Although Harry O. Hoyt’s 1925 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World features prehistoric creatures causing rumbles in the jungle, it was Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) that gave birth to the Daikaiju (giant monster) film as we know it today. Part action adventure, part Beauty and the Beast-esque fantasy fairytale, King Kong tells the story of a film crew’s perilous expedition to an uncharted island to shoot their next motion picture, only to discover that their destination is inhabited by savage tribes, carnivorous dinosaurs, and a giant primordial ape who takes a romantic liking to the film’s lead actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), after the islanders serve her up as a sacrifice. However, seeing dollar signs, director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) decides to capture Kong and bring him back to the Big Apple, which naturally leads to all hell breaking loose, culminating in one of the most iconic and heartbreaking scenes in cinema history as the great ape topples from the Empire State Building.
King Kong premiered on March 3rd, 1933, at the Music Hall and RKO theaters in New York City, and that night a monster was born; cinematically and culturally. The film was an immediate commercial success during its theatrical run, accumulating over $650,000 at the box office before going on to continually pull in audiences through subsequent re-releases well into the 1950s. Later that year, the “lesser but still kinda fun’’ Son of Kong was released to cash in on the Cooper’s film’s success, and while it’s considered a footnote in the franchise’s history, it started the trend of imitation that’s followed our favorite ape around ever since. Kong’s paw print has been stamped into mainstream pop culture forever.
Kong has had imitators all around the world throughout the years; some parodies, others cheap exploitation. America has Mighty Joe Young (1949), Britain has Konga (1961) and Queen Kong (1976), South Korea has A.P.E. (1976), Hong Kong has The Mighty Peking Man (1977), Italy has Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century (1977), and Bangladesh has Banglar King Kong (2010). However, even before Toho put him up against Godzilla in 1962s crossover opus, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Japan had already capitalized on the original film’s popularity — according to myth and the whispers in the winds of pop culture’s past. On October 5 1933, Wasei Kingu Kongu (Japanese King Kong), an unauthorised three-reel silent comedy directed by Torajiro Saito aimed to cash in on King Kong’s release using Cooper’s film as a backdrop to tell a story about a jobless man who dresses up in a gorilla suit so he can get theatre work and impress his girlfriend. Only a single documented still remains from the film.
Another unauthorized film supposedly arrived five years later that continued exploring Japan’s fascination with the great ape – or at least their willingness to exploit him before other regions discovered the benefits of it. Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu (King Kong Appears In Edo, 1938) is more in line with traditional kaiju cinema, though some believe the film is a hoax. If it did exist — and there is certainly some evidence to suggest that it did — then it predates the release of Gojira (Godzilla, 1954), officially making it Japan’s first recorded kaiju film. The little information we have reveals a two-part jidaigeki movie set during the Edo period directed by Sōya Kumagai and is about a primate facing off against samurai after the beast kidnaps a woman. Furthermore, the dastardly monkey was ordered to do so by a human with a vendetta, so either the creature was very well-trained or easily controlled. (A similar story was adopted in John Lemont’s camp delight, Konga, which tells the tale of a mad scientist who uses a big chimpanzee to carry out his vengeful bidding.) It is unknown whether the ape was a gargantuan monster or just an ordinary monkey; the poster points towards the former, while film historians speculate that the poster art was merely a capitalist ploy by Zensho — a “Poverty Row’’ B-movie studio — to mislead audiences. Other commentators have suggested that the monster is able to change size. I guess we’ll never truly know…
There are two stories which suggest the film’s existence isn’t a hoax. The first is an ad in an old issue of Japanese film magazine, Kinema Jumpo. The second comes straight from the mouth of someone who worked on the film — the legendary special effects artist, Fuminori Ohashi, who claimed he made the monkey suit. In an interview from 1988, he stated “The first model making to be counted as “special art direction” in Japanese cinema was a giant gorilla which I did for the movie King Kong Appears in Edo fifty years ago. It was also the first movie to feature certain kinds of special effects.”
Wasei Kingu Kongu and King Kong in Edo were not shown outside of Japan and neither has resurfaced since their initial theatrical releases in the 1930s — so any hope of these turning up now is about as likely as Kong himself settling down with a kidnapped human bride and living happily-ever-after. It is estimated that only 1% of Japan’s pre-World War II films survived the conflict, and unfortunately for cinema history, these — along with lots of other potentially brilliant works — are presumed casualties of the destruction. Neither film sounds like your traditional big monster movie, but they do typify how Kong’s popularity has inspired creators to take advantage of his name and likeness since the beginning — and not a decade has passed since the release of Cooper’s masterpiece has its influence not been felt on pop culture. Whether in his original iteration as the King of Skull Island, or as one of the many beasts who ape (pun intended) him, Kong has been providing artists with inspiration worldwide for over 80 years. It’s just a shame that we’ll probably never see Wasei Kingu Kongu and King Kong Appears in Edo, even if their stories are undoubtedly as fascinating due to their mystique.
Author, Unknown, TV Magazine Special Edition: Giant Heroes Compendium. Kodansha Publishing, 1988. Pg.224