Kingu Kongu, Godzilla and the Myth about Japan’s First Movie Monster

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Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot rampaged into U.S. theaters in May, earning more than $174 million so far. Which makes it one of the biggest hits of the summer, already prompting work on a sequel. It’s also revived interest in kaij? eiga, or the Japanese movie monster genre, sealing the deal that Godzilla is truly “King of the Monsters.”

Or is he?

It’s commonly believed that the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, Gojira, was the catalyst for the Japanese monster movie trend. But as Obi Wan Kenobi tells Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, “There is another.”

And that monster is Kingu Kongu.

Legend tells of a 1933 Japanese silent film called Wasei Kingu Kongu, about a giant ape that wreaks havoc in Tokyo. Sound familiar? That’s because the film, which translates to “Japanese King Kong,” is a complete knockoff of the American version released by RKO Productions earlier the same year. It was completely illegal. And it appeared in Japanese cinemas a full 21 years before Gojira.

Five years later, there was another King Kong film, this time called Edo Ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu: Henge no maki or King Kong Appears in Edo. But it wasn’t a sequel. Instead, it was another version of the same movie, set some time before 1868, when Tokyo was called Edo. And instead of a giant ape, Kong was portrayed as a humongous sasquatch-like creature.

Both of these films never played outside of Japan, so they were never discovered by RKO. And there is little evidence that either film existed at all save for a single publicity shot and a newspaper ad. King Kong wouldn’t appear again in Japanese kaiju cinema until 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla and then one more time in King Kong Escapes in 1967.

There is a connection, however, between these early King Kong knockoffs and the 1954 Gojira film: Fuminori Ohashi, who created the original rubber Godzilla suit, was the same man who worked on the Japanese Kong suits, as well as the special effects for King Kong Appears in Edo. He explained in an interview that the Edo film was the first movie in Japan to feature special effects of its kind, paving the way for the more famous Godzilla films we’ve come to know and love.

Sadly, neither one of these films has been seen in almost 70 years. Like most of Japan’s early films, they were destroyed during the Allied air raids and bombings during World War II.

If all of this is, in fact, true, it adds another layer to Japan’s famed movie monster genre origin, which is commonly believed to have been inspired by four things: the 1952 re-release of the American version of King Kong, the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and of course, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the 1954 Lucky Dragon 5 incident.

As a direct result of the widespread fear of nuclear weapons and atomic fallout that dominated Japan, Gojira was released in Japanese theaters, kick-starting Japan’s, and the world’s, love affair with Godzilla and monster movies in general.

Gojira director Ishiro Honda’s footage of Godzilla’s rampage, the mass destruction of cities and scenes of survivors with radiation burns was meant to emulate the real-life atrocities of the atomic bombs. In other words, Godzilla was the atomic bomb. “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball,” Honda said in an interview. “But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

Because of the overwhelming positive response from Japanese filmgoers, a sequel was made a year later called Godzilla Raids Again. Over the years, 27 more Japanese Godzilla movies were produced, and four American versions, pitting the giant lizard against other monsters, including Mothra, Hedora and Megalon, and sometimes even portraying him as a hero rather than the villain (much like in Edwards’ current reboot). The films morphed from the very serious tone of the original to the outright ridiculous tone of Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.

As much as Godzilla the monster was a metaphor for the American atomic bombs and the cataclysmic effects they had on Japan, his evolving relationships with the Japanese people throughout the Godzilla movie series also became a symbol for the changing relationship between Japan and the United States, with the latter initially being a monstrous enemy that caused devastating destruction but then later emerged as a friend and protector against others “monsters” of the world.

Of course, Godzilla has become a pop culture icon that has reached beyond Japanese action movies. He has appeared in cartoons, comic books, novels, and music; but what about Kingu Kongu? The existence of the two Japanese King Kong films has been argued about for years among film scholars, with many attributing it to Internet urban legend. But wouldn’t it be great if Edwards’ Godzilla sequel included an appearance by Kingu Kongu? Then perhaps the argument of who is truly “King of the Monsters” could be, if not settled, then returned to the forefront once again.