The late 60s saw the height of Japan’s Kaiju boom in action. Godzilla films were an annual event, and the King of the Monsters had become an international Japanese icon. Friend to all children, Gamera, was cranking out low budget adventures every year to compete. The “Ultraman” franchise was seeing series after series of massive successes, and a multitude of other giant monster and giant superhero media dominated screens big and small. The merchandising was an unstoppable juggernaut, every Japanese kid needed a miniature Godzilla, a Red King, maybe a Varan if they were weird. Western collectors had also picked up the bug, with many Japanese Sofubi style figures becoming and remaining an often high-priced item among serious collectors to this day.
It was in the later half of the 60s when, desperate to make another Kong film, Toho began preparations to bring back the Great Ape for another Japanese outing. A proper sequel to 1962’s massively successful “King Kong vs. Godzilla” had been toyed with since the first film’s release, but the scope of the project was continually deemed too great, and with Toho’s rights to use King Kong swiftly approaching their time limit, it was decided to make something faster, a little lower budget, and maybe more than a little strange. It was time for “King Kong Escapes.”
Kong had been the star of a successful animated television show at the time, Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment’s “The King Kong Show.” Running for 3 years on ABC, the show featured a heroic and kindly version of the Great Ape helping his human friend Bobby Bond and family in a variety of wacky Saturday morning capers. The animated show featured a nefarious villain in the form of Dr. Who (no relation), a bald headed Mekon-like scientist who would cause trouble for the Bond family, occasionally with his mechanical invention MechaniKong.
The show had successful viewing numbers, and when Toho expressed interest in a new Kong movie, Rankin/Bass leapt to join forces with the Japanese entertainment giant. A live action adaptation of the contents of “The King Kong Show” was set into development, with young Bobby Bond and his family getting written out somewhere along the way, but the scene-stealing villain Dr. Who and of course, his mechanoid simulacrum of the Great Ape, were well in. Originally a second film was also theorized, a more large scale adventure wherein Kong would confront a great nautical horror on a tropical island, but this project would eventually drop the connection to the Kong character and instead transform into the 1966 Godzilla picture “Ebirah, Horror of the Deep.”
What would become “King Kong Escapes” was filmed quickly, but in no way was it a slapdash project. None other than the true King of Kaiju cinema, Ishirō Honda, would step up to direct, and sewn into the King Kong suit this time was Haruo Nakajima, veteran suit actor and the original Godzilla.
“King Kong Escapes” was not a purely Toho production however, and was co-produced with Rankin/Bass, creating a mix of Eastern and Western cinema styles and performances. American actors, including prolific star of western television Rhodes Reason, took up major roles amidst the Japanese cast. It all seems very strange at first, the mix of cultures and performances, wrapped up in a crazy sci fi bundle that absolutely echoes the weird feeling of a cartoon show.
It’s time for a rewatch of this weird little Kaiju classic, be ready for spoilers.
Our story begins at the North Pole, where the nefarious Dr. Who operates out of his secret quasi-futuristic base. Everything is chrome and flashing lights in the world of Dr. Who, a looming Dracula-like figure in his high collar, black cape, and eyebrows to rival those of Christopher Lee. Financed by the mysterious Madame Piranha, Dr. Who has constructed a gigantic mechanical duplicate of King Kong, with which he intends to excavate deep into the ice of the North Pole and retrieve Element X. With this element in the hands of Madame Piranha, her conveniently unnamed country of origin will gain nuclear superiority and soon, world domination. However, during its initial deployment deep beneath the ice, MechaniKong’s computer brain is overwhelmed by the intense radiation of Element X and burns out, rendering the robot a failure. Dr. Who theorizes that only the original will do, and seeks to capture the true King Kong to complete his plan.
These two villains are a highlight of the film, particularly Dr. Who, played with vigorous enthusiasm by Hideyo Amamoto. He’s part cackling Bond baddie, part snarling Hammer Horror villain and chews scenery every chance he gets. The professional and subdued Madame Piranha is the prefect foil, played by cute-as-a-button Mie Hama, who was a major face in Japan at the time. In the same year as “King Kong Escapes” alone, Mie Hama would appear naked in the pages of Playboy magazine and star as Bond girl Kissy Suzuki in the Sean Connery outing “You Only Live Twice.”
