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King Kong vs Godzilla and Akira Ifukube

Kaiju kept working for Toho. The middling response to Godzilla Raids Again was fading fast from everyone’s minds. Rodan, Mothra, even Varan were all resounding successes both in Japan and overseas. The studio was clearly overdue for a return to the creature that birthed the genre. After the tokusatsu Gorath, which featured a shoe-horned appearance from a giant monster, a unique opportunity would come down the pipe for Toho studios. The special effects wizard behind the original King Kong, Willis O’Brien, had a failed pitch he’d tried running past Universal producer John Beck. The premise was to pit King Kong against another film icon, Frankenstein. John Beck was fairly disinterested in the project however, and decided to offer it to Toho. Toho was approaching their thirtieth anniversary at the time, and had already decided they needed a Godzilla movie on their anniversary roster. Beck then successfully pitched Toho the film as a Godzilla vehicle, and convinced the Japanese studio to cover all the licensing costs associated with the Kong character. This expense rather crippled Toho’s budget for the film.

The studio yet again assembled their core team: Eiji Tsuburaya, Ishirō Honda, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Yasuyuki Inoue, and Akira Ifukube. Their newfound writer Shinichi Sekizawa, quickly becoming an essential part of the operation, wrote the script. Shinichi Sekizawa once again managed to deftly weave in some substance to the entertaining film. Instead of the vacuous entertainment one might expect he cleverly incorporates a fairly satirical look at marketing and advertising culture, of all things. While not always perfect it lends an already problematic movie some needed propriety.

The resulting kaiju film is a strange one, almost as maligned as it was loved. One of the film’s most automatically apparent problems was the King Kong suit. The ShodaiKong was repurposed from a Yeti costume Toho used on an old movie. They simply couldn’t afford to create a new suit from scratch. They took this Yeti costume, sculpted a new head, added some extra fur, and called it Kong. In some scenes there were elongated static arms affixed to the costume, in other scenes the arms could move but were human length. A puppet was used for certain close-ups. The resulting costume, unfortunately, looked more like a cheap Halloween costume than Toho’s typical style. This made for an interesting contrast with the Godzilla suit in the film. The KingGoji suit is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Godzilla designs. The suit was subtly refined and altered, leading to one of the most striking iterations of the character. While the design would continue to be changed movie-to-movie, KingGoji introduced many key elements that would carry on. The stocky reptilian suit had a fairly different silhouette from the past iterations. It had a less defined snout and prominent arms. In fact Haruo Nakajima takes frequent advantage of these newfound arms, adopting a series of movements more like a wrestler than the bears he’d previously drawn inspiration from. The suit’s lack of eyes, lack of fangs, three toes, and smooth tail underbelly would all be carried forward with future designs.

It’s a shame the contrast between the two suits is so prominent. There’s a lot the movie gets right, and it’s dragged down by these problems. The special effects, while slightly cheaper looking than some of Toho’s past projects, still feature several notable experiments for the ever-evolving Eiji Tsuburaya. The film featured miniatures as good as anything Yasuyuki Inoue had done before. Eiji Tsuburaya’s experimentation with occasional stop motion is pretty fascinating however. Given that he’d originally envisioned Godzilla as stop motion, and was now playing with the stop motion creation that initially inspired him, it was almost inevitable the special effects genius would try his hand at the time-consuming technique. In one scene Godzilla kicks Kong, which was executed with two animated puppets. Another long-coming scene involving an octopus also featured a stop-motion tentacle.

The octopus effects, however, are endearingly real. Tsuburaya, who had initially pitched an idea involving an irradiated octopus for the project that would become Godzilla, took the opportunity afforded him to make his inspiration fight his pet project. Instead of using stop motion or suitmation he pitted Shoichi Hirose, dressed in the Kong costume, against a real octopus. In fact four real octopi and a few rubber props were used to create the whole scene. It’s a pretty wonderful effect. The fleshy, pulsating octopus is so clearly an actual organic creature that it lends the whole scene a wonderful realism.

For the kaiju on kaiju fight scenes Tsuburaya allowed the actors to freely choreograph their own scenes. Taking full use of the more-flexible costumes the two chose a wrestler-like feel for the action. Eiji Tsuburaya consequently abandoned the violent, celerity-focused aesthetic he’d been perfecting on Toho’s past kaiju film. This does leave the two fighters looking a little weightless at times. The human-like movements coupled with the shoddy costume makes for a scene that, at its worst, really does come across as two suited men fighting. The slightly more ponderous approach to the action isn’t all bad though. It lends the grudge match between these two icons a certain gravitas. The fight feels serious and dramatic, a tone the two monsters deserved. It helps sell their combat as an almost historical moment, despite a handful of occasional flaws.

