This is one of the strangest Tokusatsu films Toho made.
Admittedly, that’s an awfully big claim, and there are a lot of contenders for the crown, but let’s just point out a few salient points:
Despite what you might think, this is not a sequel to Toho’s classic faceoff between Kong and their own in-house monster, Godzilla, which came out five years earlier. In fact, not only is there no connection between the two, but even the Kong suit looks quite different (better, actually, as they added a version with long, ape-like arms, although it isn’t used in the fight scenes for obvious reasons).
Instead, King Kong Escapes is a live-action version of an animated cartoon TV series.
And, let’s be very clear here, an American series, not a Japanese one. King Kong (1966) was created by none other than Rankin Bass, who made all those classic Christmas stop-motion specials I grew up with, like Santa Claus Comes to Town.
This isn’t exactly a unique team up as far as Rankin-Bass is concerned, as they would later work with Tsubaraya Productions on two tokusatsu films aimed at a more adult audience: the guilty pleasure lost world film, The Last Dinosaur (1977), and the creepy Kaiju ghost movie, The Bermuda Depths. But most (and yes, I will say “most”) of the stranger elements of King Kong Escapes were taken straight from the TV series.
Then there is the curious fact that Toho insisted that they make the monster battles in this one bloodier (as their rivals were doing at the time) even though Eiji Tsuburaya refused to do it. But the villain’s demise proved bloody enough without Tsuburaya’s help that it got cut out of the TV version of the film.
But what is even stranger is that the villain is…
Now, there are a few literalists out there who will point out that the Japanese version is actually “Dr. Hu.” But that misses the point.
In the original series, he is clearly called “Dr. Who.”
However, when you look at the movie it becomes very, very obvious that the animated Dr. Who is not their model for the movie Dr. Who: as you can see in the video below, the original animated version is a classic straight off the shelf (with the manufacturer’s tags still hanging off it) stereotype of a mad scientist: note the bald head, coke bottle-bottom eye glasses, the white lab coat, vaguely Germanic appearance and black rubber gloves:
Whereas, in the movie, he is a tall, elegant figure, with a sharp, bony, commanding face, a huge mop of silver hair, a short evening cape over his dark suit, and even a furry astrakhan cap in one scene.
And, let’s face it, Hideyo Amamoto, who plays Dr. Who, bears a striking resemblance to William Hartnell.
Although I think, if you look closely at his face, that they deliberately made him up to look more like Hartnell, emphasizing his cheekbones, and eye sockets and enhancing those eyebrows (although the long, straight nose is original).
I just do not see how this could be an accident.
It’s also true that Dr. Who’s whole set up — complete with an Arctic base, an army of uniformed henchmen, a secret mining operation, a plan to take over the world and even a giant robot King Kong — looks a lot like a Bond villain.
Mind you, that whole over-the-top version of the Bond villain mostly came in during the Seventies, with films like The Spy Who Loved Me — with the solitary exception of You Only Live Twice.
Which is set in Japan.
And came out in 1967.
So, yeah, I’m fairly certain it was an influence.
The plot is more or less what you expect: a scientific expedition visits Kong Island, Kong falls in love with the ship’s girl doctor, and Dr. Who plans to kidnap Kong because he wants to use him to mine Element X.
Which, of course, will give him all the power he needs to rule the world.
After all, that’s what Bond villains do.
Now Amamoto made a career out of playing weird, eccentric, and frequently evil characters, but I suspect that this is the one he is best remembered for: after all, he’s obviously having a good time with the role, telling us how brilliant a super genius he is and how no one can possible be a real threat to him as he is smarter than anyone else — while sending off a lot of little signals that maybe he thinks the hero, Commander Carl Nelson is the one man in the whole world who might be a threat to him.
Heck, Who even stole the design for his Giant MechaniKong from Commander Nelson.
The good guys have a really cool super submarine, the Explorer, which is clearly a second cousin of Atragon, even if it has no weapons, while Hu cruises around in a twin hulled ship which is set up for transporting giant apes. And somehow, the story finds a way to get both Kong and MechaniKong into Tokyo for their final, last-ditch battle against each other…
…do I really need to point out that it takes place on the Tokyo Tower?
It’s also worth noting that the American version — which appears to be the only version of the film available outside Japan — is ten minutes shorter than the original cut. I’m not sure what all is missing, although a lengthy sequence at the beginning featuring MechaniKong may be the most remarkable cut.
And I’m pretty sure that it depends on which version you see which of the two guys get the girl. Watch the film with this in mind, and you’ll see what I mean. The Commander always has his arm around the doctor, even though in the Japanese version we’re told that you can tell she’s in love with the Japanese guy.
If you haven’t figured out by now, this is a very, very silly film.
It is also a lot of fun, with plenty of effects, lots of futuristic gimmicks of one sort or another, and with plenty of giant rubbery monster action to go around.
If you love Toho’s classic Tokusatsu films, you undoubtedly will love this one, as it is funnier — and sillier — than anything else they ever made.
However, once again, you really need to try to find the original Japanese version of the film. It is far better, and includes ten minutes more footage.
But even if you can’t, this is a goofy Toho Tokusatsu which will gloriously entertain any children within range of it.
Even those of us who have been children longer than the rest of you…