King Kong vs. Godzilla Never Hides Its True Victor, Even in Defeat

King Kong vs. Godzilla Never Hides Its True Victor, Even in Defeat
Atami Castle about to be smashed to tiny little pieces by Godzilla and Kong. (Screenshot: Toho/Criterion)

This week, Godzilla vs. Kong stomped into theatres to pit two of cinema’s most beloved giant monsters against each other (while some very annoying humans get in the way). It’s not the first time they’ve fought of course — and likely not the last. But the first time these titans clashed, no matter the outcome, there were only eyes for one hero.

While 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong is a much more diplomatic movie about its titular brawl, giving both stars moments for their respective fans to root for in a monstrous popularity concert, 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla — directed by Ishirō Honda, and adapted a year later for American audiences with new footage and dubbed dialogue by producer John Beck — plays out with an inescapable, unsurprising sense of bias.

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Godzilla’s first cinematic appearance in seven years since Godzilla Raids Again strikes a stark contrast to his first two movies. If those were darker, almost horrifying commentaries on man’s hubris in the development of nuclear weaponry, King Kong vs. Godzilla’s central conceit is an altogether different one: at this point, Godzilla is an icon of culture. In particular, a Japanese icon.

The movie is enamoured with a heightened sense of spectacle, not just for the titular battle, but baked into its very premise — at least, in Honda’s original cut. Beck’s dubbed iteration, worked on by editor Peter Zinner (with a new script by Paul Mason and Bruce Howard), reframes the events of the film more like a newscast, depicting reporter Eric Carter (Michael Keith) commenting from the events at UN Headquarters, as he, surrounded by scientists, watches an international crisis unfurl on the shores of Japan. In the original film, the premise is driven by the idea of Hollywood spectacle itself: Kong and Godzilla do not clash due to some higher power or need to state dominance, but…because of a TV ratings battle? You see — King Kong vs. Godzilla opens not with either of the titular monsters, but with a TV show dying on its arse.

Screenshot: Toho/Criterion Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

Frustrated that his pharma company is sponsoring boring educational science programs and not something exciting, a bigwig named Tako (Ichirō Arishima) tasks two employees, Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue (Tadao Takashima and Yū Fujiki, respectively), with a bizarre mission. Having heard from a doctor in the pharmaceuticals industry of a mysterious giant creature on a small island called Faro, Tako demands that the two simply lug it back to Japan so they can use its discovery to goose sponsorships and TV ratings. Never mind that Godzilla (suit actor Haruo Nakajima) — who has been frozen in artic ice since 1955, only to be inadvertently awoken by a U.S. submarine — ravaged the country less than a decade ago, the allure of this new creature is immediately connected in both Tako and the audience’s minds in its alien, exotic nature.

The Faro island scenes remain distinctly uncomfortable to watch. Even with the added spectacle of Kong’s debut, fighting off a giant octopus, one cannot ignore Japanese actors clad in blackface to portray Faro’s populace, an island culture depicted as savage and lesser as they worship the giant ape. Nor that Sakurai and Furue, looking down on their island hosts even as they need them to find the mysterious “spirit” that turns out to be Kong (suit actor Shoichi Hirose), are clad in the colonialist shorthand of pith helmets and khakis. If King Kong vs. Godzilla goes on to embrace Godzilla as a uniquely Japanese monster, these moments don’t just serve as connections to the fetishised exoticism of Kong’s cinematic past in the west, but serve to other Kong, beyond something foreign but truly alien next to the familiarity of Godzilla’s brand of nuclear-infused chaos.

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It’s a contrast that is picked up on throughout the film, as Godzilla and Kong make their way to the shores of, and then across much of, Japan itself. Kong’s journey is one of an almost comedic bent, strapped to a ramshackle barge covered in TNT and dragged back to be shown off by Tako to his sponsors — but ignored as Godzilla gets newspaper headlines, front page magazines, and is on the lips of every character we meet as he carves a destructive path across the nation. Kong’s presence in the country is an aberrance, the absurd and dangerous ploy of a media company driven by avarice, Godzilla’s is treated like a homecoming.

There’s a scene where, surrounded by the press wondering if Godzilla’s return would place Japan in turmoil, Akihiro Hirata’s Doctor Shigesawa simply declares that the kaiju’s return isn’t inevitable out of a sense of dread. Instead, it’s more so in an acceptance that, well, Japan is a kind of home to the creature.

Screenshot: Toho/Criterion Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

Even the response to each creature is given a different weight and sense of pride. Once again, Kong’s rampage across the country — sparked by Sakurai and Furue’s attempts to kill the beast when the Japanese Navy stops them from entering the country with it — is chaos tempered with a certain amount of comedy. Tako, Sakurai, and Furue race past JSDF officials time and time again to try and ensure they’re getting as much coverage of “their” monster as possible for the network. The JSDF’s response to Godzilla, meanwhile, is respectful, if not entirely effective; their plans to stop the kaiju, first with a massive, bomb-and-gas-canister filled gorge, and then, as he had been before, a hotwired power grid, are depicted as meticulously and precisely executed upon, orderly even in failure.

The evacuation response in the background by civilians is likewise orderly — until it’s disrupted by Kong, who, in contrast to Godzilla, is not steered off by the power grid but rejuvenated by it, hyper-charging him for the titular battle to come. If Kong’s rampage brings a sense of chaos to the proceedings, Godzilla’s, even at its most destructive, is presented as if the country is almost laying out the welcome mat for him, steering him in one direction as it clears the field of battle. So, by the time of the film’s climax, where Kong has been subdued only so he can be dropped into Godzilla’s proverbial lap so the two monsters can wipe each other out, you have the setup of this titanic spectacle that Tako’s avarice has craved: the home-grown (almost literally) hero, even if he is still much more of a villainous force here, against this wild, alien interloper.

Kong’s eventual upper hand isn’t given to him out of a superiority compared to Godzilla, but in an almost supernatural mysticism, revived from near-death by a stroke of lightning — this embodiment of primal nature against a being brought about by man-made horrors. Yet, even as Kong wins the battle — emerging seemingly alone after he and Godzilla crash into the ocean together — and begins to swim back to his home on Faro, our human heroes and the JSDF aren’t so much elated as they are concerned that surely, Godzilla must still be alive in spite of evidence to the contrary. Their thoughts are confirmed in the Japanese film’s closing moments, if not the American edit (in the West, the film’s end card is accompanied with just the cry of King Kong). The Japanese features the cry as well, but also Godzilla’s iconic, skree-onking roar, an indicator of his survival.

Screenshot: Toho/Criterion Screenshot: Toho/Criterion

Every step of the way, King Kong vs. Godzilla loves its “villain” deeply, even as it must find ways to overcome him. It’s no surprise then that, aside from its place in history as the first clash between cinematic titans, King Kong vs. Godzilla’s real legacy is that it saved Godzilla’s future at the Japanese box office. The movie is still Godzilla’s most attended at the box office, and its success not only inspired Toho to make more Godzilla films after his long dormancy, but also encouraged the studio to leverage its wider cast of cinematic kaiju to transform Godzilla not just from a villain, but a sort of anti-hero defender of the Earth, the king of the monster mashup that we still know and love him as today — even with his occasional lapses into the role of a giant-sized heel.

In the end, King Kong vs. Godzilla knows, deep down: Kong may have won the battle, but back home, Godzilla will always win the war.