Monday, January 13, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #3: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!




TRAVIS:

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the King of the Monsters would come face to face with the Eighth Wonder of the World. After all, it was the original stop-motion adventure that inspired Gojira keyfigures such as producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and SFX guru Eiji Tsuburaya to pursue a tale of monster on the loose. How these two monsters tangled in Technicolor (a first for both of them!) is a long story of various concepts and confused film rights, but to keep it simple, what started in America as a proposal for the great ape to fight a gigantic Frankenstein’s monster eventually mutated and travelled overseas to Toho. This came at a perfect time for the studio, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary and needed a blockbuster. It was the battle to end all battles (and maybe the world?)…. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA!

And what an enjoyable time it is! The human stories have a deliberate comedic tone, and the plot of a company and its scrambling employees trying to find ways to drum up business recall the Salaryman and Company President genres of Japanese cinema (their own takes on Office Space culture essentially). A more controversial decision would concern the monsters themselves. Tsuburaya always considered them to be kid friendly and accessible, while director Ishiro Honda would push against decisions to lighten the tone. Nonetheless, the choice to make the movie fun and bright won out, and King Kong vs. Godzilla would become the highest grossing film in the franchise.

Whether you feel that the decision helped or hampered Godzilla in retrospect, it’s hard not to crack a smile when Kong tries to shove a tree in big G’s mouth. The monsters are now fully anthropomorphic, entering arenas like sumo wrestlers and battling like superheroes. The suit actors are more than comfortable to toss each other over their shoulders. Now that’s what I call kaiju! It’s also fun to see the various SFX on display. Suitmation is of course the set piece, but we also see blue screen, puppetry, and real life animals utilized in the effect scenes. Heck, the original Kong film gets a shout-out when stop motion is used to animate Godzilla giving the ape a dropkick. It’s definitely a legendary creature brawl, but was it a fight for the ages for you, Luca?
 

LUCA:

It's definitely the most fun I've had with any kaiju movie so far! I'm saying "kaiju" in general rather than Godzilla movies cuz I actually watched RODAN before this and holy moly what a difference! True, there's about 6 years separating the two, but the tonal change is amazing. Where RODAN feels like Toho (and Honda) cannibalizing older material and just doing a GOJIRA redux (to greatly reduced effect), KING KONG VS GODZILLA represents them leaping assuredly into the age of Technicolor blockbusters. If Honda was against the brightening of KKvG, then I'm glad Tsuburaya won out! Humanization of the kaiju notwithstanding, the movie is also just flat out funny when they're not on screen. Three movies into my journey and I'm surprised at how much the humans, well, don't suck! Just another reason why one should never believe the internet! (Uhh except whichever blog you're reading this from obvs)

The guys at Pacific Pharmaceuticals sent to "Faro Island" to retrieve Kong reminded me of Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove and Harry Crane being sent out on an impromptu monster hunt, complete with ogling of native ladies and offering little children cigarettes in exchange for co-operation. Oh man, the natives! It probably reflects badly on me but I somehow found Japanese people in blackface even funnier than the whiteys I'm used to! And hey, Toho didn't apparently just start pandering to kids with this movie! The native dance in honor of Kong that goes on way too long has some hilariously chaste by our standards titty shakin' going on for all those 1963 dads who were dragged along. This movie also features a nice little surprise kaiju in the giant squid that attacks Main Dancing Mom and her Lil' Toker in their hut. They actually superimposed a regular-sized octopus over images of the set and foleyed in some squishy/slurpy sound fx, actually making it pretty effectively gross for me, since I'm not a fan of anything snakey and tentacly.

I was wondering how they'd work Kong into the movie, considering he died at the end of his own movie (spoilers lol) but it's pretty clear this is Toho's own take on the big ape. Yeah, he lives on an island with natives and other monsters, and uhh... that's about it, I guess! He still has a propensity for climbing buildings with ladies in hand (for reasons never quite explained), but he has a lot less trouble doing it in this version. Because he needs to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla, Toho's Kong is about ten times the size of his US counterpart, and the scene where he takes Kio-chan up a building is almost like a dude picking up a mouse to go stand on a stepladder. Let it also be a testament to this movie's charm that I liked it to the extent I did with the worst looking Kong out of ANY version I've seen yet (being the original, the Dino version and the Jackson one). Maybe all that electricity he absorbs melted his face and paralyzed his forearms. Cuz yeah, Toho's Kong is not just an animal the natives worship as a god, as in the '33 version, he actually DOES have some powers -- in this case, lightning powers as the thunder god of Faro Island! Travis: who, what, where, how?

