King Kong vs. Godzilla (Japanese Import) (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jan 19, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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King Kong vs. Godzilla (Japanese Import) (4K UHD Review)


Ishirō Honda

Release Date(s)

1962 (May 12, 2021)


  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B-
  • Overall Grade: A

King Kong vs. Godzilla (4K UHD)

Buy it Here!


[Editor's Note: This is a Region-Free Japanese import.]

When Toho released the original Godzilla in 1954, they never intended it to serve as the launching point for an entire franchise. Yet the unprecedented success of the film caused them to see the possibilities, so they put a sequel on the fast track and got it into the theatres barely six months later. Godzilla Raids Again (aka Gojira no Gyakushū) was still little more than a cheap quickie meant to cash in on the box office momentum from the first film, something that was made abundantly clear by the fact that they didn’t invite original co-writer/director Ishirō Honda to return, and assigned the project to journeyman director Motoyoshi Oda instead. While it ended up performing well, the momentum stalled, and the potential franchise remained frozen in the ice after that. It might have stayed there, too, had fate not intervened from an unexpected quarter.

Legendary stop-motion animation artist Willis O’Brien spent a good chunk of his career trying and failing to get various projects off the ground. One of them was a sequel to King Kong, pitting the horny ape against a new monster brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson. O’Brien ended up selling the idea to maverick producer John Beck, who promptly stabbed him in the back and brought the project to Toho without O’Brien’s knowledge or approval. Toho backed the project on the condition that it be rewritten to include Godzilla, so both Frankenstein’s monster and the original story treatment went right out the window. Still, what was yet another in a long series of tragic losses for O’Brien ended up becoming a win for fans of giant monster movies. As sometimes happens, it all came down to perfect timing.

1962 was Toho’s 30th anniversary, so it made sense to thaw out Godzilla to mark the occasion. King Kong vs. Godzilla (aka Kingu Kongu tai Gojira) would be one of five different banner titles that Toho released that year by way of celebration, and they lavished more money and attention on it than any other Godzilla movie that they made during the entire Shōwa era. Given that kind of budget to work with, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka pulled out all the stops. King Kong vs. Godzilla would be the first Godzilla movie in both full color and Tohoscope, and with a four-channel magnetic stereo mix for marquee engagements. Naturally, Eiji Tsuburaya returned to handle the visual effects, but Tanaka also made the smart decision to bring back Ishirō Honda to direct. Yet in many respects, the most crucial member of the creative team was a new one: screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, with whom Honda had already worked on Varan the Unbelievable, Battle in Outer Space, and Mothra. The world of Godzilla would never be the same again.

The original Godzilla had been a somber mediation on the perils of the nuclear age, and while Godzilla Raids Again muddied that theme somewhat, it was still a relatively serious film. That simply wouldn’t do for an expensive piece of popular entertainment, so it was high time to lighten things up a bit. Honda and Sekizawa were perfectly simpatico in that regard, and they both leaned heavily into satire with King Kong vs. Godzilla. The commercial instincts that drove Carl Denham to bring Kong back to New York City in the original King Kong are amplified and corporatized here—this expedition to locate Kong is under the aegis of a major corporation, Pacific Pharmaceuticals. Head honcho Mr. Tako (Ichirō Arishima) sends his employees Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (Yū Fujiki) in search of Kong as a publicity stunt in order to attract viewers to the television programming sponsored by Pacific Pharmaceuticals. The whole adventure is all about shoring up flagging ratings. The fact that Kong inadvertently ends up helping to fend off the menace of Godzilla is little more than a fortuitous accident on behalf of unrelated corporate interests.

Sekizawa was anything but subtle, as the name “Mr. Tako” will attest. (It’s foreshadowing something else that the expedition discovers on the island.) Under Sekizawa’s guidance, the Godzilla series would grow increasingly more fantastical and frankly, a whole lot sillier. Both Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya happily leaned into that angle, and the humor in King Kong vs. Godzilla is just as broad with the monsters as it is with the main characters. Godzilla was a solo threat in the first film, and Godzilla Raids Again had introduced the idea of a giant monster battle, but the mano a mano in King Kong vs. Godzilla is what cemented monster combat as the centerpiece of the kaiju genre. Tsuburaya treated the fights between Godzilla and Kong here like a cage match set in the great outdoors—befitting the family-friendly nature of the film, most of the battle was moved into the wilderness to avoid showing the human casualties that had been such a major element in the previous films. The kaiju action would stay that way throughout the rest of the Shōwa era, at least until Yoshimitsu Banno came along with his audacious Godzilla vs. Hedorah, but that’s a story for another day.

