Sunday, March 9, 2014

GodzillaMania #4: King Kong vs. Godzilla

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 65/B

King Kong vs. Godzilla has a bit of a strange history. The film started the “Godzilla vs. other monster” trend that took over the series, but it wasn’t even supposed to be a Godzilla movie in the first place. Willis O’Brien, the animator of the original stop-motion Kong, proposed a film called King Kong vs. Frankenstein, in which the king of the apes battled a giant Frankenstein’s monster (seriously). The cost of stop-motion kept American studios from picking it up, but when he took it overseas, Toho was interested. Thus, Frankenstein’s monster was replaced with Godzilla, and a new model for the series was born.

Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima) is the head of a Japanese pharmaceutical company, and he’s frustrated by the dipping ratings of the TV shows he’s sponsoring. When a giant monster is discovered on Faro Island, Tako sends two men to bring it back. There, they find King Kong and transport him back to Tokyo,  which worked out so well when New York tried it. Meanwhile, and American submarine accidentally unleashes Godzilla after crashing into the iceberg the Japanese air force trapped him in back in Godzilla Raids Again. The two monsters wreak havoc around Japan until they finally meet and a battle for the ages begins.

Ishiriō Honda, returning as director after his absence on the mediocre Godzilla Raids Again, was reportedly unhappy with the lighter direction King Kong vs. Godzilla takes on, and indeed, the film doesn’t have the same resonance that his original film did. But Honda is still a more capable filmmaker than Raids’s Motoyoshi Oda, and his gifts for suspense and camerawork help sell some of the goofier effects. One scene, in which a group of octopi attack the village that worships Kong, features some truly terrible front projection, and yet the scene is still somewhat effective because of how Honda builds tension, making strong use of silence before the squishing of the octopus tentacles signals trouble.

King Kong vs. Godzilla suffers a bit from the lousy costumes on display: Godzilla’s redesign makes him looks bulkier and less threatening, and the costume looks more like a rubber suit than it had in the past. Kong looks even worse in what’s one of the most ridiculous looking gorilla suits in the history of cinema. But Honda and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya make up for it by staging entertaining fights, with Kong and Godzilla acting like giant pro wrestlers. The fights operate on a bizarre cartoon logic that’s appropriate for the silliness of the story. Godzilla hits Kong with fire and does a weird little victory dance (something that’d get even goofier in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)? Sure, why not. Kong is hit by lightning and suddenly develops Emperor Palpatine-like lightning abilities? Of course he does.

But what might be most notable about King Kong vs. Godzilla is the odd satire of Japanese commercialism Honda throws in. While it’s hard to care about the actual human drama on screen, most of the bizarre comedy hits (exception: everything on Faro Island, which proves that Asian men in blackface is just as uncomfortable as white men in blackface). Where the original King Kong showed American showmanship taking things too far, King Kong vs. Godzilla posits Tako (played with cartoonishly self-important glee by Ashima) as an inept businessman who relies on an absurd gimmick like a monster sponsor as a last-ditch effort for profit.

It’s a fascinating meta angle that suggests that Honda and company are perfectly aware of the film’s absurdity, and it’s best typified in an exchange halfway through the film. A woman asks the question we’re all wondering: “Who’s the stronger between Godzilla and King Kong?” “Stupid idiot, it’s not a wrestling match.” Cut to Tako emerging from a closet wearing a safari suit: “I’LL BUY THAT IDEA! KING KONG VS. GODZILLA!” If that level of absurdity isn’t at least somewhat self-aware, it’s miraculous.

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