A strange movie about a giant radioactive lizard smacking around an incredulous looking great ape took Japan by absolute storm in 1962. It was a labor of many loves, the child of many creatives, and it’s pretty amazing that it ever got made at all. The Godzilla character had been languishing for a while, seven years having passed since his last outing- 1955’s “Godzilla Raids Again.”
There was a distrust in the kaiju genre, with creators Toho not certain if the character should be pursued into further films, or new monsters to be explored instead. In the years since the last Godzilla outing, characters such as Mothra, Varan, and Rodan had made their first appearances to varying degrees of success. Godzilla’s Godfather, director and writer Ishirō Honda, still had great love for his character. He knew that with the right direction, audiences would flock to see the King of the Monsters for years to come.
Getting the film made
How “King Kong vs. Godzilla” ever came to be is a strange story in itself, and it starts with Hollywood stop-motion legend Willis O’Brien. The man who had created the effects for the original 1933 “King Kong”, 1925’s “The Lost World,” and even 1949’s “Mighty Joe Young,” for which he took home the Academy Award for Visual Effects, O’Brien was a titan in his field. In the early 60s O’Brien had been kicking around the idea for a new King Kong project. In it, the great ape would tussle with a giant version of Frankenstein’s monster. The project, suitably titled “King Kong Meets Frankenstein,” allegedly had a semi-complete script treatment and an assortment of conceptual art ideas together when O’Brien pitched the idea to RKO. While there was certainly interest in his idea, it wasn’t an easy journey.
The rights to Frankenstein’s monster itself were hard to nail down, with the name, story, and makeup effects each owned by different corporations. The first change would be the reconsideration of just who Kong would be fighting against. O’Brien’s script would be workshopped around and retitled more than once, undergoing a few transformations as various influences sought to find the perfect villain to oppose the great ape. Several potential studios were put off the project by the high cost of the extensive stop-motion animation that it would require, and for a while any future for the film seemed dim.
That was until producer John Beck, a major advocate for the idea of the film, found interest in the Japanese market. Japanese Film Studio Toho was in the middle of its 30th anniversary celebration, and were thrilled at the idea of making their own King Kong film. Pitting the great ape against the King of the Monsters was a chance too good to pass up, and Toho knew that Godzilla was the perfect opponent for Kong. This was the breath of new life into the kaiju genre that Toho had been searching for. John Beck sold the film to Toho without telling O’Brien, and the creator of Kong never saw credit for his original film appear in what was to become Toho’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
The great ape didn’t come cheap to Toho though. After buying the film, Toho found that acquiring the rights to use the character of Kong himself would cost them a pretty penny, and ended up paying RKO ¥80 million (roughly $220,000!) for the rights. Just over half the entire film’s production budget. This massive expense forced a number of cutbacks in the production, including scaling back what had planned to be a large on-location shoot in Sri Lanka to the small Japanese island of Izu Ōshima instead.
Performing as the titular duo would be experienced suit actors: Harao Nakajima, the actor who had portrayed Godzilla in the original film returned to the role, and would go on to do so for another 9 more Godzilla films in turn. Shoichi Hirose, no stranger to playing opposite the King of the Monsters after playing Godzilla’s nemesis Ghidorah, would take up the mantle of King Kong.
Ishirō Honda, while having taken a step back from directing Godzilla’s second outing, eagerly returned to the director’s seat, and Shinichi Sekizawa would pen the script rewrite that would bring Toho’s vision of clashing kaiju to life. Both Honda and Sekizawa had something of an axe to grind on the subject of the state of Japanese television, and Sekizawa’s script, with Honda’s influence, transformed the human drama of the film into a playful mockery of the Japanese television industry. Ratings wars and publicity stunts had turned Japanese television at the time into a madhouse, and Honda showed his distaste for what he saw as the network’s contempt for their viewers into something even more outrageous. Hondo wanted to shine a light on television madness, and asks the question: In an age of increasingly bizarre and outlandish publicity stunts, how far will a company go to catch the eye of the consumer?
Onto the film…
Thus, does the tale of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” truly begin. Let’s have a watch (Spoiler warning for 60 years ago).
A humble pharmaceutical company is just trying to get by with ever more outrageous ad campaigns, when the manic advertising supervisor Mr. Tako decides that the only way to get ahead in the pharmaceutical business is to have a publicity stunt like no other. Even in the first moments of the film, we see the fantastic strings of physical and verbal comedy begin to be plucked. It’s a classic double act routine, the hard working straight men and the wacky boss. The dialogue is sharply performed at breakneck speed, hand gestures are enthusiastic, and the charm of the whole thing gives a feeling of sitcom-like atmosphere; you almost prepare for the laugh track to kick in as Mr. Tako inadvertently bows to his phone when he realizes his boss is on the line. When a doctor friend drops in for a business meeting, Mr. Tako is taken by his colleague’s tale of a strange monster sighted on the mysterious island of Faro. The overzealous businessman poo-poos the doctor’s boring new plant discoveries, he’s excited about the monster. Just being good at what you do isn’t enough anymore, because now that Mr. Tako has heard stories of giant monsters on a jungle island, he wants one for his new ad campaign.
