What does Godzilla mean to me? All I had were half-remembered fragments. A sense that I loved his adventures but no concrete reasons why. Most of his movies I hadn’t seen since childhood. Some not at all. I could remember all the monsters — Biollante, Destoroyah, Mothra, Rodan, Gigan, Godzilla himself. But the stories? I had to watch them all again. Who was this character who sat large in my mind, so ill-defined?
The best way to find those answers was to watch them all back-to-back — and then to take the question to the G-man himself.
Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan.
I think you peak here, just 3 movies into your 31 adventure run. Aside from the obvious merits of Gojira, King Kong vs. Godzilla is without a doubt the best kaiju film of all time, a monster-mash masterpiece that simultaneously created and perfected the “versus” subgenre.
Toho Studios didn’t even intend on bringing you back for this; they just wanted to use their King Kong license to make movies about him fighting Frankenstein (who would later star in Frankenstein Conquers the World and its sequel The War of the Garganutas). That project took too long, so they decided to free you from the ice prison you found yourself in at the end of your second and deeply inferior film, Godzilla Raids Again. Lucky!
Sure, the deck was stacked against you from the start. You bite, thrash and strike Kong, but he turns it right back around and with equal ferocity. At one point he throws you by the tail, swinging you around and around and around. He shoves a tree in your mouth. The battles are fierce and hectic, shot from low-angles and on sets with impressive enough miniatures to make the collateral damage shine. Oh, it’s simply wonderful.
Of course you lose the battle, your body disappearing beneath the sea. Contrary to urban myth, there is no “Japanese version” where you prevail. This is King Kong’s film from start to finish. Forget the idea of this film representing an “East vs. West” dichotomy; at this time you still lived largely in the shadow of Kong, several films from ever headlining your own story.
Ishirō Honda returned as director, having made your first such a success. He was joined by writer Shinichi Sekizawa. The two are responsible for a majority of your early adventures, and this is where they planted their flag with a unique blend of social satire and monster action that would define the series going forward. And the score, once again by Ifukube, is rarely matched.
Sekizawa and Honda retell the classic Kong story about a group of greedy adventurers kidnapping and harnessing Kong for monetary gain. Here, Mr. Tako, a pharmaceutical company CEO, wants to advertise his products on television but needs a ratings grab to compete with the other mindless nonsense ruining brains during the 1960s. So he goes for Kong.
Meanwhile, you’re minding your own business smashing Japan until Mr. Tako realizes drawing you and Kong into a fight at the base of Mt. Fuji would attract even more viewers. The meta-commentary meshes perfectly with Sekizawa and Honda’s disdainful parody of low-culture. Wait. Is this low culture? I guess the final fight does feature King Kong throwing rocks at your face for five minutes. Honda and Sekizawa know what they’re making and lean into it. The human heroes spend the last act watching the big showdown from a helicopter, giving a sportscaster play-by-play.
All I know is that you would have much lower to go than this, a movie with a clarity of vision and a sense of humor unmatched by any of your subsequent adventures. Many of your future adventures became just as memorable for different reasons, but never this whole. Never quite this magical. New supporting monsters joined the fight, including Mothra, who I’ll write about in my next letter to you. Villains like King Ghidorah and MechaGodzilla bump up the fun. Even some human charact … nah. Actually, no. They’re never interesting. At least here we have a comical villain and a pretty girl for Kong to kidnap and carry up a tower despite irrelevance to the plot. When I said Toho wanted to make a King Kong movie, clearly, they wanted to make a King Kong movie.
Godzilla, there is nothing wrong with peaking this early. Something like King Kong vs. Godzilla is a once-in-a-genre achievement. It’s surprising all the subsequent remake attempts failed spectacularly. Kong didn’t weather the 20th century any better than you. Toho eventually made a sequel, King Kong Escapes, a goofy tie-in to a goofier cartoon with a villain named Dr. Who and a mechanical monster named MechaniKong (who predated MechaGodzilla).
Eventually Universal remade King Kong in 1976 and even sequelized that monstrosity with the Linda Hamilton-starring King Kong Lives. Garbage. In the early 1990s Toho attempted to regain the rights to Kong for another smash-up between the two of you but failed. Ah, well. In 2020, Legendary will release Godzilla vs. Kong, a crossover featuring your 21st-century American form and their version of Kong from Kong: Skull Island (a good movie). I’m excited to see what your clash is like in this era of genre storytelling trying to be Epic As Fuck, but it’s hard to imagine the remake coming close to the silly self-deprecation of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Not that it needs to be.
As far as kaiju films go, as far as your films go, this one will always be king.
New installments of Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan will post regularly leading up to the May 31 release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters.