King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

There was a bit of a break in these Godzilla reviews as I tried to find a DVD containing the Japanese version of this film – unfortunately it’s practically impossible to find with English subtitles so I had to settle for watching and reviewing the American version.

This review is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

After Toho rushed Godzilla Raids Again through to make a quick Yen after the wild international success of Gojira, the franchise was all but abandoned for 6 years before various Japanese studios decided they wanted to make a King Kong vs… movie. After trying and failing to wrangle rights for Frankenstein they made the logical step that he should instead face off with Godzilla. Early wishes to have full stop-motion effects were soon eschewed in favour of the cheaper, Toho trademarked suitmation, and so King Kong vs. Godzilla emerged.

The film does quite well in introducing the two monsters with their own storylines – Godzilla rises from the ocean, once again helbent on destroying Tokyo. Meanwhile a band of explorers are travelling to an unexplored island where the natives reportedly worship a giant god. It’s quite quickly apparent that this film takes itself much less seriously, with a number of main characters being nothing more than comic relief. However, in this version of the movie the events are frequently interjected by soulless ‘United Nation Broadcasts’, where American reporters blankly inform us about what is happening and why, in the laziest and cheapest exposition imaginable. The original sections of the movie are depicted as live coverage from their ‘communications satellite’ which makes absolutely no sense and is the stupidest thing ever.
With Godzilla having second billing in the title, he is almost the secondary monster in this movie. So much of the first half takes place on this mysterious island, inhabited by what I think may be the least racially sensitive depiction of “natives” – it is simply lots of Japanese people painted brown, wearing grass skirts. The paint doesn’t always cover them completely, so not only do these scenes provide a moral quandary but they are nearly unwatchable anyway. The explorers bring gifts, but upon discovering they forgot sweets for the children, cigarettes somehow serve as a suitable alternative. Thankfully a monster soon appears to crush the majority of the chracters, improbably and unexplainedly a giant octopus. Effects are startlingly realistic, largely because it is a real octopus (4 were used, one of which the director ate that night). Some inserts of stop motion and absolutely dreadful composites of people break the illusion somewhat, but this is a decent sequence before King Kong arrives to single-handedly save the day and ruin the film.

NEXT.

All that portraying King Kong required was a gorilla suit, a really straight forward task I’d imagine. But for some reason here we have a gorilla suit that looks nothing like a gorilla. Perhaps if a gorilla had been put through a mangle the result may be similar to what appears on screen here, but I can’t say I’ve witnessed this for myself (sorry, Peta, put the pitchforks away). As the film progresses, the plot becomes less and less important as the makers clearly acknowledge that all that matters is the final fight. Disappointingly, the setpieces therein don’t come close to those of Godzilla Raids Again, but the fights themselves are marvellously ridiculous. Apparently the suit actors were given reign to improvise their moves and it certainly shows; the monsters tumble around, throw scenery at each other & throw each other around. This is the first glimpse of what I originally considered Godzilla to be about; it’s a long shot from the original film’s brilliant realism and meaning, but it’s wildly entertaining regardless.

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…

The tacked-on American segments manage only to make the movie feel horribly uneven, but what is visible of the original Japanese version still seems like no masterpiece. While the comedy element is actually a lot more bearable than it could have been, the bad definitely outweighs the good but the main event – the face-off promised by the title – certainly doesn’t disappoint, just as long as you aren’t expecting anything that makes any sense.

4/10

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Gojira (1954) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Godzilla is a franchise known primarily for men in rubber dinosaur suits fighting each other. However, to start my marathon review of every single Godzilla film I naturally go back to the first one and though I have seen it before, it always manages to surprise me with just how good it is. Much more than ridiculous giant monster action (that I’ll no doubt soon be reviewing with glee nonetheless), this film has a very strong dramatic presence. It’s no secret that this is a thinly veiled way of dealing with Japan’s shock from the then-recent Nagasaki & Hiroshima atomic bombings. It was taboo to make a film directly depicting the bombings or indeed war at all at the time, so Toho produced Gojira which manages at once to transpose the frenzy, horror, and despair of the events into an awesome monster movie.

The reptile in question isn’t actually visibly present for the first half an hour or so, with his attacks being presented from a personal, human perspective. It isn’t clear what is causing the disasters to happen and the civilian hysteria is coupled with a mixture of bemusement and arrogance in the political world, instantly hitting some very raw nerves from World War 2. The building tension throughout this section is brilliantly executed too. Some pretty horrific disaster scenes for the time and the complete mystery of the cause all comes to a head when our main characters first witness Godzilla looming over a mountaintop. This first glimpse is… well… actually, it’s pretty terrible.

It’s a shame that this first glimpse is so poor as many later scenes have pretty convincing effects, especially in longer shots where careful lighting and composition coupled with some great composite shots and miniatures really sell the difficult image of a 50-metre reptile destroying Tokyo. Close-ups do suffer in the same way as the first sighting we have, but the content of the film is good enough that these shots only take you out of the action for a brief moment. And you can’t be too harsh on a film that was made 60 years ago which pioneered the new ‘suitmation’ style of effects.

That’s more like it

The destruction of Tokyo is certainly on a wide scale but never creeps over the line to be sensational as there are constant glimpses of the true, human horror of it, again echoing scenes from the real-life bombings. A particularly poignant scene featuring reporters broadcasting literally till the end stands out amongst many and when the destruction ends, truly affecting scenes in makeshift hospitals are painfully reminiscent of documentary footage from the real-life aftermath. The strongest hint of B-Movie styling comes from Daisuke Serizawa, the ‘mad scientist’, complete with eye-patch and pseudo-scientific babble. In practice though, Serizawa is a well fleshed out character and in the wider context of the film doesn’t simply avoid being corny; he provides the more difficult moral discussions in this film.

“Bring me a Dutch angle, STAT!”

It’s fascinating to see how the campy monster movie was dissected to create a pretty balanced account of Japan’s recent history that would otherwise have been frowned upon. So too it will be interesting to see how faithfully these origins are treated in the following films. As for this film in itself, that the only real negative point I can make is about a few dated effects shots proves that it’s actually a fantastic film, not just for fans of monster movies – I would call it a truly essential classic, a precursor and template to the blockbusters that fill cinemas nowadays.

10/10

Godzilla (mostly) legitimate DVD buying guide

With my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge underway, a few people have brought up the issue of availability of the films. Especially here in the UK where, of the Japanese films, only the original and vs. King Kong have official releases that I could find. Japan is the obvious place to try, and luck would have it that they share Region 2 DVDs with us but their DVDs are often outrageously expensive or have no English subtitles, or quite often, both. That said they have released the glorious Godzilla: Final Box collection from Japan for upwards of £600. It doesn’t have English subtitles, but who cares? If you have £600 spare it’s magnificent. For the average budget, though, a bit more searching is required.

If it had subtitles, I’d probably be in massive debt by now

It’s probably becoming evident that I’m going to tell you that you need a multi-region DVD player, or to hack your current device (you can often get codes online or buy custom-programmed remotes on a certain auction site for more modern ones). Only then is it possible get every film on legitimate release DVD as I am doing (except for Godzilla 1985 / Return of Godzilla, which I will explain later).

Madman Entertainment in Australia have got the rights to 23 of the 28 films and have conveniently packaged them in 4 boxsets complete with Japanese audio and the English dubs (where dubs exist). They’re locked to Region 4 hence the multi-region requirement. These boxsets are very good value; they cost me about £25 each including postage to the other side of the planet. They’re simply but nicely packaged in thick jewel cases with each film on a separate disc, in flip-over disc holders. The covers are decidedly cool, with silhouettes of the different incarnations of Godzilla.

Showa Classics Vol. 1 contains the original Gojira, alongside Mothra vs. Godzilla, Invasion of the Astro Monster, Godzilla vs. Eborah, Son of Godzilla, & Destroy All Monsters.

Showa Classics Vol. 2 contains All Monsters Attack, Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla vs. Gigan, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, & Terror of MechaGodzilla.

On to the Heisei collection, which contains Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, & Godzilla vs Destoroyah.

Lastly the Millenium collection features Godzilla 2000, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, Godzilla Mothra & King Ghidorah; Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla III, Godzilla: Tokyo SOS, & Godzilla: Final Wars. Seemingly this boxset only contains Japanese audio as English dubs have probably never been made.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is available on its own or in an excellent boxset alongside the original King Kong, and the bonkers Toho-produced King Kong Escapes in which the oversized gorilla fights a robotic double of himself.

[UPDATE: I’ve since realised that these contain only the American versions; only select bootleg copies currently contain the Japanese version with English subtitles]

Godzilla Raids Again, Ghidorah, The Three-headed Monster, and Godzilla vs. Biollante are available on Region 1 DVDs from USA, meaning the only missing one is Return of Godzilla / Godzilla 1985. I spent a long time trying to get hold of this; the only release with English subtitles I could find mention of was released in Hong Kong on Region 3 but has since gone out of print. Regardless of price I simply couldn’t find a single copy available for sale to ship to the UK. Perhaps someone else will be more successful, but I had to resort to getting a bootleg copy available on the unnamed auction site I mentioned previously.

I don’t think anyone will have any trouble getting hold of the 1998 American remake (why you would want to may be the biggest question).