King Kong: cinema’s first great beast. For a little over 85 years now, Kong has captured the imagination of filmgoers around the world, leaving a slew of knockoffs, sequels, homages, and remakes in his wake. But out of all of the weird and wonderful takes on Kong, two stand out in particular. Because if one monster could possibly rival the impact and importance of King Kong, it’s Godzilla. So what happens when you give Ishiro Honda, one of the creators and the director of Godzilla, the reigns of the Eighth Wonder of the World? To put it simply, you get beautiful messes.
Honda’s first outing with Kong isn’t a solo feature. Instead, it’s King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), a film that’s exactly what it says on the tin and so much more. King Kong vs. Godzilla focuses on the exploits of Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima), a naïve worker for the shady Pacific Pharmaceuticals. The company has been struggling as of late, so in a bizarre, last-ditch attempt at boosting interest in their product, they’ve decided to send Osamu and his friend Kinsaburo Furue (Yû Fujiki) to the mysterious Faro Island in hopes of bringing back a massive monster. Why? To boost sales of Pacific Pharmaceuticals’ drugs, of course!
There’s an undeniable heavy satirical bent to the proceedings, with Pacific Pharmaceuticals acting increasingly evil as the film goes on. While Osamu and Kinsaburo are sympathetic, the same cannot be said of Mr. Tako (Ichirō Arishima), their boss and the film’s de-facto evil businessman. How evil is he? Well, when Godzilla unfreezes from an iceberg and begins campaigning right for Japan, Mr. Tako bemoans how this will take publicity away from Pacific Pharmaceuticals. Oh, and he parades around the second act of the film wearing a tan suit with a red armband. A saint he is not.
For most of King Kong vs. Godzilla, the eponymous creatures are totally unaware of each other, with the focus bouncing between Godzilla’s rampages and Osamu’s attempts to capture Kong. While it is initially annoying that so little time in the film actually features Godzilla and Kong at the same place at the same time, their solo segments are actually quite good, allowing each of them to establish their personalities and fighting style before the big throwdown.
Kong, especially, is a fascinating monster. While Faro Island may technically be a new location for the series, the sights are all very familiar: the looming wall, small village, and monster population make it all a dead ringer for Skull Island. Kong himself also has a unique relationship with the (as always, shockingly offensive) islanders, although the film can never decide if he’s their protector or a scourge. Unfortunately, attempts to work in traditional King Kong imagery and mythology fall flat later in the film, especially with a "beauty and the beast" twist that’s totally inconsequential to the rest of the story. Still, he’s expressive and has an oddly imposing premise for a kaiju with such a poor costume.
Godzilla, on the other hand, lacks half of Kong’s personality, but makes up for it with his sheer savagery. This version of the Big G isn’t interested in anything but the most primal Godzilla instinct: rampaging across Japan. Despite sharing the title, Godzilla feels rather secondary in King Kong vs. Godzilla, showing up only to smash buildings and get into fights.
Honestly, that’s not a complaint. Kaiju films get to show plenty of models getting destroyed in creative ways, and for my money, that’s one of the most primal joys in cinema. Sure, I’m a sucker for clever editing and great camerawork, but all I really need to be happy is a person in a rubber monster costume smashing up intricate model towns. This is basically Godzilla’s entire role in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and he pulls it off with flying colors. Sure, a good chunk of the models aren’t the greatest (a few of the tanks look particularly dire), but Godzilla’s rampages are fast enough and level so many objects that it’s hard to care.
Not far behind the destruction of model cities, the big monster beatdowns are among the most enjoyable bits of any action-minded kaiju flick. Thankfully, King Kong vs. Godzilla has them in spades, just not very evenly spread. For the first hour, the only instance of a monster fight is when Kong grapples with a giant octopus—an absurd spectacle that is easily the highlight of the Faro Island segment of the film. Unfortunately, the scuffle is rather brief, and after that, the film takes its biggest dip in quality with a lengthy segment focused entirely on debating the ethics of taking King Kong back to Japan. This would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that, as established, Pacific Pharmaceuticals is obviously evil, and Mr. Tako’s sleazy charms wear off real quick when he has nothing to do but argue on a boat.
Thankfully, when King Kong and Godzilla actually square off in the film’s final third, they’re certainly worth the wait. King Kong’s lack of special abilities or ranged weapons besides just "throw stuff at Godzilla" means most of the fighting is the sort of goofy fistfight that put the genre on the map. Boulders fly, punches are thrown, lightning crackles, and the two beasts manage to brawl their way through tons of unique locations, trampling all sorts of model buildings in their wake. Technically speaking, they’re not particular a "good" set of fights when compared to the highlights of, say, the Mechagodzilla films, but damn it if they aren’t fun.
That’s really King Kong vs. Godzilla in a nutshell. It’s hardly as well shot, or written, or scored, or directed as the best of the Godzilla series, but there’s an undeniable charm seeping from every scene. It takes the idea of King Kong and Godzilla existing in the same universe to absurd extremes, and it’s clear that Honda has a deep love and respect for the big ape. Sure, you won’t see King Kong vs. Godzilla on many “Best of Godzilla” lists, but for my money, it’s still a hell of a time.
After King Kong vs. Godzilla, the big G would go on to bigger and better things, but Honda’s version of King Kong was pushed by the wayside. That is, until 1967, when Honda gave his version of Kong his own standalone movie based on the Toei animated King Kong Show: the globe-hopping, absolutely bonkers King Kong Escapes.
