King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) [Universal]

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (3.5/5)
August 15, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Over a decade ago, I found King Kong vs. Godzilla in a local Toys ‘R' Us. As an early Christmas present, my parents bought me a copy of the film, and I watched it over and over again until I could almost recite every line by heart. I even had Ichiro Arishima's mannerisms down to the minute detail. Ironically, I didn't look forward to rewatching this movie recently, but for a good reason. I was afraid that my love for the movie would have surely grown cold after all these years. Quite the contrary, King Kong vs. Godzilla is still extremely enjoyable all these years later. Sure, I've become jaded to some of the humor and action after so many viewings, but there is still that spark that makes this movie so special. The acting is solid, the effects are crisp, the plot is excellent, and the spectacular climactic monster battle make King Kong vs. Godzilla a triumph of the Showa Era.

Discovered on the remote Farou Island by Dr. Mikino, "soma" was a special variety of berry with remarkable narcotic qualities. Mr. Tako, the head of Pacific Pharmaceuticals and the Tokyo Television Company, was entranced not only by the existence of this profitable commodity, but also by the stories of a monster that was supposed to have thrived off of these berries on the remote island. As a stunt to boost ratings, Mr. Tako ordered Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue to travel to the faraway island in order to locate the monster.

Meanwhile, high temperature readings in the Bering Sea were raising suspicions across the globe, and in response, a submarine was dispatched to uncover the source of this strange phenomenon. Pulsating with an eerie glow, an iceberg caught the attention of the crew of the vessel. Unfortunately, the submarine collided with the floating island of ice, and it was forced to signal for assistance. The iceberg began to collapse, and the radiation levels were increasing. Fire began to scorch the interior, and from above, the crew of a rescue helicopter looked at the natural wonder in awe as the grotesque head of Godzilla began to pierce through his icy tomb. After freeing himself from his cold prison, Godzilla began to travel south toward the Northernmost reaches of Japan. The military fired on the monster as he approached the shore, but he proved to be invulnerable to any defense that the self-defense force could muster...

As panic began to grip the mainland, the Pacific Pharmaceutical/TTV expedition arrived at Farou Island. Presenting gifts to the natives, Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue were soon accepted as guests. However, they were also soon frightened by the calls of some unknown monster. Moving deep into the interior of the island, the team searched the jungles for King Kong, the legendary monster of Farou Island. Chilling cries, emanating from some unknown source, accompanied by severe rockslides, prompted the team and its native guides to bid a hasty retreat. Back in the village, the sudden appearance of a giant octopus sent the islanders into combat. Their efforts were futile, for the octopus was far too powerful. Luckily, from behind an enormous fence, King Kong appeared and repelled the unctuous mollusk. Upon drinking the soma, the apelike monster fell into a trance, and it was in this state that the TTV crew was able to begin to relocate the beast back to the mainland.

Meanwhile, Godzilla continued to move through Hokkaido, destroying everything in his path. Osamu Sakurai's sister, Fumiko, was aboard a locomotive heading north, for she was concerned that her boyfriend, Kazuo Fujita, had been killed aboard a deadly plane crash. In truth, he had missed the flight, and upon learning of her proximity to Godzilla, was now forced to locate Fumiko as her train continued to push northward into Godzilla's path. The passengers were forced to evacuate as the natural disaster crept closer, but Fumiko was unable to catch a ride away from the frightening scene. Luckily, Kazuo managed to locate her just in time...

Back at sea, a government mandate was put into effect that stated that King Kong mustn't arrive in Japan, and in response, the dynamite attached to his enormous raft was detonated. King Kong survived the explosion, however, and began to move on a path that appeared to intercept with Godzilla. When the two monsters finally met in the Japanese countryside, they roared at each other, prepared to engage in battle. Though Kong's ability to throw gargantuan boulders proved to be a powerful asset, Godzilla thermonuclear ray was too strong. The great ape was forced to retreat.