There are still a few warts in the final film. The new Godzilla suit was a good design, with a head shape that foreshadowed the frog-faced Millennium era design, but the Kong suit could charitably be described as charmingly awful. It would show a few marginal improvements in the spinoff King Kong Escapes, but Tsuburaya’s team wouldn’t pull off a genuinely memorable hairy monster until The War of the Gargantuas a few years later. The native peoples in King Kong vs. Godzilla are also treated just as shabbily as Kong, with broad performances by Japanese actors wearing unconvincing brownface. In those areas and a few others, not all of the intentional humor lands, although it still fares much better in its original form than it does in the American version.

The Americanized versions of the first two films, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and Gigantis, the Fire Monster, had both been afterthoughts, but King Kong vs. Godzilla was an international production from its inception. Yet while Godzilla, King of the Monsters! works surprisingly well, with the newly shot America scenes serving as a way to bridge the language gap without resorting to dubbing, the American version of King Kong vs. Godzilla is a hot mess. The original was hardly a paradigm of narrative construction, but John Beck’s version makes a complete hash of continuity. It also downplayed the satire in favor of the comic elements that didn’t necessarily work as well. Perhaps most unforgivably, Beck’s version junked most of Akira Ifukube’s magnificent score. This is the film where Ifukube added his legendary Godzilla fanfare to the equally famous march that he wrote for the first film, but that wasn’t good enough for Beck and his director Thomas Montgomery. As a result, the original Japanese version is the only way to fly.

All of those changes led to a strange but false rumor that persisted for many years. With the Japanese version unavailable to Western audiences, a rumor started to spread that there were two different endings for the film, and that Godzilla won in the Japanese version. In David Kalat’s indispensable A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, he traced the rumor to an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland during the Seventies and offered two possible sources that they might have used. Regardless of where it may have really originated, it’s a weirdly ethnocentric perspective that fundamentally misapprehended the evolution of the Godzilla character. There was never any real evidence to support the rumor, and it seems to largely be driven by the assumption that since King Kong is “our” guy, Japanese audiences would want to see Godzilla win instead. Yet while King Kong vs. Godzilla introduced the lighter tone that would mark most of the rest of the Shōwa films, Godzilla was still very much the heavy at that point. The transformation of the King of Monsters into a heroic character was still a few years away, so for the time being, King Kong had to come out on top.

Cinematographer Hajime Koizumi shot King Kong vs. Godzilla on 35 mm film using anamorphic Tohoscope lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. While the original nitrate negatives for Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again no longer exist, the negatives for the rest of the franchise do—with one major caveat. The negatives for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and Invasion of Astro-Monster were all cut to conform to the abbreviated Toho Champion Festival versions in the Seventies. The missing material had to be sourced from master positive elements instead. Everything was scanned at 4K resolution, with all digital restoration work being performed in full 4K.

No High Dynamic Range grade has been applied to any of Toho’s 4K restorations for the Godzilla franchise, but they do take advantage of 10-bit color in the BT.2020 color space. Depending on how your display is set up and calibrated, SDR BT.2020 may require some adjustments in order to work properly. Some displays will default to BT.2020 for HDR but automatically switch to Rec.709 for SDR material, and that can cause the colors to look pale and washed out. Manually switching to BT.2020 instead should restore the colors to their intended glory. (You’ll need to remember to switch back later or else colors will distort on other discs.)

