King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) review [The Godzilla Project]

Introduction

After the financial failure of Godzilla Raids Again (1954), Toho decided to not create another narrative. Yet, when producer John Beck received a story outline by King Kong stop motion animator Willis O’Brien around in which King Kong battling a giant Frankenstein monster, he had to luminous idea to give it to Toho for production. Toho, of course, replaced the Frankenstein monster with Godzilla and scrapped O’Brien’s original story.

[This review is part of The Godzilla Project. Click the link to find more reviews and analyses.]

Review

Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), head of the advertising department of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, is appalled that some of the advertising money goes to a science tv show that is dull, boring, and without imagination. When he learns that a big monstrous being wanders on Pharaoh island, a small island near the Solomon Islands, he sends Kinsaburo Furue (Yū Fujiki) and Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) on an expedition to  capture it. By presenting this monstrous being (Shoichi Hirose) the products and supplements that Pacific Pharmaceuticals produce.  

Meanwhile, an American submarine called the seahawk roams the northern seas to investigate a rather unusual nuclear light phenomenon. Due to an error, the submarine hits the iceberg that houses the pulsating light, hereby releasing Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) from his icy prison.

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) by Ishiro Honda

As we, in our review of Godzilla Raids Again (1954), viewed the sudden appearance and the forced disappearance of Godzilla through the lens of repression and its inevitable return, there is no reason to think that what Godzilla represents has shifted. Just like in the previous narrative, Godzilla represents the post-war society that is forced to carry the truth of its atomic trauma and the societal field scarred by the radical repercussions of said destruction (Narra-note 1).

Yet, due to this dynamic of repression, the question by which we approach King Kong VS Godzilla has changed. Rather than having to uncover what Godzilla represents, we need to explore the cause of Godzilla’s resurfacing. What is the trigger that forces the repressed to return? What kind of monstrous appearance causes the traumatic truth that scars the Japanese post-war societal landscape to wildly lash out again?

Some spectators might argue that the nuclear sub is responsible for the re-awaking of Godzilla, but, in our view, such interpretation is not entirely correct. The pulsating light from his icy prison reveals that Godzilla’s will to resurface predates the accident that releases him. In a certain sense, the cause of the accident is Godzilla’s need to be released from the shackles of repression that befell him. So, what is the true cause of Godzilla re-awakening?

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) by Ishiro Honda

To uncover this cause, we need to analyse the atmosphere of the narrative. Honda’s second Godzilla narrative is remarkably lighter in tone than his first. While Honda still expertly evokes the sense of threat and awe whenever it is needed – via dramatic and bombastic music, he contrast these fearsome moments with surges of pleasant light-heartedness. These moments are closely linked with the staging of the blossoming feeling of capitalistic opportunity (e.g. the festive announcement of the expedition, …etc.) and the joyous nature of consumption (e.g. drinking of soft-drinks, the gifting of a transistor radio and cigarettes to the clan’s chief, … etc.).

Mr. Tako fully embodies this post-war capitalistic discourse – i.e. the focus on profit and offering joyous consumption to the masses. This embodiment is nicely illustrated by how he reacts when the return of Godzilla becomes the object-to-be-enjoyed of the mass-media. Rather than being worried about what kind of destruction could befall Japan, he is frustrated because Godzilla endangers his plan to heighten the profit of the company and the consumption of the company’s products. And Kinsaburo and Osamu, the two expedition leaders introduce the joy of consumption to the natives of Pharaoh Island.

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) by Ishiro Honda

What forces Godzilla to break the icy repression is, in fact, nothing other than the rise of the post-war capitalistic discourse within Japanese society. Yet, if Godzilla aim is to fight off the blossoming of consumption and the blind thirst for profit within post-war Japan, why does he need to fight King-Kong? How is King-Kong, a monster living in a far-away island, linked to this discourse?  

Before uncovering what King Kong ultimately represents, let us remind the reader that we cannot interpret King Kong as a representation of the US. King Kong VS Godzilla is not a fantastical rewriting of the pacific war. Just like in Godzilla Raids Again (1954), it is a post-war tension within the Japanese Other that is staged, a kind of rupture that veins the Japanese societal field. The post-war subject is, moreover, not merely subjected to these frictions within the societal discourse – he is not simply its victim, but is forced to let these ruptures shape his unconscious, his Other.  

In Motoyoshi Oda‘s Godzilla Raids Again (1954), the fight between monstrous reptile and Anguirus visualized nothing other than the post-war tension between Japan as scarred by the atomic ravage and the nationalistic discourses that, shaken by the impact of the traumatic bomb, keep pushing to be expressed (Narra-note 2). To put it differently, Godzilla’s violent rise had no other aim than to protect the post-war truth from a vicious discourse that aims to radically annul it. In King Kong vs. Godzilla,Godzilla’s resurfacing is thus an vicious attempt to protect the (consciousness of the) post-war truth from the blossoming of the capitalistic machinery.