General Masami Shinzo, with orders to keep Godzilla from entering Tokyo, set up a special trap for his nation's reptilian invader. Gasoline fires led Godzilla tumbling into the depths of a camouflaged pit, where explosives were detonated. This attack proved to be useless, and a new plan of action was put into effect. A blockade of high-tension wires was erected in the outskirts of Tokyo, and Godzilla was unwilling to brave this defense. King Kong grew stronger by absorbing electricity, however, and his approach to the city prompted immediate evacuations. The powerful primate sank his teeth into the wires and gained more and more energy. Making his way deeper into the heart of the Tokyo, Kong lifted a train and gently removed Fumiko Sakurai, who was among those fleeing the metropolis. Hypnotised by her beauty, King Kong began to carry her to the Diet Building, where the military began to concentrate its forces. Osamu Sakurai and Kazuo Fujita pleaded with General Shinzo to hold fire, and in order to lull the beast into a docile slumber, soma was loaded into warheads and detonated from above, while the familiar percussion percussion sounds of Kong's island home were played from below. King Kong fell into a deep trance, as Fumiko was rescued from his monstrous grip. Godzilla, now located in the Mt. Fuji area, was still a grave threat to the nation. In order to stop him, the JSDF airlifted King Kong through the use of enormous helium balloons and a special type of cable. By morning, the two monsters would meet face to face for the final climactic battle…

The cables holding King Kong were released, and the beast was dropped to the Earth several hundred meters below. He tumbled down the slopes of a hill and knocked Godzilla over in the process. King Kong rose to his feet and ascended the slope, hiding behind an enormous boulder. Godzilla was led into an ambush, for when he finally reached the top of the hill, Kong began to pull on the struggling dinosaur's tail. An assault of boulders soon followed, but Godzilla countered with his thermonuclear ray. Enraged, both monsters again clashed, tumbling down the slope of a hill once more. The furry behemoth began to summersault toward Godzilla, but missed and smashed his head against a rock. While he was incapacitated, Godzilla began to send a barrage of boulders at the mammalian monstrosity, followed by several collisions of his tail. Suddenly, Kong rose and Godzilla repelled him once more. In response, the furious beast charged once more, but was met with a kangaroo-style kick, which sent him tumbling further down the slopes of the rocky terrain. Godzilla's breath set the surrounding forest aflame as thunderclouds began to form in the sky. The lightning rejuvenated the abominable ape, and he began to inject his foe with intense static discharges. The two titans continued to struggle, and Kong pulled a tree from the ground and attempted to shove the roots into Godzilla's throat. A pulse of atomic fire dislodged the tree, and the two monsters continued to battle as they began to trample a nearby village. Standing on opposite sides of an immense pagoda, the two monsters began to claw away at the building in their furthering attempts to destroy one another. Soon, they both began to tumble off of the precipice of a cliff into the water below, where the monsters continued to struggle, creating violent Earth tremors. In moments, King Kong surfaced, but Godzilla was nowhere to be seen. With Godzilla defeated, and King Kong's will to return to his island home great, Japan breathed a sigh of relief. The nation was certainly saved from calamity!

The plot of this movie is quite suspenseful, and keeps moving forward. The pacing does not suffer the same faults as other contemporary kaiju films, as the action doesn't seem to come to any dead halts. The monster drama is, indeed the biggest attraction to the film, and though the human drama is kept second, it is handled with sophistication. Unfortunately, there are a few strange hiccups in the plot. How King Kong, a monster of his size and mass, was transported onto a raft is left unexplained. The size of the helium balloons, which seem to be far too small to lift a creature of Kong's mass, seem to carry him with ease. Then, of course, there are the unexplainable devices that involve human drama. How exactly was it determined that King Kong was holding Mie Hama's character so quickly and from such a distance? There was no explanation. How was the JSDF able to procure the special cables and balloons so quickly? How were they able to construct the electrical blockade so quickly? No explanation was given. If a few head-scratching moments are what it costs to have a kaiju movie with a pacing this smooth, then it is definitely worth it.

