Thoughts on Toho’s DOGORA and KING KONG ESCAPES (spoilers)
Here are a couple of standalone kaiju films I’ve managed to track down over the past year or so, bracketing the Frankenstein duology I covered in my previous post. I’d been saving these until I could add one or two more films to the post, but the Frankenstein reviews turned out long enough that it made more sense to post them in pairs.
Dogora the Space Monster (Uchuu Daikaiju Dogora) was the film Ishiro Honda made in 1964 between the classic Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster — just before the era when Godzilla films started to grow more kid-oriented and whimsical, but also just a year before the dark and moody Frankenstein Conquers the World. Dogora tends toward the latter route, mostly striking a pretty serious tone, but it’s kind of an odd one too.
Nominally, Dogora is about the mysterious attacks of a mutated amoeba-like monster living in Earth orbit, able to suck things up into the sky with antigravity powers. But mostly it’s a crime caper about international diamond thieves. One such gang (the film’s featured villains) finds a diamond heist interrupted by something that levitates them, then absconds with the diamonds after they flee. Police inspector Komai (Yosuke Natsuki) investigates the home of crystallographer Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura), where Komai gets into a fight with American Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham, who would later play the Seatopian king in Godzilla vs. Megalon), himself a suspected jewel thief. The film mostly follows the interplay of Komai, Jackson, and the gang as they compete for various diamond hauls, occasionally finding themselves interrupted as Dogora comes down from space to suck up coal and diamonds as its energy source. Munakata’s assistant, who’s also Komai’s love interest, conveniently has a brother in the space agency, so they end up advising the military on Dogora, with Komai occasionally touching base with them in between clashing with Jackson and the gang. About a third of the way in, Jackson reveals that he’s actually an international insurance investigator, a “diamond G-man” as he puts it, although he continues to behave in a suspicious manner and seems to be playing Komai as much as he’s playing the thieves. So Komai follows him when he follows the gang to Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island), which naturally comes under attack by Dogora.
Eventually the military gets lucky when Munakata learns that a swarm of wasps was able to hurt Dogora, turning parts of it into crystal that rain down on the city. So they concoct a huge batch of wasp venom to use as a chemical weapon in Dogora’s next attack. But the cops and crooks have their own concerns. The gangsters’ moll, the sultry, sexy Hamako (Akiko Wakabayashi, later to appear in the Bond film You Only Live Twice), absconds with the diamonds that Jackson had in a safe-deposit box, leading the gang to hunt her down for double-crossing them, and Komai and Jackson (after barely escaping a dynamite deathtrap) chase the gangsters down in turn — with the overhead battle with Dogora interrupting their gunfight and having a rather decisive, err, impact on its outcome.
Structurally, this is a weird movie. It’s like Honda wanted to do a straight-up crime caper, but was obligated to put in a monster because that’s what people expected from him. The Dogora side of the story, despite providing the title, is very much secondary to the cops-and-robbers plot, largely going on in the background as the crime drama unfolds. But it provides an interesting look at the psychology of the people who live in the universe of Toho’s monster movies. (The characters do talk about monsters without much disbelief when they first begin to realize that one is responsible for all the diamond “thefts” around the world, implying that the film is in the same universe as the other kaiju films.) After a decade dealing with monsters of all sorts, they’ve grown blase about it; they just leave the monster-fighting to the military and the scientists while they go about their own affairs. It’s interesting to see a kaiju movie that’s mainly about the people who aren’t involved in fighting the kaiju, who don’t even particularly care about it except when it gets in the way of their own goals.
Although, really, you’d think they would care more. Knowing that there’s a giant space amoeba-squid with the power to suck diamonds up into the sky, these people would logically try to lay low and avoid anything to do with diamonds until the problem had been resolved. Maybe the crooks were just too greedy to think straight, and the heroes too ploddingly fixated on their duties to see the bigger picture. Even though Komai was in contact with the people who were dealing with Dogora.
Still, it’s also a pretty fresh and impressively made kaiju movie, with some really creative visual effects from Eiji Tsuburaya’s team. Dogora is a nifty departure from all the stuntmen in rubber lizard suits stomping down buildings. It’s eerie and alien, frequently unseen — which was probably due to budget limitations, given the rather more elaborate monster attack scenes shown in the production art on the DVD, but works well at creating a sense of mystery. The visuals of mounds of coal and various structures being sucked skyward by antigravity are a fresh and novel approach to kaiju destruction scenes, and well-made (generally relying on reverse filming). There’s also some rather beautiful use of cloud tank effects, dyes swirling in water with the Dogora puppet waving its tentacles within the cloud. There are also some shots of explosions going off inside the cloud that remind me of some of the Mutara Nebula shots from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I believe cloud tank effects were pretty innovative for 1964, and not just in Japan. This is impressive work, although some of the action is confusing in the last third of the movie.
Unusually for an American actor in a kaiju film, Robert Dunham was fluent in Japanese (he was a former U.S. Marine who’d been living in Japan since he served there years earlier), and thus he speaks Japanese in his own undubbed voice throughout, except once or twice when Jackson lapses into English briefly in moments of surprise or emotion. He even pronounces “New York” and other Western city names the Japanese way. Oddly, though, the other characters use “Mark” as though it were his surname — even though none of them are on friendly terms with him, except for Komai toward the end. It’s hard to believe the filmmakers weren’t aware of American name order; maybe they just found “Mark” (or “Maaku”) easier to pronounce than “Jackson.” Anyway, apparently Toho was hoping to spin Jackson off into a series, but it never came to pass. Just as well; aside from his fluency in the language, Dunham isn’t all that interesting an actor. I wonder if these other films would’ve been kaiju movies or just caper movies. With this film as the source, it could’ve gone either way.
