AKA: Kingukongu no gyakushu
Review By: David Austin
In honor of King Kong’s newest adventure, we bring you a review of one of his more obscure exploits, during the wild and woolly days when Kong found himself trapped inside … the Toho Zone. That’s right, for those of you who didn’t know, Kong briefly did a stint in Toho films, starring alongside (and against) such luminaries as Godzilla and Gorosaurus. Kong doesn’t mention it much anymore, being bashful, but I’m sure if asked, he’ll happily bring out his little photo album, and reminisce about stomping Tokyo with the big boys.
The producers at Toho, makers of all things monstrous and rubber-suited (excepting bondage gear), were just wild about Kong. After much effort, they eventually secured the rights to do a couple of pictures using the big ape. On their first outing, they went straight for the headlines, with King Kong vs Godzilla. And no, there were not two alternate endings, and yes, it was a draw. The second was this film, King Kong Escapes, where they decided to let the big guy carry the marquee all by himself. It’s a doozy. I don’t know how I missed this one as a child, I would have loved it (I still loved it).
Of course, even a non-conformist like King Kong had to fit into the Toho scheme of things. You know what that means: men in rubber suits, wrestling monsters, miniature sets, crowds fleeing through Tokyo, and big, big robots. Escapes is a kaiju (Japanese monster film) picture through and through. All the tropes of the genre are present. We have our giant, ambiguously-heroic monster, his equally-large, unambiguously-evil nemesis, a group of proper human heroes, and a counteracting group of dastardly humans (sometimes they were aliens, but here the villains are humans, just funny-looking ones). Of course, the stories usually proceed on fairly separate tracks, until the good guys confront the bad guys, and then spend the last twenty minutes as spectators to the final smackdown between Godzilla and King Ghidorah, or Mechagodzilla, or Gigan, or whoever was threatening the world this time.
Escapes follows this pattern to a T. Our human leads are the crew of the U.N. submarine Explorer. The Toho Zone is one of those alternate universes where the U.N. (in conjunction with Japan) has a large cadre of agents and tremendous political power, instead of spending its time arguing over whether China should head the Human Rights Committee or just sit on it. There are scenes where our heroes commandeer entire military units simply by announcing that they’re from the U.N. Maybe the black helicopter crowd was right after all (I suspect Interpol is very effective in the Toho Zone too). The crew is headed by Commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason), a veritable parody of ‘50s scientist action heroes. Nelson looks like he should have played Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four movie, and seems completely out of place without a pipe in his hand. To compensate, he spends a lot of time laughing heartily at the concerns of the rest of the cast, and comforting women with his extra-manly presence. His second in command, Jiro Nomura, really doesn’t have much to do except be loyal and trusty. Jiro is played by Akira Takarada, an actor with a long history in kaiju films, including Godzilla v. Monster Zero, Godzilla vs. Ebira, and even a guest starring role in the recent Godzilla: Final Wars. Rounding out the crew is chirpy blonde Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller). You can guess what her role will be.
Our crew is happily cruising around performing scientific experiments of an indeterminate nature, when they are shaken by seismic vibrations caused by Dr. Who. No, the other Dr. Who. This Dr. Who, played by Eisei Amamoto, is a snaggle-toothed, cape-wearing megalomaniac out to the corner the market in Element X, a dangerous radioactive mineral. Dr. Who is basically a cross between Dr. No and Chairman Kaga from Iron Chef. He is backed by the fetching Madame X (Mie Hama of What’s Up Tigerlily?, and You Only Live Twice fame), an agent for a foreign power so secretive that the script goes through gymnastics to avoid saying that it is clearly either China or North Korea. In addition to government backing, Madame X also packs a smashing wardrobe, a winning smile, and a lipstick walky-talky.
How do they plan to extract Element X from the ground? By means of an earthmoving device, with a crew of skilled miners, by a careful system of tunnels, you might think? No, you fools, by means of a GIANT ROBOTIC GORILLA WITH AN ARTILLERY-PACKED UTILITY BELT. Obviously, none of you can fully comprehend Dr. Who’s genius. In fact, at one point, Dr. Who points out to the rest of the cast that “You underrate what a genius I am.” Amen, brother. Unfortunately, Mecha-Kong and Element X don’t mix, so Dr. Who must turn to his back-up plan. Which is, of course, a real gorilla.