The acting is actually rather even in this film. Ichiro Arishima and Yu Fujiki are by far the two most fun actors in the film. Arishima, who plays the fidgety, neurotic Groucho Marx look-alike: Mr. Tako, has such an amazing body language. His mannerisms in one particular scene are simply hilarious, when he rubs his face in such a spontaneous and wacky way. Yu Fujiki's handling of the bumbling coward Kinsaburo Furue is delightful, and unlike many actors who are forced into the position of comedic relief, he seems to thrive in this state. Tadao Takashima, who plays Yu Fujiki's levelheaded foil, has a great chemistry with his fellow actor. His character's frustration at Fujiki's character's antics is quite amusing. Of course, not all of the characters are given this level of humor. Kenji Sahara plays a completely straight laced character. He's not given much to work with, but he does emote well when Mie Hama's character is in King Kong's grasp. As for Hama's character, her inclusion in the plot seems to basically parallel that of Fay Wray in the original King Kong. It seems as though she is ignored for a great deal of the movie, and is then, due to some clever plot devices, snatched by the monster in a style similar to that in the 1933 movie. The rest of the actors are given very little to work with, and are not as widely developed as the main characters. Jun Tazaki, as General Masami Shinzo, plays the stereotypical military leader in this film. Cold, calculating, and gruff, Tazaki's handling of the character really doesn't pull away from the norm. Senkichi Omura's character is basically just a clone of Yu Fujiki's. His inclusion in the plot is simply just another bumbling coward, and his only necessity to the story seems to be to translate the strange language of the Farou Island natives. Yoshio Kosugi as the Farou Island Chief is a stereotype. The belligerent island leader who warns outsiders to leave is particularly noteworthy as a cliché in cinema around the world. Akemi Negishi, like several other actors who played female Farou Islanders, seems to have only one purpose for the plot… shameless bikini dancing. Besides that, she really isn't given much, if anything, to do. Speaking of the actors who do play the Farou natives, they are given makeup in order to give the illusion that their natural skin pigment appear darker and, while it is probably better than similar efforts, it is quite unrealistic. The actors, who play the crew aboard the submarine and the people aboard the rescue helicopter probably have the least noteworthy performances in the movie. They seem to have little to no acting experience, and their usefulness to the movie is simply to speed up the arrival of Godzilla, who shows up amazingly quickly within only the first 10 minutes of the film. The add-in actors for the American version don't do a terrible job. They seem to do well with what they're given, but unfortunately, what they're given is some pretty terrible dialogue. Though Harry Holcombe is obviously a good actor (and perhaps the best among his add-in colleagues), he is given the most terrible lines. Some of which include his explanation that Godzilla may be a cross between a Tyrannosaur and a Stegosaur, or his opinions on the relative sizes of the monsters' brains, or the inaccurate notion that there are depths of up to 20,000 fathoms around Japan (which is deeper than the Earth's crust in many locations), or the extremely jarring notion that this is in fact a different Godzilla from the previous one, bring his performance down a tad. The addition of add-in actors for the Americanized version of this film doesn't help whatsoever.

The special effects in this film are, for the time at least, up to par with what could be considered the norm. In fact, these effects hold up as some of the best in the Showa timeline, and one can see that despite the flaws, a lot of work went into putting these scenes together. First and foremost, there is the rotoscoping. Godzilla's breath, which was an animation from time to time in the previous two movies, was never shown in color before. Due to the fact that this film is in color, the audience finally gets to see what the fire breath truly looks like. Looking back, it is interesting that they chose a cool color, as opposed to a warm color. Blue flames often connote extreme heat, however, and that seems to be what the filmmakers were going for here, as the beam is shown to melt tanks. King Kong's unconventional weapon, a static discharge, is also well animated. Its inclusion in the movie is an excellent plot device, as it does make the character King Kong seem better suited to deal with a fire breathing dinosaur. The lightning from which it derives is also fairly well animated, although lightning is rarely rendered effectively in any movie from this time period. Rotoscoping aside, the pyrotechnics are a success in this film. The explosions are great, and the fact that this is the first Godzilla movie in color truly adds a vivid dimension to what was once simply a black and white plumes of smoke and fire. One particularly effective display was the melting of the tank miniatures. Though a rather simple effect, the illusion of power it portrays is quite vivid, and adds to the size of the movie. The miniatures as a whole are some of the most excellent in the original series. Though several buildings, big and small, create a detailed illusion of size, one in particular takes the cake. The old-style building that Godzilla and King Kong destroy near the end of the film is beautifully detailed, and a wonderfully proportioned miniature. Small compliments to the scenery, like telephone poles and trees, also add to the illusion of size in the film, and together with the backdrops of the hilly, Japanese countryside and the shaggy, treelike foliage, a beautiful miniature environment was realized on the big screen. Of course, the environments would be nothing without the monsters. There is something interesting about this movie, and that is that stop motion is used occasionally to create certain monster scenes on screen. Compared with the suits, the effect looks fairly dated at this point… but luckily, the only two scenes where this technique is used prominently are during the natives' battle with the giant octopus and Godzilla's kangaroo kick. Luckily, these scenes are very quick. The suits are the post prominent technique used to create the monsters of this film. Though the evil appearance of the Godzilla suit has been softened for this movie, it maintains an antagonistic look and has a greater emphasis placed on its reptilian features. Its spines are larger and more defined, as well. Also, unlike many Godzilla incarnations, there appears to be the slightest green tinge to the monster. The King Kong suit, however, isn't quite as sophisticated. The puppet bust is one of the biggest problems. It doesn't look like the suit's face, and is actually rather foamy and goofy. The face on the actual suit isn't much better, as it lacks movement and lifelike subtleties. The rest of the suit also lacks animation, and concerning the way the arms are set up, it appears as though the suit actor can really only waddle at times. Physically, the fur looks like an old carpet, the stance is a little odd, and the addition of nipples is quite peculiar. However, Shoichi Hirose does an excellent job portraying King Kong, despite the suit's physical limitations. He matches some very apelike qualities, such as the curiosity, aggression, and movement… and makes up for the visual problems of the suit by capturing the spirit of Kong. The fact that his actual eyes are visible in the costume is also a plus, giving the costume a greater organic look. The Giant Octopus is another addition to the monster cast, and it is quite an amazing one. The use of an actual octopus for many of the shots creates a new level of realism for the movie. Though the scenes of the villagers throwing torches at a movie screen do show the flaws of the technique, it really was an effective way to increase the organic nature of the kaiju. Unfortunately, the prop that the Shoichi Hirose has to struggle with does not resemble the real octopus in color or texture, but the scene in question is relatively short. As a side note, the appearance of Godzilla, King Kong, and the Giant Octopus is in the same movie is interesting, as each monster was, at one point, the basic design that Godzilla was going to be originally envisioned as in the original Godzilla (1954).