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) by Ishiro Honda

If Godzilla ultimately directs his violence to King Kong, a majin (i.e.a malevolent deity that causes misfortune and disaster) by the locals, it is not simply because he is a victim of the joyous rise consumerism and capitalism, but because this giant ape represents the monstrous finality of the capitalistic machinery and the cycle of consumption as such (Narra-note 3). In fact, one could say that the profit-obsessed Mr. Tako unknowingly introduces the radical endpoint of the capitalistic positivism to the Japanese subject and society.  

In this sense, the destruction that King Kong causes echoes the societal ravage of a radical focus on profit and unlimited consumption. The destructive finality of the capitalistic system is, furthermore, highlighted when King Kong climbs on the Diet building, hereby echoing that the joy of consuming will contaminate the functioning of the state and its subjects – i.e. by radically reducing desire to a simple need – as well as that the blind thirst for profit will poison those who are in power (Narra-note 4).  

The brawl between Godzilla, who represents the post-war truth Japanese society does not want to accept, and King Kong, who embodies the destructive end-point of blind consumerism and advertisment, thus stages the societal attempt to efface the post-war truth by enjoying profit and promoting the capitalistic logic to the Japanese subject. The destruction of Atami Castle, once again, evokes that past is radically lost – Godzilla emphasizes the radical loss inflicted by the atomic bomb, while King Kong echoes that the blossoming of capitalism will further erode and hollow out the cultural traditions of Japan.

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) by Ishiro Honda

Yet, Godzilla’s fight, furthermore, functions as a warning to the Japanese subject that the capitalistic dream is not the answer to the post-war atomic scars and cannot solve the loss that wanders within the Other – i.e. society as well as the subject’s unconscious. The craving to capitalism and to the fleeting fullness of consumption is a mere attempt to ignore/repress the traumatic void that marks the post-war society (Narra-note 5).  

The composition of King Kong VS Godzilla has a pleasant visual rhythm, due to Honda’s elegant combination of static and dynamic moments (e.g. dolly shots, tracking movement, zoom-ins, … ) together. Moreover, much of the roughness that marked the two previous Godzilla narratives has disappeared, making for a much more visually coherent experience.  

The shift from monochrome to chromatic colours – as one can readily assume – posed new challenges for the effects department and Eiji Tsuburaya. Given the added complexity of colour-palettes and lighting, can Tsuburaya and his team deliver an effects-experience that has fluid spatial and temporal continuity like the first Godzilla (1954)? In short, yes. Tsuburaya, in fact, impresses with how fluid shots are concatenated and how well the ‘collage’ compositions work – i.e. the combination of monsters and miniature sets with shots of the cast. While some undesirable colour-contrasts and camera movement is present, these instances of arguably unavoidable roughness do not hinder the ability of the spectator to believe the monstrous fantasy that is staged at all.

King Kong Vs Godzilla (1962) by Ishiro Honda

In fact, in our view, the shift to colour enables Tsuburaya to expand his toolbox and improve his ability to bring the miniature sets, the monsters, and the destruction more vividly to life on the screen. Not only is the visual impact of most effects visually enhanced – thus heightening the overall visual pleasure for the spectator, but the audience is also able to appreciate the beauty of the miniature sets and their ultimate destruction more. This improvement also play an important role in making the finale battle do satisfying.    

Honda’s King Kong Vs Godzilla is a splendid Godzilla narrative that delivers thrilling kaiju action while elegantly exploring the impact of the rise of capitalism and consumerism on Japanese society and the traumatic truth it does not want to accept. The refinements and improvements at the level of the effects and the shift to chromatic colours really help the fights between these monstrous beings shine and speak to the imagination of the audience.  

Notes

Narra-note 1: Our interpretation of Godzilla issupported bysomething defense minister Shigezawa (Akihiko Hirata) says in the first half of the narrative: “No … I think it’s the perfect place to return to. Every animal remembers where it was born. I’m sure it hasn’t forgotten either.” The traumatic truth of Japan was born in the pika and the don that ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Narra-note 2: What Godzilla Raids Again (1954) thus shows is that the post-war Japanese nationalistic discourses are also radically marked by the atomic destruction. Anguirus is thus nothing other than the resurgence of the imperialistic and nationalistic desire in the post-war Japanese society.    

Narra-note 3: It might seem extremely convenient for the plot that King Kong drinks himself unconscious, yet at the same time our giant gorilla-like monster echoes the very (self-) destruction blind consumption leads to.

Narra-note 4: King Kong’s abduction of Yumi offers a clear sign that despite the monstrous acts of destruction and the threatening growls, a sliver of ‘humanity’ remains present within this gorilla-like monster. This contrast evokes the fact that while the capitalistic system reduces the subject to an animalistic mechanism that must consume, such joyous dynamic that reduces every desire to a need cannot annihilate the subject completely.  

Narra-note 5: So, how can we read the ending of King Kong vs Godzilla? In our view, while Godzilla succeeded in warding off the realization of the horror of consumption, his inability to erase the blossoming of capitalism within Japanese society doomed him again to fall prey to repression. The ending of Honda’s King Kong vs Godzilla leaves the spectator with a subtle depressive after-taste.

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