On the other side of the world, a United Nations submarine expedition is underway to explore the depths of Mondo Island, a jungle filled with mysteries and oil. Macho US commander Carl Nelson and his soft hearted lieutenant, Susan Watson, head out in a ship to scout the island, ignoring the desperate warnings of a local island native as they go. Soon, Watson runs into a rampaging dinosaur, the mighty Gorosaurus, and promptly screams her little blonde head off, awakening the true Great Ape from his nearby slumber. King Kong and Gorosaurus go at it as only kaiju can, as the ape seeks, as usual, to protect tiny pretty human women whenever he can.
Now, it’s worth noting that Kong doesn’t quite look his best here. Scene by scene the quality of the suit seems to swerve pretty noticeably, with the Great Ape looking a little like a roadside attraction Bigfoot puppet than his usual statuesque self. Gorosaurus on the other hand is a pretty great looking, if a little run-of-the-mill, dinosaur. He’d end up reappearing in later Toho productions as an established Kaiju character, most noticeably in Godzilla ensemble smash “Destroy All Monsters!,” where his appearances are simply stock footage from “King Kong Escapes.”
Defeating Gorosaurus in a close quarters wrestling match and then pounding him into the ground with his mighty fists, King Kong stands victorious, rescuing the shrieking little US lieutenant and placing her to safety when she asks the mighty ape for her freedom. As the heroes leave the island in their little hovercraft, Kong beans a passing giant snake with a boulder in a truly perfect moment of kaiju comedy. There’s a lot of Starship Enterprise bridge style stumbling around as Kong shakes the submarine, until the expedition once more send out Watson to calm the mighty creature, allowing them to escape.
At a meeting of the United Nations, the slightly troubling nature of Kong’s interest in Watson is discussed before a gaggle of laughing media. Madame Piranha observes undercover, and feeds Dr. Who the information on the new discovery of Kong’s hidden island, and of his interest in Watson. Dr. Who Sends a fleet of embarrassingly Tonka Toy looking choppers to assault the Great Ape, bombing him with gas and knocking him out. Dr. Who and his sharp suited minions rig Kong to their choppers, and after a surprisingly shocking moment wherein Dr. Who blows away the concerned native islander in cold blood with his silver pistol, Kong is hoisted airborne and kidnapped.
When Nelson and Watson discover Kong missing, the islander gives a description of his killer in his last moments. Nelson belts out one of the worst lines in the film, immediately recognizing the description of his old nemesis, Dr. Who. Suggesting the two have a history is certainly unexplained, but definitely boosts the Bond-like feel of the proceedings. Sure enough, the spy movie vibe goes into overdrive when Nelson and Watson, along with their Japanese counterpart Lt Commander Jiro Nomura, are suddenly contacted by a UN plane that offers them a ride to Japan. Nomura wises up fast as the trio take off, and he realizes that these men aren’t sent by the United Nations at all, and that they are actually on their way to deal with the nefarious Dr. Who.
Using a mix of what looks like a disco lamp an a set of airpods, Dr. Who gains control over the imprisoned Kong’s mind, and the Great Ape is dispatched to continue digging for element X. The robot was no match for the original’s might, and soon Kong is excavating the glowing mineral from beneath the surface of the Earth. The mind control just isn’t enough to ensure the control of the monster however, and as the trio of UN heroes arrive at the base as his captives, Dr. Who reveals his dastardly plan. Only the love of fair Watson will compel Kong to obey Dr. Who’s orders, and now Who has both Kong and that which can control him in one place.
In true Bond villain style, Dr. Who loves to hear himself talk, and after explaining his plan to the heroes, locks them up in his dungeon. There’s a remarkable feeling of relaxation to all of it, with Watson and Nomura sharing a joke almost immediately upon being locked up, presumably to their eventual doom. Macho man Nelson has to ruin the fun when he slams his hands down on Watson’s shoulders and reminds them that they’re probably all going to die soon, when their usefulness to Dr. Who ends.
