This is it, folks. The last kaiju stop on the road to Godzilla vs. Kong. Now, we go back to a time before, to the first showdown! A cataclysmic clash between two titans of film: Kong! Godzilla! The cinematic gladiator bout of the century. It’s a match-up for the ages sure to wow audiences the world over. Right?
Eh. Sort of. And not exactly.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is a strange case. Produced and distributed by Toho Studios (the makers of Godzilla), the story was an original idea from Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator of King Kong. O’Brien’s initial outline had Kong fighting a giant Frankenstein’s Monster. The sixties, man. O’Brien would’ve used stop-motion to make the two fight, but the project stalled due to cost concerns. Unbeknownst to O’Brien, producer John Beck shopped the script around, eventually coming to Toho, who were looking to bring Godzilla back following a seven-year hiatus following Godzilla Raids Again. Toho enlisted original Godzilla director Ishiro Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and hired screenwriter Shin’ichi Sekizawa to rewrite the Kong/Frankenstein script. They even brought back Godzilla’s composer, Akira Ifukube, to score the film. So you have the ingredients to make something special, yeah? A blockbuster worthy of the price of admission, right? Well, that really depends on which version of the movie you watch. An English-language version was produced for Western audiences, which added entirely new material and removed several scenes and sequences from the Japanese version. Stock music from older Universal movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon also replaced Ifukube’s score. These changes radically altered the film’s structure, resulting in, oh, how should I put it? Ah yes: a piece of ****.
The English version of King Kong vs. Godzilla is an exercise in bad decision-making. It’s a showcase in total storytelling ineptitude with some of the worse editing I’ve seen. All the Japanese dialogue is dubbed over with rewritten English speech and holy mother of Christ; folks, if you’re someone who avoids international films because you don’t like reading while watching, I implore you to do better! Otherwise, **** like this happens. I was mentally numbed and stupefied as the film went along, taking my notes and rooting for the end to come. It wasn’t until afterward I found out about the other version, which was supposedly much better. So naturally, I watched it. It couldn’t possibly be any worse. And by the grace of the Morning Star, not only is it better, but it’s downright enjoyable dumb fun made with intention and thought. It also strongly illustrates the critical importance of competent editing and narrative structure. Because while the original version is delicious cheese, the changes and re-dits turn the movie into a choppy, stilted mess drained of all enjoyment.
The story in both versions is relatively the same. Suffering declining ratings and lackluster programming, Pacific Pharmaceuticals head, Mr. Tako (Ichirô Arishima), needs something dramatic to shake things up. Hearing from one of their doctors about a giant monster (Kong) residing on Faro Island, Tako, seeing an opportunity to boost tv ratings by showcasing Kong, sends two of his men, Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo (Yû Fujiki), to capture him. Concurrently, an American submarine is caught in an iceberg while studying some unusual phenomenon occurring in the area. This happening, however, comes not from nature but the nuclear plexus of Godzilla. Smashing out of the iceberg he’d been trapped in since the end of Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla is loose once more, rampaging and destroying and smelting precious-looking miniature army tanks. On the flip, Kong is caught by the Pacific Pharma boys and ferried off to Tokyo on a giant raft wired with explosives. The Japanese Navy intercepts the ship and orders the crew to blow Kong to Kingdom Come. The ensuing explosion, of course, doesn’t kill Kong but frees him so he can be in the third act. With the board set and the pieces in motion, Kong and Godzilla move on a collision course through the grassy knolls and city streets of Tokyo, culminating in a slobber knocker at Mount Fuji.
While both versions follow the same basic story, the way each tells it varies greatly. The Japanese version is all kinds of punchy, B-movie fun. The English version takes all that goodness, sticks it in a blender with mundane, beige filmmaking and a spattering of incomprehension, hits BLEND, then sprinkles atop a touch of incompetence to give you the runs. All the best parts are from the Japanese version. All the added footage, every line of dubbed dialogue, every editing and creative decision made by the American filmmakers was the absolute wrong choice. Filmmaking is instinctual—the choices you make based on those instincts relay a storyteller’s aptitude to an audience. The American filmmakers’ choices beg the question: do these people actually know how to tell a story?