It’s worth noting that the actor who plays the hilarious Mr. Tako is Ichiro Arishima, an incredibly popular comedian often referred to as the Japanese Chaplin. Arishima makes this ridiculous role his own, and his over-the-top antics are a major delight of the human drama side of the film. His heart set, Mr. Tako sends off his two hapless and desperate-to-please employees, Sakurai and Kinsaburo, on a jungle expedition to bring him back a monster that will have the whole world watching.
Meanwhile, something strange is brewing in the frozen depths of the Pacific Ocean as a United Nations submarine explores the area. The Sea Hawk is manned by those unique kind of performances you only see when Americans star in Japanese productions, with everyone sounding like either John Wayne or Cary Grant with very little elbow room in between. I picture Honda leaning from his director chair to insist they act ‘more American’ after each take. There’s something odd about the icebergs the submarine is navigating, and upon closer examination of the radioactive readings emanating from them, a familiar roar is heard echoing out across the sea. Those pesky meddlers at the UN have inadvertently awoken the King of the Monsters from his icy hibernation.
Packing pith helmets and binoculars, out-of-their-depth Sakurai and Kinsaburo arrive on the jungle island of Faro. A jungle that does indeed look suspiciously like rocky Japanese coastline and is populated entirely by spear wielding Japanese actors in grass skirts and blackface, of course. This sequence hasn’t aged well. The awkward duo bargain information from the “natives” with a transistor radio and the handing out of cigarettes. Just when Sakurai and Kinsaburo have come to the conclusion that the locals are primitively worshipping a thunderstorm, a roar cuts through the air, setting the duo to shivering in their boots, and heralding the arrival of something unbelievable.
Back in Japan, Godzilla is on the warpath, and an army of (adorable looking!) tanks are deployed to face the monster. Setting the army and the countryside ablaze with his heat ray, Godzilla’s actions take the media by storm. Mr. Tako is furious that this monster has hit the big time first, and in a classic moment of meta humor, one of his employees quips “There’s a movie too!” Mr. Tako demands results, and sets out himself to see to the successful acquisition of a monster to call his own.
On the island of Faro, Sakurai and Kinsaburo help the natives fend off attack by a gigantic octopus, and just when all seems lost, the great ape himself finally makes his grand entrance. Smashing down the massive wooden gates of the city, King Kong arrives on the scene to pelt the octopus with rocks and remind the natural world who’s the daddy. Proudly roaring his victory to the thunderous skies, Kong proceeds to get ripshit on berry juice and pass out like a freshman. Seeing their chance, Sakurai and Kinsaburo make their move to capture the beast, and meet up with Mr. Tako to begin King Kong’s transportation via floating barge back to Japan to begin his lucrative advertising career.
Mr. Tako is aware of the mass popularity of professional wrestling in Japan, and so with Godzilla running amok, he knows that nothing will dominate the media better than arranging a bust up between Godzilla and his own new monster. Soon enough, Kong grows restless on the barge, finally breaking free following a massive explosion. Sensing the presence of his reptilian rival by pure instinct, the mighty ape begins to wade inexorably towards his confrontation with Godzilla.
With Tako and his plucky employees watching from behind a bush, the two titans finally meet in a rural valley and begin to trade their first blows. While able to keep the giant lizard at bay for a short while, Kong finds himself overwhelmed by Godzilla’s heat ray and makes a hasty retreat. Soon the giant ape is seen heading wildly towards Tokyo, the King of the Monsters not far behind, and mass evacuations are enforced to avoid the impending destruction. Onlookers begin to observe that while Godzilla is hampered and pained by electrical pylons, it seems that the great ape is instead energized by electricity, feeding on it and becoming stronger!
Soon, Kong’s propensity towards women in draping dresses can no longer be denied, and Kong finds himself fascinated by the tiny figure of Sakurai’s sister, Fumiko. He snatches her up from where she hides in a train car, to carry her along with him. Sometimes it’s just really obvious when you have a type. Clutching his new variant Fay Wray protectively, Kong stands atop a building and looks pretty pleased with himself this time around. Sakurai, desperate to save his sister, convinces the military to take advantage of the only weakness they know Kong has: his taste for that damn berry juice. Firing upon Kong with missiles composed of condensed berry juice, Kong is once more incapacitated and Fumiko rescued.