Madame Piranha has other uses for Nelson it seems, and she soon pulls him from containment to share a drink and a little light flirtation in her bedroom. The suspension of disbelief is maybe harder to entertain here than it is in the kaiju fights, because Nelson is anything but charismatic, delivering ham-fisted lines at every turn. The villains can’t get enough of him though, and soon Dr. Who calls upon Nelson for a friendly game of chess, whilst his companions’ cell is subjected to increasingly freezing temperatures.
Just as it looks bleakest for Watson and Nomura, in the middle of being tortured against the frozen icy walls of their cell, Kong hears Watson’s cries and breaks loose! Smashing through Dr. Who’s lair, causing confusion and catastrophe as he escapes, Kong leaps into the sea to make a break for Tokyo.
Boarding his vast boat is Dr. Who and his fearsome creation, MechaniKong. Planning to meet Kong in Tokyo and use the robot to reclaim him, Dr. Who and Madame Piranha begin to clash over the cost of human life to their plans. When the doctor won’t be swayed, even by the great loss of life that the great clash between Kongs will cause, Madame Piranha releases the prisoners in hopes that they will save the day.
Meanwhile, Kong makes land in Tokyo, and the Japanese army rush to meet him. Cars, helicopters, and even tanks featuring tiny men poking out the top stream down cardboard looking streets to confront the monster. Arriving just in time, Nelson, Watson and Nomura plead with the army not to engage Kong, and instead send out Watson to calm the beast.
Just as it seems the day is saved, the shining form of MechaniKong smashes through a building and thunders across Tokyo to meet King Kong head to head. Raining blows upon each other, the apes crash across the streets, and it’s soon evident that while Kong is faster and stronger, MechaniKong seems indestructible and will never grow tired. Snatching up hapless Watson, MechaniKong makes a break for it, and begins to climb the heights of Tokyo tower.
Atop the looming tower, tiny Watson (with the wrong hair colour) in his hand, MechaniKong threatens to drop the girl if Kong refuses to obey Dr. Who’s orders. All eyes from the city below are upon the two huge figures as they reach the top of the tower and begin smashing at each other, dangling precariously over the city far below. Nomura ascends to help rescue the constantly imperiled and often swooning Watson, and just as the two make their escape from the tower, a betrayal by Madame Piranha in the control room weakens the robot, allowing Kong to send his robot effigy hurtling down from above to smash upon the streets of Tokyo far below.
After her heel-face turn, Madame is eliminated by Dr. Who, and the villain makes a break for it in his boat. As it looks like he’s set to make an escape, Kong appears upon the dock, and leaps into the water to pursue the source of his woes. Catching up to the boat and absolutely smashing the living hell out of it in what looks like an incredibly fun time, Dr. Who and his men are sent plunging into the dark depths of Tokyo bay.
Left behind, watching from the dock are our intrepid heroes, Watson, Nomura, and Nelson, who bid farewell to the Great Ape as he swims away home.
Upon modern viewing, “King Kong Escapes” remains a strange one. The Kaiju action, although brief, is top notch pro-wrestling hilarity, and the wacky antics of the seemingly incompetent heroes never really seems to come to a head. Could we have done it all without them? Possibly so. Does it appear there is some unexplored tension in the form of a love triangle between Watson and her two male cohorts? Definitely. Did we ever find out where the duplicitous Madame Piranha was actually meant to be from? Absolutely not.
If it seems like even the English voice lines are delivered a little strangely, they absolutely are. Several actors were dubbed over by different English voice actors before release, giving a further awkward turn to the performances. With all these narrative elements confusing things, you’d think “King Kong Escapes” would get cluttered, but somehow the film remains a breezy, wild ride. Aimed at children after all, it holds up as a manic, fun, sometimes just plain weird adventure akin to something Gerry Anderson might have created. The human drama is fast and accessible, the villains and heroes dramatically know each other, it takes a few hours to swim from the North Pole to Tokyo Bay, and everyone seems to show up conveniently just when they need to.
The world of “King Kong Escapes” may well be the strangest one the Great Ape has seen in his near-century of movie appearances, but definitely deserves its place as a weirdly good time in any monster movie collection.