The music for this film is fairly successful. In the American version, much of the score is stock music from several different sources. The real success in the American music is the theme that accompanies the train's rendezvous with Godzilla. It has a very eerie and suspenseful tone. There is nothing too special about most of the other stock music in the American version. It has a quality that matches American cinema of the time more than Japanese cinema, and seems to fit King Kong much better than Godzilla. Luckily, there are few pieces that detract from the film, perhaps save the music that plays in the “Meanwhile, back in Tokyo…” scenes, as it is somewhat screams: "stereotype!" Akira Ifukube's island score does manage to make an appearance in the US version, and it is an excellent theme, although it is somewhat different than that which people are used to as far as his style is concerned. The theme must have had an impact on Ifukube, as a small portion of a revamped version would show up several decades later in the final montage of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), a movie for which he also composed the music.

Finally, since this is a review of the American version of the film, it would be prudent to mention some of the alterations. As far as a Godzilla film is concerned, the dubbing is actually quite successful. The voice actors who dub Ichiro Arishima, Yu Fujuki, and Senkichi Omura are rather exaggerated, but they do match the humorous nature of their respective characters. There are a few lapses in the film, however. At times, it appears as though a voice completely changes tone (or actor, in some cases) in mid sentence. These occurrences are rare, and the dubbing is still far from cringe-worthy, for the most part. As for the numerous "Back in the UN..." scenes, they aren't terrible. Of course, that is far from a compliment. As mentioned earlier, the dialogue is pretty awful, but the actors themselves are far from horrible. Another interesting change in the movie is the addition of stock footage from The Mysterians (1957). The satellite, the evacuation scenes, and the flooding scenes are all spliced into this movie in various locations. Though they are not obvious distractions, these scenes do sometimes seem out of place. The satellite, for instance, is such an unconventional design (as it was the alien space station in the movie from which it was drawn), that it seems quite odd that it would be the UN's satellite. Not only that, the little "UFO" in the bottom right hand corner of the screen is also a vivid distraction, and its fishlike movement quickly catches the eye. To be fair though, the Americanization of this movie isn't as bad as some attempts (i.e. Varan [1958]).

In the end, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a triumph. It brought the first really fun monster brawl to the series, and went all-out on trying to create a great visual atmosphere, while still maintaining a solid human plot. And of course, two of the most popular monsters in history were brought together for a spectacular showdown. In fact, audiences must have been impressed at the time, as well. Adjusted for inflation, King Kong vs. Godzilla is the most financially successful Godzilla movie of all time, and is still perhaps one of the most well known. Ishiro Honda created a winner here, and proved that Godzilla didn't necessarily have to appear pure evil to attract audiences. Perhaps he could just a monster that people could have fun rooting for or against. King Kong vs. Godzilla is fun, plain and simple; the spirit of which modern Godzilla movies should truly try to emulate more often. It really is the first great "versus" movie.