King Kong Escapes Again…

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King Kong Escapes Poster

[More Kong action can be found in this post: King Kong Randomised.]

In my earlier post, about King Kong vs Godzilla, I pondered what the appeal of Japanese movies in which big monsters beat the living cack out of each might be to their devotees. You know, apart from the obvious: monsters fighting, metaphors scrapping to gain the semic upperhand or hold the ideological fort, can hardly be less than entertaining. Which is not to say that fans of kaiju eiga are undiscerning, more that different criteria of quality apply. Cult films, those which attract loyal adherents and completists who arguably adopt alternative critical frameworks of appreciation, tend to feature tend to feature hermetically sealed, aesthetically consistent environments. It is this opportunity to spend time in a familiar diegetic space that makes them attractive for repeat viewings rather than customary adherence to traditions of quality. As I’m fond of noting, Toho monster movies create a parallel world of lovingly crafted miniature sets, a place where global events and political struggles are dwarfed by the more pressing concern of massive lizards, moths and robots blundering around through wafer-thin cityscapes, a more colourful visualisation of cities rendered pathetically vulnerable when uncontrollable weapons are deployed.

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Madame Piranha (Mie Hama) and Doctor Hu (Eisei Amamoto)

In the Toho King Kongs, which borrow and rework RKO’s best known character, the big gorilla is, as Godzilla sometimes becomes, a heroic figure fighting for the good of Japan and humanity. In this one, a Chinese-Japanese alliance (actually, the villains never discuss their nationality, but there are strong hints: the main villain is a Fu Manchu-style master criminal called, gloriously, Doctor Hu) aims to take over the world.  Doctor Hu builds a giant robot version of King Kong to do his bidding. This Kong is going to help him mine a mysterious, world-conquering “Element X”, which he will sell to the Japanese, represented by the mysterious Madame Piranha, played like a Jackie-O supervillain by Mie Hama, still most famous to non-Japanese audiences for her role as Bond Girl Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (and perhaps also for being the first Asian woman to pose for Playboy). With inexplicably fast costume changes, she makes an alluring, if unlikely  supervillain (you get the impression that all of her commandments would be fashion-based), timidly representing “a certain country”; though it’s never named as Japan, she changes her plans as soon as the mayhem she casuses threatens Tokyo. When it becomes clear that Robokong can’t dig up Element X because the magnetic forces interfere with his circuitry (don’t they have regular equipment for mining stuff?), Doctor Hu decides that controlling the mind of Kong, using a cute blonde as bait, will be a better strategy.

The robot King Kong prepares to go digging.

The robot King Kong prepares to go digging.

Like King Kong vs Godzilla, Escapes selectively restages scenes from the 1933 original, this time the scene where Kong fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex while “the girl” (this time played by Linda Miller, looking not unlike Naomi Watts) is stuck in a tree. It even repeats the jaw-snapping killing blow, and ends with a flight up a tall tower (though here Kong battles his robotic alter ego rather than the local military).

Linda Miller in King Kong Escapes

Linda Miller in King Kong Escapes

King Kong punches out a dinosaur.

But unlike the earlier film, Escapes is a more fully integrated Japanese-American co-production, so there are none of the clumsy inserts of media commentators to explain events for external observers. Instead, there’s an American research team, led by Commander Carl Nelson, played by Rhodes Reason. Stop a moment and think about that. The lead actor is called Rhodes Reason. They don’t name ’em like they used to. The research team plans to study Kong in his natural habitat (rather than, for example, drugging and dragging him back to New York to star in his own hit show), and a struggle ensues for the soul of the big ape. In my previous post about King Kong Escapes, I offered an excerpt from Vincent Canby’s 1968 review, which I’ll reproduce here to save you clicking back and forth:

The Toho moviemakers are quite good in building miniature sets, but much of the process photography—matching the miniatures with the full-scale shots—is just bad. The English language dialogue that comes out of the mouths of the Japanese actors could well be Urdu, and the plotting is hopelessly primitive, although it is littered with found symbols, most of which have to do with a (perhaps Hiroshima-inspired) national death wish. Really unforgivable, however, is what has been done to King Kong himself. The great, dignified, 80-foot ape-hero of the 1934 Hollywood classic has been turned into a spineless, grovelling Uncle Tom in the community of prehistoric beasts. At the direction of the simpering blonde heroine, he destroys the world domination plans of some Chinese Communist agents, pining all the while for a love that—for quite obvious reasons—cannot be.

So, does this criticism stand up? Well, yes I guess:  except that Kong is hardly “spineless” in this case. He battles against the odds to kick the cogs out of his robot nemesis, risking his own life for his girl. He doesn’t give a flying feck about the geopolitical wranglings going on around him. It’s all about the blonde. The same blondeness has been restricting Kong’s decision-making capacities in all his incarnations:

Fay Wray in King Kong (1933)Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976)Evelyne Kraft in The Mighty Peking ManNaomi Watts in King Kong
Fay Wray in King Kong (1933), Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976), Evelyne Kraft in The Mighty Peking Man (1977), Naomi Watts in King Kong (2005)

Perhaps the consistency of Kong’s desire across so many films indicates how the character is used as a dumb vessel for an agglomerated set of signifiers pertaining to the spectator’s desire as previsualised by the films’ producers (it’s not that fanciers of non-blonde alternatives don’t exist, just that they show up as a smaller piece of the demographic pie-chart when these things are calculated), and that desire is not just sexual but acquisitive. Guys, Kong is you in your dumbstruck, amorous consumer guise – he sees it, he wants it, he’ll hang onto it regardless of what happens around him.

King Kong battles his robot self.

King Kong battles his robot self.

But this film isn’t all about the monsters. They’re proxy warriors moved into position (Kong Kong vs Godzilla did this quite literally by dropping Kong into the battle zone with giant balloons) as mascots for broader human concerns, be they environmental, political or supervillainous. It might be grandiose to suggest that, in the final showdown between Kong and Mechakong, the film constructs a dialectic between reality and simulation, organic and synthetic. In that sense, we’re on comfortable science fiction territory, with the machine’s emotionless brute force and efficiency finally overpowered by the real ape’s lustful persistence and exercise of free will. Or, as free as a horny giant gorilla can get.

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