This gravitas is further enhanced by the thunderous score by Akira Ifukube. Ifukube came from a family whose lineage could be traced back to ancient Japan, right into the annals of myth. The family can be concretely traced back to the 7th century family Ihokibe, and one of the 42nd Emperor’s ladies in waiting, Ihokibe-no-Tokotarihime. Ihokibe are also associated with a classic Japanese fairy tale called White Rabbit of Inaba. The family built a shrine now considered one of the country’s oldest. Akira’s father abandoned his family’s priestly ways and had many children, the seventh of which was Akira. The name came from a Kanji appearing in a passage written by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism:

Be done with rote learning and its attendant vexations; for is there distinction of a “yes” from a “yea” comparable now to the gulf between evil and good? What all men fear, I too must fear… how barren and pointless a thought!

The reveling of multitudes at the feast of Great Sacrifice, or up on the terrace at carnival in spring, leave me, alas, unmoved, alone, like a child that has never smiled. Lazily, I drift as though I had no home. All others have enough to spare; I am the one left out. I have the mind of a fool, muddled and confused! When common people scintillate I alone make shadows. Vulgar folks are sharp and knowing: Only I am melancholy. Restless like the ocean, blown about, I cannot stop. Other men can find employment, but I am stubborn; I am mean. Alone I am and different, because I prize and seek my sustenance from the mother!

After the family moved to Otofuke, Akira began to come into contact with an indigenous people known as the Ainu. Like many indigenous people, the Ainu were frequently persecuted by the government. Akira’s family frequently socialized with and accepted the Ainu, and the young Akira played with many Ainu children. Akira was even granted honorary Ainu status when he consumed a mystical beverage made from mashed frog, lizard, and earthworm. As a child Akira Ifukube was fascinated by Japanese folk music and traditional Ainu music alike. He was also strongly drawn to nature and science. Akira met another student name Miura, who had a fairly advanced training in the arts. Miura introduced Akira to a wide range of western music and encouraged him to write his own pieces. Later Akira would spend the free time he had before attending university (for forestry) to compose music for a variety of Japanese festivals.

In 1935 Akira graduated from university. His thesis was on the vibration and acoustics of wood and the creation of new musical instruments. Akira worked as a forestry officer in a remote and misty forest with ties to the Ainu culture. He would let men take extra wood in exchange for sake and used the time in isolation to study English, French and a whole lot of music. He made a Japanese culture driven orchestral piece entitled Japanese Rhapsody when he was twenty-one. The piece won a competition hosted by Alexander Tcherepnin. This led Akira to study under Tcherepnin and eventually produce several more pieces that were published and eventually performed. Worried that his continued isolation (now in Akkeshi) would prevent him from hearing new pieces of music Akira Ifukube moved to the most culturally active city in Hokkaido – Sapporo. As World War Two closed in on Akira, he took a position teaching at a University in Hokkaido. This would bring him into contact with the Japanese government, which would simultaneously launch his career, lead him to meet his wife, introduce him to Toho, and destroy his health.



Most Information Taken from Erik Homenick’s Work at: Akiraifukube.org

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Your Kaiju reviews have been very insightful so far. You don’t take about the films’ specifics as much as I would expect. I’m starting to think you might be writing a book focusing on Toho and the people who worked for the company rather than a string of individual film reviews. Posting smaller pieces online to later be reworked and collected for a book is something we’ve seen at Sequart before so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what you’re up to. Either way, i’m enjoying your articles and it’s giving me the itch to watch Kaiju films I haven’t seen before.

    King Kong vs Godzilla has always been a favourite of mine because it’s the first Kaiju movie i’ve ever seen. I prefer the Japanese version as it’s far more hilarious than the odd American version which I remember focusing so much on the red berries and lost a lot of the thematic subtext and humour the Japanese version had.

    • Thanks a lot Mario!

      Well there’s no actual plan for a book, but I was striving for that kind of quality and tone. I think doing strict reviews would have limited returns, something I was worried I started to run into with the Gamera reviews. “I like this, this was goofy, this fight was good.” Works better for a smaller number of films, but I’m hoping to cover something like fifty films. The differences between films are generally in the details and I think this makes for a more interesting examination. The fact that Toho started the genre means it’s rife with interesting background. Of course some entries will be leaving Toho behind entirely which’ll be interesting, I hope.

      I liked King Kong vs Godzilla a lot. It’s one of my favourites, although in part because of the significance. It would be so much better with the simple addition of a better Gorilla suit. I found the script’s intelligence legitimately surprising.

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