Here’s what happened; in wanting to give the film a more “American feel,” brand new footage was put in to make the movie look like a newscast. The film continually cuts back to a United Nations reporter, Eric Carter (Michael Keith), who does little more than describe the movie. Like an audiobook, but dumb. These scenes act as conversation pieces between Carter, paleontologist Dr. Arnold Johnson (Harry Holcombe), and Japanese correspondent Yutaka Omura (James Yagi). These scenes are what I like to call a big ol’ heaping pile of nothing. It’s the laziest type of storytelling in which characters simply deliver exposition instead of visualizing or dramatizing it. And this happens throughout the entire movie! Every time something interesting starts happening, or it feels like the action is finally about to kick in, the American version cuts away to these jerks and their news satellite (yeah, there’s a news satellite thing, but it doesn’t really matter). This constant cutting undercuts any tension or suspense the film manages to muster. It happens so much it leads me to believe these guys had no clue how to transition out of a scene. But worst of all, these scenes commit the gravest of movie sins: they’re BORING. Give me a crap movie any day as long as it can keep me engaged. If you got me checking my watch 27-minutes into your movie, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
These newscasts are also the leading cause of the film’s more outstanding structural issues. Because they’re interjected so often, the film’s pace had no sense of flow. Narrative cohesion goes right out the window. The editing is so broken by these broadcast cutaways you’re left feeling discombobulated and irritated. The shots themselves are even boring, flatly lit and plainly staged, like they were shot in a backroom office swiftly dressed to look newsie. Another key contributing suck factor is the god-awful English dub. It’s unconvincing, unfunny and unnecessary. Now, I’m not inherently against dubbing. Some dub tracks, like those on Studio Ghibli films, are quite fine indeed. But there’s always something lost in translation: an authenticity, the verisimilitude of the actors’ performance, the cadence and delivery. There’s an essence of truth missing.
Conversely, this is what makes the Japanese version and comparing the two such a fascinating study. In every way the English version fails, the Japanese one works. From a structural point of view, the Japanese version plays it straight. The beginning of the movie is where some of the most significant changes were made. Several scenes were either rearranged or cut altogether. Having the film play out as it’s supposed to make for a vastly different watching experience. Scenes are stitched together with purpose, and the story has actual flow. The characters have room to breathe, and we get to see them be people rather than props. The story feels like a story, not just a hodgepodge of strung-together footage. You can edit scenes together, but if you don’t know how to structure a narrative, it’s just visual noise.
And the thing is, looking between one and the other, it’s all essentially the same thing. Other than the newscast junk, the scenes, characters, action are pretty much the same. But it’s the naturalism of the Japanese version that makes it work. The humor lands because the performances aren’t stripped of genuineness. The camp works because it feels earned. The story and kaiju action are still silly and dated, but it’s enjoyable because the rest of the filmic components click and turn.
King Kong vs. Godzilla isn’t a good movie necessarily, but it’s the kind of so-bad-it’s-good creature feature that you can watch with friends and laugh with as you stuff your gobs with popcorn and candy. The main event between Kong and Godzilla is the exact over-the-top, rubber-suit-slapping backyard wrestling this movie needs. Either version had me doing my best Jim Ross ringside commentary. At its best, King Kong vs. Godzilla emulates Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla’s energy. Or more accurately, GvM plays a tune similar to K.K.vG. But the Japanese version! That one you can clap for. The other you can mock.
And that, dear reader, brings our journey through the valley of kaiju to an end. Almost. When we come back, we will enter the 21st Century as God and King commence again with the fisticuffs in Godzilla vs. Kong! Here’s hoping it’s as good as the trailer promises! Till then, stay safe, strong and watching!
— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.
Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. As a Tempo reporter, Chris writes film reviews for The Lewis Flyer. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.