King Kong Escapes was a 1967 co-production of Toho and the American Rankin-Bass studio (producers of all those badly done stop-motion holiday specials in the ’70s and an early animated version of The Hobbit), loosely based on The King Kong Show, a cartoon that R-B coproduced with Toei (now known for Super Sentai/Power Rangers) in the first instance of an American cartoon being produced in Japan. This was Ishiro Honda’s next kaiju film after War of the Gargantuas, since the previous two Godzilla films (Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla) had been directed by Jun Fukuda; however, Honda would return to Godzilla with his next film, Destroy All Monsters.
King Kong Escapes is not really in continuity with Kong’s earlier appearance in King Kong vs. Godzilla; there, Kong was blown up to 45 meters/148 feet to match Godzilla’s size, but here he’s a mere 18 meters/60 feet, closer to his size in his US film appearances (though still nearly 3 times larger than the ’33 original). Also, the name of Kong’s home island is changed from Faro to Mondo.
The film goes for a James Bond flavor in its villainy. We open at the Arctic base of the villain (Eisei Amamoto, dubbed by Paul Frees in the English version), whose name, amusingly enough, is Dr. Who. With his white hair, black cloak, and fur hat in the outdoors scenes, he actually looks a bit like a Japanese version of William Hartnell’s Doctor, albeit with a rather Capaldi-esque set of attack eyebrows. He’s working with, I kid you not, Madame Piranha (Mie Hama, a recent veteran of You Only Live Twice and of King Kong vs. Godzilla before that). She’s an agent of an unnamed Asian country with ambitions for conquest, and she’s hired Dr. Who to dig up the powerful, radioactive Element X in order to turn her country into a nuclear superpower. (But not an ultra-superpower — that’s Chemical X!) For some reason, his idea of the perfect digging tool is Mechani-Kong, a robotic replica of King Kong. Yes, Kong got a robot double seven years before Godzilla! But M-K is overwhelmed by the radiation of the element before it can get far.
Luckily for the villains, our heroes have stopped in at Kong’s island. The lead, played by Rhodes Reason, is a UN submarine commander named Carl Nelson — a name that evokes both Carl Denham from the original King Kong and the Denham-like villain Clark Nelson from Mothra, although he’s based more on Admiral Nelson from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Reason did his lines in English, and although IMDb claims his lines were dubbed by British actor David de Keyser (who’s actually done voice work in Doctor Who), the 2005 edition from Netflix definitely features Reason’s own voice. Anyway, he’s partnered with his first mate Jiro Nomura (perennial Toho lead actor Akira Takarada) and the designated Fay Wray, nurse Susan Watson (Linda Miller, an American model living in Japan, whose only other film credit was the MGM/Toei co-production The Green Slime). After they witness a rubber-suit re-enactment of Kong’s death match with the T. rex (here played by the kaiju Gorosaurus, who would return blown up to Godzilla size in Destroy All Monsters), they find that Kong’s weakness for pretty blondes is intact, and Susan’s able to make him do as she asks. Which leads Dr. Who, who turns out to be Nelson’s arch-nemesis, to arrange to kidnap Nelson, Susan, and Jiro and make her control Kong. Although this happens before he undertakes an interim plan to control Kong with hypnosis. Dr. Who makes an unconvincing attempt to bluff Nelson into cooperation by threatening to kill Jiro and Susan, even though Susan’s the one he needs alive; logically he should’ve threatened the men to get her cooperation, but that would’ve required actually giving a woman agency, and we can’t have that, I guess. Mme. Piranha has some agency at first, I guess, but her attempt to seduce Nelson into cooperation leads her to do a near-instantaneous flip-flop to the good guys’ side, actually saying “I’m sorry my country was so wrong.”
Anyway, Kong lives up to the title by escaping, and Dr. Who sends Mechani-Kong after him, the chase coincidentally but inevitably ending up in Tokyo, where our heroes (helped to escape by Piranha) warn the authorities not to make Kong angry by shooting at him, because they wouldn’t like him when — no, wait, that’s someone else. But just when Susan’s gotten Kong calmed down, Mechani-Kong crashes in and grabs her, and Kong chases it up Tokyo Tower for the climactic confrontation. Which, I have to say, makes far more sense as a King Kong ’33 homage than the 45-meter Kong’s attempt to climb the 65-meter Diet Building in KKvG. Since it’s a Japanese film, it’s up to Jiro to save the girl while Nelson stands by watching; and then it’s up to Kong to go after Dr. Who and, err, force him to regenerate.
I wouldn’t call this a great film, but I like it better than the previous couple of Godzilla films from Jun Fukuda. (Ebirah was actually another Rankin-Bass project that started out as a King Kong film before being switched to Godzilla.) It’s in a fairly light vein, much like those films, but somewhat older-skewing, with a fair amount of deadly gunplay. It feels more like a spiritual sequel to Honda’s Frankenstein duology, though it’s goofier than either of those. The War of the Gargantuas changed the caveman-like title character of Frankenstein Conquers the World into the Sasquatch-like Sanda; this film takes it a step further, from giant caveman to giant ape-man to pure giant ape. And just as Sanda was more unambiguously benevolent and less tragic than Frankenstein, so King Kong is an even friendlier monster (with an inexplicably keen grasp of English, or Japanese, vocabulary, given how easily he can be ordered around) who gets a happier ending. But happy or not, it was a definitive ending. This is the last Toho-produced film outside of the Godzilla and Mothra series to feature a heroic kaiju.