Progenitors: King Kong vs. Godzilla

kongvssocI meant to get to these a few months ago, but they’ve lingered around. With Batman vs. Superman continuing Warner’s desperate investment in doing the Marvel/Disney thing, here’s a look at some franchise-fighters to have come before. A note: We’re keeping this literal this time, much as I wanted to get cheeky and include something like Kramer vs. Kramer. 

This review based on the original Japanese version of the film. 

While it is sometimes de rigueur to whole-cloth the Toho Godzilla franchise as an interchangeable unit of essentially reproducible, symmetrical features, watching many of the films is evidence to the contrary. For one, the original Gojira, shepherded by franchise mastermind Ishiro Honda (a wonderfully physical, even lyrical director unfortunately sidelined to the series), is a devoutly solemn, chiaroscuro-ridden near-masterpiece of scorching social rage. But even the ostensibly “sillier” productions are in point of fact often uncommonly unique, separable entities given to their personal proclivities and performance ticks rather than monolithic rules imposed on the series from overhead. Compared to the increasingly sedimented, mortally uninteresting Marvel Cinematic Universe of today, each Godzilla film, however good or bad, is a breath of personalized, idiosyncratic fresh air because it is beholden mostly only to itself.

Case in point, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, which is only the third feature in the franchise (indeed, after two relatively sober mid-‘50s efforts, this 1962 film is really the start of the nearly-annualized franchise in earnest, owing largely to its international box office success). With the seven year layoff in releases before this production taken as carte blanche to reorient the franchise toward both more provincial and cosmopolitan lines, this Godzilla is at once more indomitably Japanese and a simultaneous bid for crossover, worldly success. Which is both a blessing and a curse; the brutal, mournful social critique of the first film is excised completely, replaced by its platonic polar opposite in a broad, semi-Abbott and Costello comic duet designed to provide mass appeal across the globe. A flaw, for sure, but a diabolically bizarre one at that, and the source of the film’s curiosity nearly fifty five years on, in lieu of it actually being well made or any such triviality.

Fortunately for the film’s Japanese success and unfortunately for its pond-hopping descent into brackish international waters, this well of comedy is also stunningly insular in its prerequisite familiarity with Japanese culture at the exception of any and all outside viewers. It’s as uniquely inscrutable for a Western audience as it would be to intake Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three from the previous year if one had not completed at least introductory seminars on both Coca-Cola Studies (read: Southern US Culture) and Berlin panic. If one was lucky, hopefully, one could count a composite course for both credits; “A Connecticut Mark Twain in King Kruschchev’s Court”, maybe?

Anyway, for the first half, the film is generally busy imbibing in this near-comic story of Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), Osamu (Tadao Takashima , and Kinsaburo (Yu Fujiki), a mid-century Japanese corporate higher-up and two “salarymen” (a cultural fixture – like a “bro” or a “hipster” – in Japan, but mostly unknown in the West). This is, of course, until the titular characters erect audio-first entrances with  their indomitable roars before generally staging a coup with the film. You see, Mr. Tako, a television executive generally disinterested in the perfunctory nature of his network’s offerings, hears about a whiff of general gnarliness on a nearby monster-filled island and, upon sending his two employees to investigate, stumbles upon the possibility that only gargantuan simian King Kong (who lives on the island) can meaningfully effect a hurt on the newly awakened Godzilla, who is terrorizing Japan as we speak.

The bracing savagery of the film’s nonchalance about resorting to backwards-islander stereotypes in the early Kong segments aside, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a generally inoffensive beast, wacky and wonky without ever manifesting its oddball weirdness into the full-blown sidewinding aesthetic that would have made this a truly special entry in the franchise (Kong inebriating himself on what might be fire, and then proceeding to eat electricity like he was supposed to be Frankenstein’s Monster – in point of fact, he was supposed to fight Frank before Godzilla entered the picture – are nice, left-field twitches of surrealism though). Admittedly, Honda’s direction is a little divested throughout – his interest in buddy comedies being noticeably insignificant, unsurprisingly, compared to his fascination with corporeal obliteration. But effects wiz Eiji Tsuburaya’s implacable Godzilla suit (arguably his best, most animalistic, most venomous version of the character in the early days) and Akira Ifukube’s always-malevolent score cover up the odd patches of Shinichi Sekizawa’s screenplay nicely. It’s not as blithely manic and destructively off-kilter as follow-up Mothra vs. Godzilla, easily the franchise peak post-Gojira, but it’s a generally agreeable conglomerate of acid-tinged fighting and alternately milquetoast and miscreant comedy.

Unfortunately, the film is generally in the business of coming alive only at night, and the daytime titular smackdown (which could use a more creeping air of sinister foretold-eventuality) isn’t a patch on the more consequence-filled rampages earlier on, be it a submarine desecration intercut (brazenly) with on-ground comedy, a behemoth of an octopus having its way with solid land, or mack daddy Godzilla himself trampling the countryside (easily Honda’s most invested scene from a directorial standpoint). As a rule, though, this film is on the right side of so-weird-it’s-doesn’t-need-to-be-so-bad-it’s-good. Best suited for those with a notable investment in the structural malleability and oddball nature of the franchise (this was when Godzilla was still in his Wild West adolescent years, after all, still figuring himself out); but even for those with less tolerance for that sort of thing, the inescapable garbage-day rhythms of the King Kong suit (the polar opposite of the wonderful Godzilla suit) should satiate those looking for a more simple kinetic burst of old-fashioned bad-film irony just fine.

Score: 6.5/10

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