Unlike a normal King Kong movie, King Kong Escapes isn’t really the story of King Kong or his struggle against exploitative humans. Instead, it’s about the exploits of Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason), a straight-laced hero who is doing research on the mythical monster Kong from inside his massive submarine. Coincidentally, after a massive rockslide strikes, Commander Nelson and his allies Susan Watson (Linda Miller) and Lieutenant Jiro Nomura (Godzilla regular Akira Takarada) find themselves momentarily stranded near the mysterious Mondo Island, the home of none other than King Kong himself.
Elsewhere, in the Arctic, even stranger things are happening. The evil Dr. Who (Hideyo Amamoto, of no relation to that Dr. Who) is using a robotic King Kong doppelgänger named Mechani-Kong to mine for the mysterious Element X, the world’s most powerful metal. Assisting him is the wonderfully named Madame Piranha (Mie Hama), who wishes to use the extracted Element X to assist "her country" (which is never specified in the English dub) in building fearsome nuclear weapons. But when Mechani-Kong malfunctions, Dr. Who sets off to Mondo Island to enslave the real deal, and Commander Nelson and his crew are the only ones who can stop him.
If this is all sounding very un-kaiju film-like, that’s because it is. Really, it’s more like a James Bond movie that happens to feature some giant monsters every now and then. You have globe hopping adventures, you have a Dr. No-like villain with a secret lair, you have a hilariously named femme fatale, you have a vaguely Sean Connery-looking protagonist, and hell, you even have You Only Live Twice actress Mie Hama in the cast. Even beyond just a plot outline, good chunks of the film’s major set pieces—like a side character being chained in a room that’s slowly flooding, or our hero having a snappy exchange with the resident femme fatale that’s as much thinly veiled flirting as it is thinly veiled threatening—are right out of a Bond flick.
That’s not to say Kong is pushed completely to the wayside. While the bulk of the film's focus may be on the shallow Bond-like shenanigans, Kong’s shadow looms over every scene, and the big ape and the wonderful Mechani-Kong both get their time to shine. Admittedly, for King Kong, it comes early—after the first 40 minutes, he spends most of the film out of commission—but oh how he shines. The time spent on Mondo Island in particular is basically a King Kong highlight reel, showing Kong stomping through the island, falling for Susan, and fighting off both a goofy rubber T-rex and a goofy rubber sea monster. There’s no real pathos to anything Kong does, sure, but I’d doubt there's anyone who isn’t fundamentally amused with the idea of King Kong just hitting lots and lots of things.
The dinosaur fight marks the first of King Kong Escapes’ crazy kaiju set pieces that, while not featuring the star power of Godzilla, may actually be the better fights. Kong, despite looking goofier than ever before, is surprisingly agile in the film’s fights, thanks to a mix of both quicker choreography and some rapid cuts that help sell this Kong as a shockingly mobile beast. Even when it’s clear that some parts in the fights are shamelessly scrambled together in post-production (the same closeup of the T-rex’s stubby arms getting ready to pounce is used three times in the battle), it fits right in with the obvious rubber suits and silly sets, becoming part of the film’s grand scope/low-production value charm.
In fact, I’d argue the most charming part of King Kong Escapes is the cheap—yet never unimpressive—production design and model work. While other kaiju films have their fair share of models, I’ve never seen one quite as consistently varied and wild as King Kong Escapes. At every turn, there’s some sort of weird, intricately detailed model structure, landscape, or vehicle, and while none of them look even vaguely realistic or convincing, they all do their job well. In one particular highlight (that would later be lifted by Jordan Vogt-Roberts for last year’s Kong: Skull Island), Kong absolutely decimates a fleet of Dr. Who’s helicopters by lobbing trees at them like javelins, picking the obvious toys out of the sky with ease. In moments like those, it really doesn’t matter how real they look—a dude in a rubber suit is throwing rubber trees at tiny helicopters. Who cares if it looks convincing?
Oddly enough, the production value skyrockets during King Kong Escapes’ final ten minutes, which I wouldn’t normally spoil, but are too bombastic and incredible for me to ignore in this piece. After an hour and twenty-odd minutes of goofy (but enjoyable!) slapstick monster brawls and hokey (but enjoyable!) faux James Bond super spy intrigue, Kong and his metallic rival finally meet in Tokyo to fight for the world’s future. At first, it’s just a sub-standard kaiju smash-’em-up, that is, until they go to Tokyo Tower and everything changes.
Suddenly, King Kong Escapes truly finds its footing. As the two giants scale Tokyo Tower for the final battle, just about every technical aspect of the film gets better. The sets get better. The compositing of people and kaiju gets better. The cinematography gets better. The lighting—which was flat and boring throughout the entire film—is suddenly a major player, with grand shadows casting against the combatants as they duke it out against a dark blue night sky. Hell, if that’s not enough, it’s even when King Kong Escapes remembers to be a King Kong movie, cleverly re-contextualizing the original’s final skyscraper showdown over the fate of the film’s de-facto damsel in distress into one of the best set pieces Showa-era Toho ever gave us. Talk about saving the best for last, huh?
So no, King Kong Escapes is not a very good movie, and to be honest, I really don’t care. King Kong Escapes is just perfect Saturday morning cartoon popcorn fare, all bad lines and zany fights and one-dimensional characters wrapped up in a gonzo presentation that’s perfectly suited to stimulate that lizard brain. It’s not great sci-fi, it’s not great action, and hell, it’s not great kaiju material. But it is great entertainment, and in a media landscape so full of dour, joyless action pieces and run-of-the-mill blockbuster tentpoles, something as bizarre and committed to its premise as "King Kong by way of Dr. No" is a great reminder of just how bizarre franchise filmmaking can be.