THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE JAPANESE KING KONG RIPOFFS

BOOTLEG FILES 427: “The Japanese King Kong Ripoffs” (the 1933 “Wasei Kingu Kongu” and the 1938 “King Kong Appears in Edo”).

LAST SEEN: Neither film has been seen since their respective Japanese theatrical releases.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The producers chose to violate copyright rules by ripping off the popular 1933 RKO film.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It seems like a lost cause.

Relatively few movies earn the distinction of being an “instant classic,” and the 1933 masterpiece “King Kong” belongs in that special category. When it was first released, it captivated audiences with its remarkable special effects and imaginative production. And its success spread far beyond American movie theaters – the film proved to be a major success in every country where it was released.

In Japan, the Shochiku Studios imported “King Kong”, and it proved to be very popular with local audiences. However, the Shochiku executives believed they could shake a few more yen from the great ape’s fans if they were to create their own version of “King Kong.” But rather than bother to contact RKO Radio Pictures and license the rights to the King Kong character, the Shochiku jokers happily ignored copyright and intellectual property rules and made their King Kong film.

Five years later, RKO re-released “King Kong.” Over in Japan, another studio – Zensho Cinema – decided to follow Shochiku’s example and create their own King Kong film without clearing the rights to the character with its Hollywood creators.

I would love to be able to offer an in-depth review of both “Wasei Kingu Kongu” (1933) and “King Kong Appears in Edo” (1938), but that is impossible – no print of either film is known to exist. This is not an unusual tragedy – the vast majority of Japan’s pre-World War II cinema is considered lost due to such factors as the deterioration of unstable film materials and the destruction of property during the World War II bombings of Tokyo. Since neither film was released outside of Japan, it seems extremely unlikely that prints might be resting in some long-forgotten corner of a foreign film archive.

Trying to piece together the stories behind these bizarre productions is difficult, since very little material connected to the films has survived. The only clues that we have about what the films looked like are a single publicity shot from “Wasei Kingu Kongu” and a newspaper advertisement for “King Kong Appears in Edo.”

“Wasei Kingu Kongu” (literally, “Japanese King Kong”) is believed to have been a silent movie. Whereas Hollywood went all-talkie by the end of the 1920s, Japan’s film industry continued to produce silent films well into the 1930s. But unlike the U.S. silent films, Japanese cinemas relied on live narrators (known as benshi) to explain what was happening on screen. Thus, the RKO “King Kong” was not dubbed into Japanese, but had Japanese actors in the cinemas translating dialogue for the audiences.

It is also believed that “Wasei Kingu Kongu” was a short subject and not a feature-length endeavor; some sources place the running time at three reels. This would make sense, considering that film production in Japan was expensive and Shochiku lacked the resources to duplicate the grandness of the RKO production.

“Wasei Kingu Kongu” offered a truncated retelling of the American film, except that the giant gorilla wound up in Tokyo instead of New York. This supersized simian also had a Japanese version of Fay Wray to win his heart. The only surviving material from the film is a still that shows the faux-Kong (clearly a man in a none-too-convincing gorilla costume) gazing at a female human figure in his furry hand while he is monkeying around the roof of a Tokyo building.

“Wasei Kingu Kongu” was directed by Torajiro Saito, who had a reputation as a comedy filmmaker. Whether this film was intended as a parody of “King Kong” or whether Saito directed it as a straightforward and serious science-fiction flick is something that we’ll probably never know.

Somewhat more intriguing is “King Kong Appears in Edo.” There are no surviving stills from this film, but there is an advertisement consisting of a collage of photos that may have come from the production. The King Kong in this film does not look like a gorilla, but instead looks like a bizarre mix of lion, monkey and human. The costume is credited to Fuminori Ohashi, who would later supervise the development of the dragon suit used in the original “Gojira.”

The film’s plot is also unknown to contemporary film scholars, but the poster suggests this creature might have grown substantially in the course of the film. There are two pictures in the advertisement where King Kong is the physical equal to the human characters and two pictures where he is a towering behemoth. What caused the creature to become so large is unknown. Some sources claim that this Kong encounters equally oversized insects in the action sequences, so there might have been some strange chemical source that turned animals into giants.

Even more mysterious is having this bootleg gorilla arrive in Edo, which was the name for Tokyo prior to 1868. Placing the film in the distant past would have required period costumes and set design, which would have jacked up the budget. Some sources claim that the film’s art direction mirrored the surreal visual style of the German expressionistic classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but there is no evidence of that in the surviving advertisement.

There is no evidence that RKO was aware that either film existed, so the producers were able to get away with their bootlegging of copyright-protected material. But whereas the original “King Kong” was shown all over the world, these Japanese films could not be seen outside of their country. But whether anyone in Japan bothered to see the films is unclear – the obscurity of both titles is so extreme that some people have openly questioned if the films were Internet-borne hoaxes.

The staying power of the original “King Kong” remained in Japan after World War II, and in 1962 the Toho Studio properly secured the rights to the character for two Tokyo-based productions, “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and “King Kong Escapes.”

The disappearance of “Wasei Kingu Kongu” and “King Kong Appears in Edo” is a major loss, since they represent the beginnings of Japan’s kaiju genre and the most wonderfully blatant examples of copyright violation in motion picture history. But with luck, the bootleg gods will prove benevolent and long-lost reels will appear when we least expect it. Or as they say on the Internet Movie Database: please check your attic!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on May 11, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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