TRAVIS:
 
Honestly, Luca, the best answer I can give you is that it’s a kaiju movie! Every monster can get supercharged by electricity! Now, Kong’s lightning powers might be a concept first developed when the project was originally King Kong vs. Frankenstein, but there’s no concrete evidence, and it’s still a wacky idea anyway. Toho probably felt they just needed to throw the ape a leg-up in the fight, because Godzilla does a pretty good job kicking the shit outta him for most of the movie. The high tower power lines and thunderstorms sure came in handy! Not even the American version of the film gives a reasonable explanation for Thor Kong.
 
And boy, the American cut sure likes to explain things! When Universal picked up KKvG for State-side distribution, new scenes were shot featuring a US news anchor broadcasting from the United Nations, reporting on all the exciting developments. Much of the exposition from the original movie about the monster action and Japanese army strategies is cut and instead parroted by Mr. News Man as the movie is constantly interrupted by breaking news flashes. These scenes tend to slow the pace, and the cheap looking news rooms look even faker than the two guys in monster suits. News Man is also joined by Senior Scientist Elder, who informs us that Godzilla has a pea-sized brain while Kong has a proportionate mind for his size (a “thinking animal” is how he’s described). Statements like that give the US scenes a strange, jingoistic tone, as though the producers wanted red, white, and blue audiences to root for good ol’ Kong to defeat the dangerous creature from the East. Even the US army gets a perfunctory mention at the beginning of the movie as News Man informs us that troops are being dispatched to help Chile recover from a recent devastating earthquake. No connection to anything else and never mentioned again! Also at the end, when Kong rises from the ocean and swims toward Faro Island, the anchor (and the world at large) wish him good luck on his victorious voyage home.
 
I wouldn’t have wished him good luck though. Gotta be honest: the ending never sat well with me as a child. How could my hero, my King of the Monsters, fall to a mere monkey? He has FIERY ATOMIC BREATH for God’s sake! Japan should’ve been feasting on teriyaki ape after the battle. Bestowing Kong with those electric powers was like giving him a gun to bring to a street match. Cheap I tell ya! Now as an adult, such monster match-up outcomes don’t affect me, but younger me couldn’t comprehend it. Paper just shouldn’t beat scissors! I obviously had a strong opinion because of my kaiju baggage, but did you think Kong was the rightful winner, Luca? Was it a fair fight?
 

LUCA:
 
I don't think it was a fair fight, since the monsters only square off twice in the movie, with the first time lasting all of twenty seconds, with G basically being all "back the fuck off bro you don't want dis" and Kong going "Damn... u right..." and slowly backing away. The humans have to sedate Kong and basically throw him on top of Godzilla (by BALLOON) to reinstigate the fight. And then he gets his ass kicked thoroughly AGAIN! It's only that damnable deus ignis ex machina that gives him a chance to win -- and the final blow isn't even lightning-related! They both fall off a cliff into the sea? And Kong's the only one to re-emerge? Case closed, boys! Ain't no way this is coming back to bite us in the ass!
Although logistically Kong shouldn't have won, story-wise there's no way Godzilla could have kicked his ass. Don't forget, Godzilla is pretty much still a villain at this point. He made that little girl cry in the first one and killed Kobayashi in the second one! Kong's biggest crime so far was looking like a big derp and although he really went above and beyond on that one, I don't think it measures up to Godzilla's mischief. I have to say I also liked the little moral at the end by Mr. Science Man. "I suppose we all ought to treat plants and animals better. Godspeed, King Kong!" Godspeed in-DEED!
Travis, I'm certainly warming up to the kaiju genre and its many flavors. Heck, besides the different cuts of the two first movies, I was simply going to do the Japanese ones wherever possible, but this prognosticating corns scenario has me reconsidering... I hope the crazy fun and variation keeps up in our next clash of titans -- although the secondary titan in our next outing isn't as big a name as Kong -- GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA!

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