I first saw King Kong vs. Godzilla many, many years ago on the Sci-Fi Channel. They were doing a week-long Godzilla marathon (one Godzilla flick each night) hosted by the late Peter Boyle, of all people. King Kong vs. Godzilla was shown on the second night and believe me, I was jumping through the roof. You see, I had no idea this film existed at the time. So discovering that tonight, my favorite giant lizard would be battling such a legendary film icon absolutely thrilled me. Ahhh, sweet memories.
Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Fujita (Kenji Sahara) are employees of Pacific Pharmaceuticals charged with the unenviable task of traveling to the mysterious Pharaoh Island and retrieving a giant monster for publicity. After some rascally hijinks with a giant octopus called Odako, the pair returns with the behemoth they were looking for: King Kong (Shoichi Hirose). Naturally, King Kong doesn’t cotton to being held prisoner and promptly breaks free, running amok across Japan. Compounding issues, Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) escapes from his icy tomb and proceeds to seek vengeance upon Japan. Left with no other option, the Japanese Defense Force decide that their best bet is to let King Kong and Godzilla duke it out, hopefully killing each other in the process.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is considered one of those “legendary” monster flicks. Not only does it pit Japan’s most notorious giant monster against America’s, but it actually manages to wrap an entertaining plot around the fight when, in all honesty, Toho really didn’t have to. It’s King Kong fighting Godzilla. Did they really need a plot?
This film also marks Godzilla’s big transition into the wide world of color. Guess what everybody!? Godzilla’s green! I know you’re all surprised. But it doesn’t just stop with color. This also marks Godzilla’s first movie to be shot in glorious Toho Scope. Sure, Toho Scope is identical to Cinema Scope… but damn, is that shit ever wide! Freakin’ epic. So epic, in fact, that to this very day, King Kong vs. Godzilla ranks as the most-attended Godzilla movie in Japan. I think every man, woman and child in the country went to see it, or something.
Making his way into a Toho flick for the first of two times (the other being King Kong Escapes, though it should be noted that this film does not acknowledge the events of the original King Kong), the legendary King Kong doesn’t exactly translate to “suitmation” particularly well. As much as I enjoy this movie, Kong’s suit looks more or less pathetic, almost as if it was assembled from carpet samples. I hate to bring it down, as I’m sure Eiji Tsubaraya put a lot of effort into it, but I’ve just never liked the way it looks. On the bright side, Shoichi Hirose does a great job playing the big ape. He gets the primate mannerisms down nicely, and as a former professional wrestler, his titanic strength really shines through in the performance. Those suits are incredibly heavy, and yet Hirose managed to judo-flip Godzilla. Not an inflatable Godzilla dummy, either, but Haruo Nakajima in his full getup. That, in and of itself, is quite an amazing feat.
So, as I’m sure you noticed, King Kong has crazy electric powers in this movie. He apparently draws his strength from storm clouds and can channel electricity through his fingertips to shock his opponents. Weird. (Here’s a YouTube video of their fight scenes, by the way.) But I have an even weirder anecdote about that.
When I first saw King Kong vs. Godzilla, the sight of Kong zapping Godzilla with his fingers threw me through a loop. My tiny elementary-schooler brain tried to come up with some sort of explanation as to how King Kong suddenly developed electric powers. Well, sometime before I’d seen this movie, I subjected myself to King Kong Lives, the 1986 sequel to the 1976 version of King Kong. In that movie, King Kong is revived by having a mechanical heart surgically implanted in his chest. Deciding that the fact that King Kong Lives was made twenty-four years after King Kong vs. Godzilla was trivial, I came to the conclusion that Kong’s new mechanical heart gave him his amazing electric powers. It made perfect sense at the time, I swear.
The only other new monster to appear in this movie is the always-forgotten Odako. Odako is an interesting specimen, brought to life by a combination of live octopi and a rubber octopus prop. The segments with the live octopus superimposed over a landscape via bluescreen are the highlight of his appearance, not only making the kaiju look genuinely lifelike (because, you know, it was actually alive), but also making him all squishy and gross and threatening. After King Kong trashes the Odako puppet, the octopus slithers off into the sea, doomed to a future of random, infrequent cameos (in Frankenstein Conquers the World and War of the Gargantuas, specifically).
The human drama in this Godzilla flick is a departure from what we’d seen in the previous two installments. While those were played up fairly seriously, the antics of Sakurai, Fujita and their boss, Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), are pure comedic relief. The comedy runs the gamut of “chuckle-worthy” to “irritating”, but doesn’t ruin the movie. There’s enough genuine drama, such as when King Kong abducts Sakurai’s sister, Fumiko (Mie Hama), to break up the string of jokes.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is legendary. It remains a very fun movie with a sense of humor and one of the more memorable monster battles of Godzilla’s early career. The English version released by Universal includes newly filmed segments with American newscasters explaining plot points to the audience, as well as offering some random bullshit (Godzilla is apparently the offspring of a T-Rex and a Stegosaurus that got freaky). I’d recommend sticking with the original Japanese cut, as the new segments just slow things down, but it has yet to get an official R1 DVD release thanks to Universal bogarting the rights to King Kong.