I've finally seen the Japanese version of King Kong Escapes. This was the first time in at least a decade that I've watched the film in any form. I'd only seen the US version growing up and I never liked it much but watching the original version now, I think it's a lot of fun. It really embraces its status as a live-action cartoon.
The cast is just dynamite. Rhodes Reason, Linda Miller and Akira Takarada are a terrific heroic trio. Hideyo Amamoto and Mie Hama play the star villains with Yoshifumi Tajima, Sachio Sakai and Susumu Kurobe as henchmen. Ikio Sawamura is the Mondo Islander!
Between Mondo Island, Antarctica and Tokyo, there are a lot of fantastic miniature sets. The final showdown on Tokyo Tower is a big highlight, with Kong and Mechani-Kong each relatively small compared to so many other kaiju so the tower really dwarfs them and there's tension as they scale it. The film's production design and cinematography are glorious, as is Akira Ifukube's score.
I still think Kong looks terrible. The suit is especially bad in the water and the puppet head looks awful. There's so much else to admire in the special effects but it's mind-boggling that both of Eiji Tsuburaya's takes on Kong himself looked so ridiculous in different ways. Actually, between King Kong Escapes and Son of Godzilla in 1967, both Kong and Godzilla looked near their worst right at the height of Japan's Monster Boom.
I can see how Kong fans who don't like the aesthetics of Japanese tokusatsu would see this is as a cheap and/or egregious knockoff of the original King Kong but I enjoyed how this movie ran a lot of the classic tropes through a late-'60s Toho filter. Kong taking interest in a woman, Kong fighting a theropod dinosaur and a serpentine monster on his island home, Kong being exploited and breaking out of captivity, and Kong climbing a tall skyscraper all get a Toho-style rendition. While Kong's fight with Gorosaurus is pretty derivative of the 1933 T. rex battle, the other classic Kong tropes are redone in fresh new ways.
I should give the US version another shot soon.