaceutical company must capture King Kong and bring him back to Tokyo, or there will be no other choice than resorting to the atomic bomb. Honestly, despite being very cliché and predictable, this story is simple to follow and very effective in explaining not only why King Kong and Godzilla are engaging in this massive monster wrestling match in the third act, but also how Kong can find the strength to battle Godzilla. Kong’s character is quite developed, as it was in the 1933 original, and he is clearly made to be the more likable character in the movie (he is surprisingly personable for a massive, murderous mega-monkey monster), in opposition to the vile Godzilla who is clearly depicted as a villain that needs to be slain. There is a strong theme of “necessary evil” throughout the film: nobody in Japan is very happy to see King Kong, even though he’s on their side. This theme of “necessary evil” extends to the long debate in the second act about whether the JSDF should use the atom bomb, knowing that the bomb is what created Godzilla in the first place (as seen in the 1954 Gojira). This debate over nuclear power is at the heart of practically all the early Godzilla films, and creates a good deal of tension that keeps the film interesting despite its fairly slow pace; there is a permanent sense of peril to Godzilla’s rampage, just like in the original, which highlights the way he is supposed to represent the evils of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All in all, a very impressive story.
The same can’t be said of the acting, however: all American actors have the same level of talent and charisma, that is to say, 0%, and only a few of the Japanese actors fare any better. A shout-out to Akira Takarada, who has starred in practically every single Godzilla movie: doing that many kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movies) requires courage!
The biggest draw – and drawback – of the film is its special effects. King Kong and Godzilla are both played by actors in giant rubbery costumes, neither of which is very well-designed: Godzilla’s unnatural-looking scales and frozen facial expression make him look particularly unconvincing for a character who is meant to be one of the scariest monsters in cinema history, and the way he shambles around the screen with the grace of a rusted robot doesn’t exactly help matters either. King Kong fares slightly better: sure, he does look kind of like a stuffed animal you’d win at a carnival game at the funfair, but that was probably the intention! The original stop-motion animated puppets created by Willis O’Brien in the first Kong film had the same effect, in that they made Kong look more relatable and human. So while nobody will be blown away by Kong’s shaggy hair or ugly mug (he tends to look “high” all the time – less like King Kong, and more like Cheech & Chong!), the rudimentary costume doesn’t distract from the ape’s appeal as a character in the way that it does for Godzilla. But the costumes aren’t half as ridiculous as what the actors do in them!
Quick question: do you think a giant dinosaur can use its tail as a spring to give a giant gorilla a high-kick, like a kangaroo? If you answered, “no”, you’re in for a big surprise. Any and all concerns for simian and reptilian biology are tossed aside, as the two mons engage in a wrestling match full of bear hugs, rolling on the ground, jumping, running at each other, and all kinds of other things that you’d never expect King Kong or Godzilla of being capable of doing. Kong even has a secret superpower up his sleeve, which I won’t reveal here, for fear of “spoiling” the film’s resolution: all I will say is that I’ve never seen a gorilla use a similar power before. Worse still are the scenes where Godzilla fights the army, whose tanks and missile cannons are very obviously remote-controlled toys, and stomps through cities which are just tiny small-scale models. Try as hard as you can not to laugh, but I guarantee that by the time the winning monster has killed the losing monster, you will be rolling on the floor laughing.
It’s not just the SFX, either: the whole idea of a giant gorilla fighting a dragon has enough appeal in and of itself to ensure loud laughter from the audience, which I should hope wasn’t the intention of director Ishiro Honda when he directed what is meant to be interpreted as a serious horror movie. I can only hope that the same does not happen to the audience of the upcoming remake of this cult classic; the whole reason I watched the 2006 and 2014 remakes of King Kong and Godzilla respectively, was that I wanted to feel just as startled and unnerved by the giant monsters’ trail of destruction as the people who watched the original films back when they were first released. But for want of a good horror film, I’ll make do with a great, if unintentional, comedy!
Recommended for: fans of King Kong and Godzilla (it’s an absolute must-watch for them); fans of cheesy Japanese man-in-monster-suit movies (“kaiju eiga”).
Grade: 9 out of 10.
Good is bad in the CINEMATIC CALAMITY – be there next week when the MASTER OF MOVIE DISASTER reviews Joel Schumacher’s underrated classic, BATMAN & ROBIN!