King Kong Escapes/Kingu Kongu no Gyakushu (1967) **˝
When Toho spent the equivalent of an ordinary movie’s complete budget to buy the sequel rights to King Kong, it’s a safe bet that the possibility of amortizing the expense across the outlays for several films was a significant factor in the cost-benefit analysis. It’s strange, then, that Toho got so little mileage out of the character, particularly in light of the tremendous success of King Kong vs. Godzilla. The studio’s second Kong vehicle took several years to get underway, and it was recast as a Godzilla movie late in preproduction, finally seeing release as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. (Sea Monster’s origins as a Kong film go some way toward explaining both the tropical island setting, and the rather demeaning spectacle of the King of the Monsters battling a gigantic prawn.) Stranger still, when Toho finally got around to making another Kong movie, they did so in partnership with the American animation studio Rankin-Bass, as a tie-in with that outfit’s short-lived “King Kong” TV show (itself a co-production with Toei— “King Kong” was among the first American-funded cartoons to have the animation farmed out to a Japanese studio). I am very curious to know how King Kong’s esteem fell so rapidly in the minds of Toho’s leadership. How is it possible that within five years, a character that was once reckoned to be worth $200,000 in licensing fees had sunk to the point where he was considered viable only in the context of an international co-production designed to cash in on a children’s television series?
As it happens, being tied in with the “King Kong” cartoon means that King Kong Escapes has little visible connection to any previous Kong movie, either American or Japanese. There is no showman, no advertising executive, no ritual of human sacrifice. There is, however, another nuclear submarine sailing under the flag of the United Nations. This ship, the Explorer, is on a mission to find new sources of oil in the South Pacific, but Commander Carl Nelson (Voodoo Island’s Rhodes Reason) and his first officer, Lieutenant Commander Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada, from Half-Human and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero), would rather be seeking out something a bit more exotic. Not too far off their present course lies an island called Mondo, which is rumored to be the home of a 60-foot gorilla called “Kong.” Nelson has reason to believe that the legend is true, although it will never be explained to us just what that reason is— maybe somebody who watched the cartoon would understand what the commander is talking about. In any case, Nelson and Nomura are together in one of the cabins, poring over a stack of Kong-related drawings and photographs, when Lieutenant Susan Watson (Linda Miller, whose sole other contribution to Japanese monster cinema was a small part in The Green Slime), the sub’s nurse, intrudes upon them. This gives the men an excuse to tell the audience all about Mondo Island and its mythical inhabitant, just before a rockslide in the undersea canyon the Explorer was traversing damages the submarine’s rudder and forces it to surface for repairs. Naturally, the only nearby harbor in which such repairs can be made safely is a concavity along the coast of Mondo Island.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Arctic, an old enemy of Nelson’s (Eisei Amamoto, of Dagora the Space Monster and Message from Space) is revealing his latest nefarious scheme. That enemy’s name? Dr. Who! No, really— I checked the credits, and he seriously is Dr. Who, and not merely something homonymous like, say, Dr. Hu. It’s probably safe to say that there’s no connection between this “international Judas” (as Nelson will later describe him) and the effectively immortal British guy who travels around the universe battling the sorriest man-in-a-suit aliens ever, and getting reincarnated into a new body whenever the actor playing him gets bored or suffers a popularity implosion. But any further questions you might have regarding Dr. Who would most likely be best addressed, once again, to somebody who used to watch “King Kong” on TV. What I can tell you is that he has discovered the world’s richest source of Element X, the rarest and most powerful radioisotope known to exist, and that in order to mine it, he has built himself a mechanical duplicate of King Kong from a set of drawings stolen from Carl Nelson. Why exactly this task requires a giant robot ape instead of, say, a colossal, remotely-piloted steam shovel is anybody’s guess, but that’s how Who wants the job done, and who are we to argue with an evil genius? The funding for both Mechanikong and the Element X extraction is coming from an unnamed Asian nation, represented here by a stereotypical spy-movie femme fatale who goes by the imaginative name of Madame X (Mie Hama, from The Lost World of Sinbad and King Kong vs. Godzilla). Or at any rate, that’s what she’s called in the English-language version; some sources have it that the Japanese prints call her “Madame Piranha,” which is a much better name for an arch-villainess, if you ask me. Whatever you want to call her, she is just about out of patience with Dr. Who, who keeps hitting embarrassing snags in his mining operation. The biggie comes when Mechanikong finally exposes the vein of Element X, and the radiation fries the robot’s circuitry after just a few seconds. Come on, Doc— you mean to say it never occurred to you to line your robot’s processor compartment with lead? Some genius you are! Further failures convince Dr. Who that there is simply nothing else for it. He’s going to need the real King Kong if he wants to get anything done around here.
So it’s a good thing for everybody that the giant gorilla puts in an appearance very rapidly upon the Explorer’s landfall on Mondo. Nelson, Nomura, and Watson all leave the submarine while the rest of the crew works on the repairs (fucking shirkers…), and no sooner have the men separated from Watson for no apparent reason than she finds herself menaced by some sort of hokey theropod dinosaur. Luckily for Watson, her screams wake Kong, and the god-monster of Mondo comes rushing to her aid. The dinosaur (it would receive the name “Gorosaurus” when the suit was reused the next year in Destroy All Monsters) keeps Kong busy for a while with its kangaroo-like kicking attack, but the duel of the titans ends with Kong wrenching apart the reptile’s jaws in a studiedly familiar manner. Then he starts manhandling Watson, who proves a rather more assertive bride of the beast than Fay Wray— before you know it, she’s got Kong obeying (albeit grudgingly) simple commands like “Put me down” and “Stay away from the ship.” All in all, the encounter with Kong seems like big enough news for the Explorer to cut short its oil-prospecting mission, and return to New York to arrange some up-close and personal Kong-studying instead. What Nelson, Nomura, and Watson don’t realize is that Madame X is in attendance at their press conference, learning everything she and Dr. Who need to find and capture King Kong. By the time the Explorer pays its second visit to Mondo, Who and his minions have been and gone, shanghaiing the monster ape to their Arctic mining compound.
Again there is a setback, however. Kong himself isn’t bothered inordinately by the radiation of Element X, but the radio earplugs whereby Who commands him are, and something about the material’s energies also interferes with the electronic hypnosis Who had been using to keep Kong tractable. Kong throws a hissy-fit, making it unmistakably clear that he has no intention of mining a goddamned thing. Moving on to Plan C, Who hopes to lure Nelson, Nomura, and Watson to his secret hideout, so that he can exploit the lieutenant’s curious hold over the ape to make him dig. That strategy goes awry when Kong breaks out of his underground cage (and what, might I ask, were you expecting to see in a movie called King Kong Escapes?), effectively back-burnering everything else going on under Dr. Who’s roof. Who plays the only card remaining in his hand, dispatching Mechanikong to bring its flesh-and-blood model back, and touching off a battle that eventually (and don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming) reaches all the way to Tokyo, endangering millions and threatening Madame X’s government with a big enough international incident to make her turn on her partner in crime.
Assuming you’re able to put yourself in the right frame of mind for it, King Kong Escapes is a surprisingly decent film. It was obviously aimed at a very young audience, but it is not nearly so self-consciously juvenile as the kiddie-oriented kaiju movies of the 1970’s. Dr. Who and Madame X are nothing more than cartoon supervillains (in fact, given the movie’s origins, that description is probably literally accurate), but they’re good cartoon supervillains, and Eisei Amamoto and Mie Hama invest them with just the right touch of excess. Their world-domination scheme may not make a lick of sense in its details, but at least there is some obvious real-world connection between harnessing the power of the world’s most formidable nuclear fuel and a bid for global conquest, which is more than you can say for anything that Dr. Hell or Berg Katze ever came up with. Furthermore, the various ploys Who uses to extort cooperation from the good guys are all the sort of thing that might actually work, and display a mean streak that is extremely rare in children’s fare. Finally, King Kong Escapes is much more effectively structured than the likes of Godzilla on Monster Island, and marks one of the few occasions in latter-day kaiju eiga history on which the human plot and the monster plot are meaningfully interrelated.
The monster action is also much better than it has any business being. To the extent that King Kong Escapes is remembered for anything today, it’s for featuring some of the most unabashedly awful monster suits Eiji Tsuburaya ever created. As pitiful as Tsuburaya’s first Kong costume was, it doesn’t hold a candle to this misbegotten incarnation; in fact, if it were re-dressed with white fur instead of brown, the 1967 Kong suit would have been perfectly serviceable as the abominable snowman in Rankin-Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer puppetoon— certainly this Kong’s snaggly, crooked teeth would have meant plenty of work for the renegade elf who aspires to a career in dentistry! Mechanikong is as goofy as you’d expect a 60-foot robot gorilla built by a supervillain to be. Gorosaurus is impressive only to the extent that some effort was obviously expended to disguise the build of the stuntman inside the costume, and the sea serpent Kong wrestles in the surf off Mondo Island gives an even worse accounting of itself. But the clashes between these rather sad creatures are as well choreographed as anything in Toho’s more reputable contemporary monster films, and the climactic duel between the two Kongs as they scale Tokyo Tower is honestly fairly exciting. At bottom, this is still a very silly movie, but it is a great deal better than its reputation would have it.