Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein noble Sempai Travis Kirkland and meek Nanami-kun yours truly… watch some kaiju movies and report on them!
Despite losing to his hairy adversary, 1962's KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a world-wide smash hit that propelled Godzilla to box office stardom. The King of the Monsters had successfully made his way into Technicolor and was soon off to battle butterflies in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Other Toho monster flicks began to invade theaters with movies such as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, GORATH, ATRAGON, and MATANGO giving us beasts of all shapes and sizes. Strangely though, the furry victor of the KKvG smackdown lay dormant for quite a few years. While big reptiles, bugs, and aliens decimated Tokyo, where was the Eighth Wonder of the World? Kong's fate was soon given fresh life in the hands of US animation company Rankin/Bass (best known for RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER and other beloved stop-motion holiday specials). In 1966, they partnered with Japan's Toei Animation to bring THE KING KONG SHOW to cartoon television, and the giant gorilla was once again in the spotlight. With success on the small screen, Rankin/Bass decided to license Kong to Toho for a return to the silver screen. By now, the big G was starting to settle down for a domestic life in SON OF GODZILLA, so maybe it was time for Kong to reclaim his glory with KING KONG ESCAPES!
Per usual Showa fashion, ESCAPES eschews the continuity of KKvG to begin the story anew. King Kong now lives on the mysterious Mondo Island where an American submarine has also conveniently landed. He soon encounters the sub's crew as they explore the island and in particular falls for the lovely Lt. Susan Watson. Now, this being a Japanese kaiju film, the story can't simply be a rehash of Kong/Ann Darrow relations, so they also throw in the nefarious mastermind Dr. Who (no, not THAT Doctor Who)! Who has created an exact robo-clone of Kong cleverly named Mechani-Kong to dig for the radioactive Element X deep down within the North Pole. If successful, Element X will be handed over to his financial overseer Madame Piranha so that her country (never named in the movie) can become the ultimate nuclear superpower in the world. However, Mechani-Kong malfunctions due to X's radioactivity, and Who and his henchmen head off to Mondo to kidnap and hypnotize the real Kong so that he may finish the job. Will Kong be able to break from his hypnotic trance? Can the beautiful Susan Watson tame the beast to fight for the forces of good? Will Kong and Mechani-Kong face off in Japan and destroy many building miniatures? If you don't know the answers to these questions, then you haven't been reading these reviews!
One fun way to watch this movie is to view it as though the original black-and-white KING KONG never existed, and Toho had created the Eighth Wonder from the ground-up instead of Miriam Cooper and RKO. It hits those familiar Kong beats (fights a dinosaur, crushes on a pretty lady, climbs a tall thing) but is spruced up by those fun tokusatsu tropes. Why should the humans simply reach Mondo Island by boat when they could use a sub that also has a flying transport ship? And Kong shouldn't simply grapple with a dinosaur either! The dino (in this case a pre-DESTROY ALL MONSTERS Gorosaurus making his debut appearance) should kangaroo kick him a lot to elongate the running time! Also, when Kong climbs the tall thing, he should be punching a big robot that looks like him! It's similar to all these modern fantasy movies that take old fairy tales and stretch them out into all-new re-tellings with a grim & gritty look and Tumblr feelz. Except here an enormous gorilla is hitting his mecha-clone in the face a buncha times. I'll take this over MALIFICIENT any day!
Hey, at least Toho didn’t wuss out on having a female villain of some complexity (well, grading on a tokusatsu-curve here). Madame Piranha (that’s how big the curve is) as portrayed by Godzilla/James Bond veteran Mie Hama has a redemptive arc that, while simplistic, makes sense given the story and plays out in a satisfactory climax. Take that, MALEFICENT! Wait, why are we talking about MALEFICENT? If we must talk about FEELZ, I’ll admit that I was kinda touched by the captive Kong on the North Pole spotting his (inactive) metal doppelganger on the other side of the hangar and starts waving enthusiastically until he notices that he isn’t responding. Aw, man! I mean, I understand that Kong as the last of his species is something I’m bringing in myself as a viewer, but it was still kinda touching. Because LOL the movie doesn’t attempt drama at any point! Taken wholly without any cultural baggage, it’s just another dopey Kong moment (of which there are plenty).
I’d say King Kong is two for two in his Toho appearances. Between the lovely KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and KING KONG ESCAPES, director Ishiro Honda seemingly had quite a knack for realizing scripts with the big hairy guy in ‘em. It helps that, as you say, Travis, there’s no continuity between Toho’s Kongs, nor was the giant ape used in any more than these two outings. No time to get stale!
You’d think that with all the rehashing of OG KONG set pieces (Travis, you didn’t even touch upon the serpent delaying Kong and allowing the human heroes to escape, just like in Cooper’s film), KKE would be a bore for anyone with even a smidgen of movie monster knowledge. Not so! Greatest contributor to this not being the case is definitely the fact that the whole Sku—uh, MONDO Island sequence takes up all of fifteen minutes out of a hundred minute movie. Sure, he fights a T-Re—uh, GOROSAURUS and there’s a sea serpent, but Toho-Kong gets the fuck ON with it, man! Favorite part of the Mondo Island sequence for me was the ominous underwater shape approaching Commander Nelson’s hovercraft as Jiro, Susan and he all go back to the ship chased by Kong. In what appears to be a raging frenzy, Kong hurls a boulder at them. But I say thee nay! Kong just knows the miscreants of Mondo Island so well that he could accurately predict when the sea serpent would pop up and attack the hovercraft. Said monster’s reveal, followed a millisecond later with a boulder crashing into his face with a hilarious THUNK sound effect had me on board for this movie SO HARD. Any other winning moments for you, comrade Travis of an unnamed nation?
For me it's amusing to see a Toho kaiju joint infused with the old fashioned views of American adventure serials. For instance at the UN press conference, Susan is asked why Kong didn't harm her. The pretty Ms. Watson demurs, but the dashing Nelson pipes up with, “It's very easy to understand. As ridiculous as it may sound, Kong is a male, and Ms. Watson is... [motions toward Lt. Watson] ...well, see for yourselves, gentlemen.” The gentlemen in the room of course laugh. Ha! Dames. It's also funny that we've mentioned James Bond, as the two Asian antagonists (or I guess one antagonist and one turncoat) are given that special foreign exoticness Western audiences might be used to in 007 movies. Despite the fact that Dr. Who is portrayed by Japanese actor Eisei Amamoto, he's given a wild-haired look that includes full, pointy eyebrows that you could surmise might highlight his natural slanted eyes. Hama as Madame Piranha meanwhile is a sultry figure, an idolized representation of the alluring seductress of the East. Is this a bit overreaching? Maybe, but when examining ESCAPES and its co-production between studios of different nations, observing the cultural differences can be interesting.
What makes ESCAPES most memorable of all though is the big ape himself. Of course everyone loves Godzilla, but he can mostly be recognized as a bit of a surely guy. Even when he's fighting for the forces of good, he can still be a destructive force if his brash temper acts up. Kong on the other hand is a roly-poly furry friend who generally doesn't smash anything unless he's intentionally provoked or swayed by the object of his affections. He's a tender soul that embodies our base instincts. Haruo Nakajima (best known for his many years inside the Showa Godzilla suit since GOJIRA) is excellent here as the giant primate, showing some nice pathos that he probably couldn't normally bring to his other kaiju roles. I particularly enjoy how he distinguished G and Kong by their walking. G could be lumbering but moved precisely when he was ready to destroy buildings in his path. Kong meanwhile has a carefree stride with his two big ol' arms dangling to the sides (though this may be because the costume's arms were apparently too long for Nakajima). This is clearly not a creature with annihilation on the mind.
Despite his popularity, ESCAPES would be the last time that Kong would appear in a Toho feature. He was originally part of the all-star monster cast of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS but was ultimately dropped because Toho's license for the character was about to expire. In the 1990s Heisei era, the studio tried to work around Kong's copyright by planning a Godzilla vs. Mechani-Kong movie, yet even using his robotic likeness was going to be difficult to clear with his American rights holders, and the idea was soon scrapped. It's a bit ironic that it would be so hard to bring Kong back to the Land of the Rising Sun when he could actually claim to be the first film kaiju in Japanese history! In 1933 following the release of the original KING KONG, Shochiku Studios quickly put out their own remake titled WASEI KINGU KONGU (or JAPANESE KING KONG in English). The film unfortunately wasn't preserved for history, and no copies are currently known to be in existence. However, a single still frame remains as the only remaining evidence of it, showing an actor in a Kong suit holding onto a miniature woman. Though GOJIRA would proudly claim to be the film to kick off suitmation SFX, it's clear that the Eighth Wonder of the World staked his claim in the man-in-suit business almost twenty years earlier. Maybe he deserved that victory over Godzilla after all!
Coming back to your earlier statement, Travis, I gotta agree, there's absolutely no threat to Toho's Kong whatsoever. People complained about Peter Jackson's neutered beast, but methinks those people haven't seen KING KONG ESCAPES! Then again, maybe they have, and deemed a friendly Kong not worth the bother of complaining about when faced with a brisk 100 minute runtime. And then there's the fact that this isn't really a remake of the 1933 original, so who cares what they do with their big ape? Besides looking BLAZED AS FUCC at all times -- seriously, the "opening his eyes" close-up shot when we are introduced to Kong looks less like the awakening of an awesome leviathan as much as a gigantic stoner being roused from his Dora The Explorer marathon -- Kong just never does any damage to anyone who doesn't deserve it by being really, really cartoonishly mean. This THC-induced dopeyness extends to his titanium counterpart as well, as the screwhead eyes of Mechani-Kong remind me of nothing less than Kylie from FANTASTIC MR. FOX when he zones the fuck out. Also, the poster might SEEM to promise a robotic Kong who shoots lasers out his eyes, but in reality they're just some big headlights that make Kong throw his arm up in front of his face. "Ughhhh noooo wanna snooze some mooorrre!!!"
Dr. Who's appearance actually quite amused me, since his wardrobe and hair seemed to be a very deliberate "homage" (hmmm) to the BBC's good Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell, the very first of the titular Time Lords. It's somewhat disappointing that Who is a (very loose) adaptation of an actual cartoon villain, since Toho's always been very good at giving us goofy human villains, as far back as the greedy industrialists in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA in '64. This is largely academic, however, as Amamoto gives a wonderfully hammy performance nearly the equal of Akihiko Hirata camp-tastic turn in TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA! Speaking of that GOJIRA veteran, it's very nice to see Akira Takarada (the romantic hero Ogata from the first G-movie) back as the do-gooder Captain Jiro. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I felt at times like Jiro was actually the one hinted to be Susan's human love interest, rather than the more-appropriate-for-1967 Commander Nelson. INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER had already done an intercontinental (planetary, even!) romance, so it's not beyond Toho!
KING KONG ESCAPES, two opposable thumbs up from me! And stick around, my Mondo Island friends, for some exciting stuff is coming up...