Enter Kong. Our large buddy is hanging out on Mondo Island when the crew of the Explorer decide to drop in, all uninvited like. When Kong sees Susan he falls for her hard, and rescues her from the kung-fu fighting Gorosaurus in one of the better fight scenes I’ve seen in a Toho film. When she doesn’t reciprocate, the smitten Kong still saves her and the two men from a deadly sea serpent, and the two share a tender moment together. Eventually, Dr. Who decides to use Susan to force Kong to do his bidding, and after an aerial gas-bombing raid, Susan, Nelson, Jiro and Kong all find themselves trapped in Dr. Who’s polar Fortress of Silliness (in a nice little cell decorated with fresh flowers, oddly enough. Martha Stewart would be proud.). After Madame X is swayed by Nelson’s hairy, Caucasian charms, and attempts to hypnotize Kong fail, the entire cast adjourns to Tokyo for a knock-down drag-out fight between Kong and Mecha-Kong on top of the Tokyo Tower. Oh, and there appears to be a romance between Jiro and Susan, but the editors are very careful to keep that as vague as possible. Presumably all the making-out has been relegated to the Japanese cut of film.
King Kong Escapes is really a blast. It avoids the pitfalls that often make kaiju films a chore to sit through. The human plot is much more integrated than usual, and the cast all play amusing caricatures. Most importantly, the monster action comes fast and furious, unlike so many kaiju films where you can go upwards of 10-15 minutes without seeing a single man in a suit. Plus, the two main suits are fairly anthropoid in shape, and allow the actors a wide range of motion, so they can really get a fight going. I love King Ghidorah, but when you have three heads, wings, and no arms, you’re pretty well limited to biting people, or sitting on them. Kong and Mecha-Kong have arms, legs, and pretty sturdy costumes,and they really go at it. Even Gorosaurus is surprisingly nimble, using a double-leg jump kick that he must have picked up from watching paleolithic martial arts flicks.
Speaking of the outfits, Kong himself is remarkably ugly. He has a gross, papier-mache face, obvious human eyes, and the fakest-looking chest muscles since they built nipples into the Batman costume. He looks a lot like the Abominable Snowman from the Rankin-Bass animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special (coincidentally, Rankin-Bass handled the US end of this film). It actually kind of works, because he looks so spectacularly silly and cheap that he really garners audience sympathy.
The romance is cute if trite. We all know Kong loves blondes. He may not be particular about his blondes (Linda Miller is no Fay Wray), but he does love them. He’s a sucker for a pretty face. I’m reminded of my college debate days from years long gone. Instead of the old debate about who would win in a fight, King Kong or Godzilla, we decided to try the more novel, “who is the better monster” (yes, debate was that dorky). All arguments about anthropomorphic features and reptilian natures aside, I thought we clinched it in favor of Godzilla when I pointed out that it would be hard to be afraid of King Kong after seeing him skulking out at 11 pm to buy extra tampons at the corner bodega. I stand by that. Commander Nelson sums it up best when he patronizingly states to an entire U.N. Committee, “Kong is a male, and Ms. Watson … well, see for yourselves.”
Escapes is a cross between James Bond, King Kong and Godzilla, with obvious influences from Dr. No and all the major kaiju films. One of the best things about it is that it was made by the original kaiju A-team - director Ishiro Honda, model-maker and special effects wizard extraordinaire Eiji Tsubaraya, and composer Akira Ifukube. It may be cheap, and it may be silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Recommended? If you are a Japanese monster movie fan, what are you waiting for? For King Kong fans, this is an interesting little diversion in Kong’s career. For everybody else, this is a great way to get back one of the child-like pleasures of life.
If you like this, you might like: King Kong vs. Godzilla, Warlords of Atlantis, Gamera: The Advent of Legion, The Calamari Wrestler, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, Destroy All Monsters, X from Outer Space, Zebraman, King Kong
DVD Production Company: Universal (http://homevideo.universalstudios.com)
Universal’s Region 1 DVD, rushed out in a two-pack with King Kong vs. Godzilla in order to capitalize on the release of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, is one sad, lazy piece of work. There are no extras, not even a trailer. The cover packaging is hideous. There is no Japanese language track, only the English dub (fortunately the original dub, not a new one). The version is the American cut only. And no effort has been made to restore the picture.
On the other hand, what it does have going for it is a glorious 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen print, that is in surprisingly good shape and just bursts with colors (so necessary for this comic book of a movie). Plus it is cheap, and nothing better is in the pipeline. So what the hell.
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and DVD News and DVD News: Japan and DVD Reviews and Rating: Good ★★★ and DVD Reviews: Japan and Contributors: David and Studios: Toho Company Ltd.