With Kong unconscious, but Godzilla still on the warpath, it’s decided that the only way Tokyo can be saved is to set the two monsters against each other once more, in the hope that they can eliminate one another. Attaching the absolutely shattered King Kong to a series of massive balloons, they float the great ape above the city and treat us to the frankly glorious visual of a balloon-bound Kong being trailed through the skies to face his mortal enemy.
Arriving at last to find Godzilla stomping through the mountains of rural Japan, Kong is cut from his wires and dropped with all the grace of a child’s plush toy being dropped from a high rise window to face the King of the Monsters. And what a fight it is! Barreling down a mountain straight into Godzilla with a power-slide that Jack Black would be proud of, Kong sends Godzilla tumbling. The two monsters jockey for the high ground, smashing buildings and temples aside, with Kong hurling boulders and Godzilla batting aside the ape with his tail. The boulders land with all the crushing weight of a Nerf football, and soon the two combatants are rolling down a mountainside, slapping at each other furiously. King Kong takes a world class comedy pratfall when he tumbles past the King of the Monsters to slap face-first into a rock. Just as it seems the ape’s luck is up, thunderclouds form overhead, and Kong is struck with an empowering lightning bolt, raising him from his weakened state and filling him with energy. The invigorated Kong proceeds to ram a tree down Godzilla’s throat, suplex the monster through a building, and eventually smash apart a pretty fantastic looking miniature of Atami Castle in a final thunderous melee.
As the landmark crumbles into the sea, Kong grabs at Godzilla, grappling him into an embrace of death, and the two tumble down the rocky cliffs into the ocean. The battle is over, silence reigns. From their viewpoint on shore, Mr. Tako and the assembled cast watch as far in the distance, King Kong emerges the victor, beginning his long swim back to his home on Faro Island. Our story comes to a close.
“King Kong vs. Godzilla” would prove a massive success. So great in fact, it still holds the highest box office returns of a Godzilla film in Japan. Toho had all the proof they needed that Godzilla wasn’t going anywhere, and an unstoppable series was kicked off, with new entries following regularly in the years to come, blossoming into a cultural phenomenon.
Why Westerners saw a different film…
So now plenty of you are furiously saying that this wasn’t the film you saw at all, and you’d be absolutely correct. The film that was released to Japanese audiences in 1962 was drastically different than what would eventually hit Western screens a year later. Part of crafty old John Beck’s deal in selling the film to Toho was exclusive rights to release the film to western audiences. With a handful of writers, John supervised a new screenplay and extensive recut of Honda’s Japanese film. Scenes were reshot and reedited, characters were added for western viewers, and the narrative structure of the film was altered to include a series of news style sequences, giving the film the suggestion of events covered in a news broadcast.
A host of music queues replaced the original Japanese soundtrack, including music from “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Frankenstein meets the Wolf-Man.” Stock footage was spliced in, particularly to the film’s climax, and all manner of tiny elements retooled and reworked the film as a whole. Beck spent over $15,000 on his version of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” and proceeded to sell it to Universal-International for $200,000. The western edit would go on to be another huge success, bolstering Japanese film in the US. Godzilla was a worldwide phenomenon and household name yet again. Popular myth persists in the west that in the Japanese version, Godzilla wins at the end, but as we’ve seen, there’s no truth to that particular legend, and both versions end very much the same.
The lasting legacy of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” can’t be understated. A sequel was immediately planned at Toho, with ‘Frankenstein vs Godzilla’ being seriously considered. This idea would thankfully be ditched in favor of the genre defining 1964 “Mothra vs Godzilla” instead. In 1966, the King Kong costume was reused for an episode of a new show called “Ultra Q” which, against all expectations, would go on to spawn one of the most successful media franchises in international history, Ultraman. Toho would create their own sequel in the outrageous “King Kong Escapes,” which featured a robotic King Kong to rival Godzilla’s popular MechaGodzilla character. There were games, there were toys upon toys. Countless films were inspired by or echo elements from “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
Here we stand, 59 years later, and a massive budget blockbuster reboot is set to hit theaters in the form of Legendary and Warner Bros. Pictures upcoming “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The King of the Monsters has stood strong over the years, an instantly recognizable pop-culture juggernaut. While King Kong hasn’t had the sheer number of productions under his belt, he remains undoubtedly the most recognizable of American born movie monsters. There’s no doubt, even though the old suits may have rotted away to nothing, that far into the future of film the echoing steps of both these larger-than-life characters will continue to shake the industry to the very foundations.
“Godzilla vs Kong” roars into theaters and streaming exclusively on HBO Max same day on March 31st, 2021.