[See also Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!]
A while ago I promised a post about King Kong Escapes. Then I got distracted. To recap: in order to test my very vivid memory of a Japanese King Kong film that may or may not have been King Kong Escapes, I ordered a couple of DVDs and pledged to cross-reference the films against my fallible, fragmentary brain library: had I remembered it correctly? If so, I would have to take some time to marvel at the power of the mind to record faithfully a set of images that were hardly essential for survival. Actually, it turned out that the film that had been rattling in my head for a quarter of a century was a) not actually King Kong Escapes but King Kong vs Godzilla and b) not as well remembered as I’d thought. In fact, though it was exactly how I’d remembered it, only the last shot of the film was truly embedded in my long-term memory. Still, it’s always a good time to watch two monsters havin’ a fight, so here are some notes on it anyway. I’ll add a follow up post about King Kong Escapes in the next week or so. I promise.
The DVD I got hold of for a couple of quid was actually the English language version, which has plenty of extra expository scenes for non-Japanese viewers for whom the concept of squabbling monsters needs a lot of explaining. Honestly, I’ve seen enough alien invasion films to have a high tolerance, even some affection, for the “let’s-go-to-the-flowchart-for-this” moments, in which a bespectacled, whitecoated (but still hunky) scientist explains what the threat is and how many millions of people are probably going to die screaming. But this is ridiculous:
It eventually feels like these cutaways to a studio far from the action are some kind of running sports commentary on the unfolding disaster. They are way too cozy and reassuring, and they keep cutting into the action to pass comment on it. I understand that the film wraps up its monster attacks in news reportage to give it an immediate sense that this might really be going on somewhere, but the sheer amount of it, pointing at maps and globes, just let’s you know that it’s happening far, far away. The first Gojira threw in this media motif much more efficiently – during one of the attacks, the big lizard knocks down a communications tower while a reporter with a camera crew keeps up a running commentary until the last moment before death. But King Kong vs Godzilla, reaches a sublime state of patronising obviousness around about the time an expert is brought in to explain what the monster is using a children’s book of dinosaurs. Wonderful:
This isn’t really a remake of RKO’s 1933 King Kong, but it repeats a lot of its plot. There’s a visit by explorers to a remote island where they try to get footage of a legendary monster to boost their TV ratings. There are blacked up actors (this time Japanese actors) performing “ethnic” dances, which look a little West Side Story to me.
And Kong is a badass pugilist. But in a departure from the original film, he first appears as the protector of the village that worships him – in an unfeasably awesome sequence, a giant octopus invades the island, bringing the big gorilla to the rescue. It’s all done with some elaborate, if obvious compositing of elements, but the use of real live octopi in miniature sets is genuinely weird and creepy. Apparently, effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya ate one of them for dinner after the shoot. There’s a similar story about Ray Harryhausen eating the crabs he used on Mysterious Island. Any more anecdotes about film-makers eating their cast? I’ll start a collection.
The final showdown comes when the authorities engineer a brawl between the two monsters in the hope that they’ll kill each other. Kong is gassed, hung up on wires from helicoptors and puppeteered into Godzilla’s stomping ground like a mad monkey marionette. So, it’s not the logical conclusion of an enmity between two sworn foes, but a manufactured clash between two properties, and the setup mirrors the extra-diegetic audience’s own attraction to the film – the promise of seeing the fabrication of a spectacular battle between gargantuan warriors.
And fight they do, tustling in open ground then along the coastline of Japan, and best of all knocking the crap out of each other over Atami Castle.
Personally, I don’t really mind that these are “bad” special effects. By “bad” I mean that they don’t fit with certain expected codes of realism whereby, for instance, giant creatures will move slowly to suggest their scale. But what is the expected response to these films? Without wishing to take a judgemental or relativist stance on the worth of these things, it’s hard not to find it all a bit silly if you come with a realist frame of mind. The monsters face off like bullies in a playground, like petulant slapstick pugilists, waving arms and stomping feet, all the kinds of gestures that break the illusion of their enormous scale and weight. With a slacker’s instinct for the countercultural potential of the imperfect, imprecise or inexpert in all forms of art, many Western viewers have embraced the Japanese monster film as a site of camp or outsider amusement. For myself, I’ve always had a thing for miniature sets, so the attraction for me is seeing them get trashed. Whether it’s high art or “low” culture, two things can usually soften my critical faculties and make me warm to a film – knowing that diligent attention has been paid to its construction by people who love their craft regardless of its commercial outcomes, and a willingness to give all of that craft to the spectator rather than hoarding it in some sollipsistically indulgent manner. What could illustrate this better than a film where a series of cityscapes are carefully built, then vigorously stomped all over for your viewing pleasure? They love making it. But they love you enough to destroy it for your amusement.
The final shot of Kong swimming away is one of those that, for some reason I’ll probably never explain, has stayed in my head, dislodged from its narrative context, for more than a couple of decades. So many of these monster movies seem to end with a wide shot of an open sea, showing us the vast unknown space where hidden monsters (i.e. giant natural metaphors for nature’s wrath) lurk waiting to threaten the land, but suggesting some literal kind of open ending. Perhaps it stayed with me because it didn’t close things off. King swam away to the horizon and roamed free in my imagination for evermore. Awww.