The differences aren’t subtle in this case—in Rec.709, King Kong vs. Godzilla appears badly desaturated. Properly calibrated, however, it’s a different story. King Kong vs. Godzilla is a colorful film in more ways than one, and even without the benefit of an HDR grade, the colors in this rendition still pop. Everything is bright and well-saturated without pushing anything too far, and the flesh tones look natural throughout (even the cringeworthy makeup on the natives). The contrast is excellent, with good black levels and more shadow detail than in any other previous version. Everything is clean, with the only remaining damage being a few faint scratches and equally faint small blemishes. (There are also a few lines in the background during the effects shots that may seem to be scratches at first, but they’re actually seams in the cycloramas.) The grain does vary a bit from shot to shot depending on whether or not dupe footage like any optical work or the replacement Champion Festival material had to be used, but it’s been left perfectly intact here. Minor variances or not, the Champion inserts still integrate surprisingly well, certainly better than in the abysmal master that Toho provided to Criterion for their Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 boxed set. That was the first time that the Japanese cut had been legitimately released in North America, but it used upscaled standard definition inserts for the missing material, and it looked terrible. Regardless of who wins the battle at the end of King Kong vs. Godzilla, this 4K master is the undisputed champ.

Audio is offered in Japanese 4.0, 2.0 stereo, and 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional Japanese subtitles. Note that the 4.0 mix is actually in a 5.1 container, but it’s definitely the original four-channel mix. As was typical for the era, everything is focused on the front channels, with only faint ambience in the surrounds. There’s also some directionalized dialogue across the soundstage that’s sometimes steered back to the center channel during modern remastering efforts, but it’s thankfully been left alone here. Deep bass is mostly limited to Akira Ifukube’s score, with the sound effects lacking the same kind of depth, but the music in King Kong vs. Godzilla is all that matters. It sounds glorious in this rendition.

Toho’s Limited Edition Region-Free 4K Ultra HD release of King Kong vs. Godzilla is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. It also includes a 116-page “Unreleased Photo Collection” booklet featuring production photographs shot by original art director Akira Watanabe, as well as a 28-page reproduction of a 1991 manga adaptation drawn by artist Shigeru Komatsuzaki. For some reason, the insert on the Amaray case doesn’t use the same striking silver metallic finish that the other films in the series do. Still, everything is housed inside a rigid keepcase that’s distinctive enough on its own. It’s simple, but eye-catching.

Per standard Toho policy, neither the film nor any of the extras offer English subtitles. That’s not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle, however. Some players like the Oppo UDP-203 and UDP-205 offer the ability to load external subtitles. You’ll have to do a little Googling to see if your particular player does so as well. If it can, all that you need to do is take the English subtitle file (with an .srt extension) from disc like Criterion’s Blu-ray. Rename it “,” create a folder on a USB drive called “sub,” and place the file in that folder. Insert the drive into the USB port on your player, then when playing the disc, use the subtitle button on your remote to select “other,” and Bob’s your uncle. You’ll have to adjust the sync to get it to line up properly. On the Oppos, that’s accessible using the Option button.

There are other sources for .srt files, but you’ll have to discover those on your own. There’s a more drastic (and permanent) way of adding subtitles to a film that doesn’t offer them, but that’s also something that you’ll have to find out for yourself. Google will be your friend here.

The following extras are included:


  • Special News Trailer (HD – 1:27)
  • Theatrical Trailer 1A (HD – 2:28)
  • Theatrical Trailer 1B (HD – 2:28)
  • Theatrical Trailer 2 (HD – 2:28)
  • Theatrical Trailer 3 (HD – 2:28)


  • Toho Champion Festival Version (HD – 73:35)
  • Trailers:
    • Special News Trailer (HD – 1:27)
    • Theatrical Trailer 1A (HD – 2:28)
    • Theatrical Trailer 1B (HD – 2:28)
    • Theatrical Trailer 2 (HD – 2:28)
    • Theatrical Trailer 3 (HD – 2:28)
  • Still Gallery (HD, 176 in all)

Aside from some trailers and a Still Gallery, the only real extra in the set is the shortened Toho Champion Festival version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. No restoration efforts have been applied to it, so it’s filled with scratches, speckling, and other damage. None of it is severe enough to make the film unwatchable, but the reality is that it’s mostly a historical curio. It’s nice to have, but it’s unlikely that most people will ever watch it. On the other hand, the photo booklet that’s included in the set is damned near priceless. It’s a collection of high quality behind-the-scenes photos from all of the effects sequences in the film, including some great closeups of Godzilla’s redesigned head. (There are some closeups of the Kong mask as well, for whatever that’s worth.) Considering that any other extras would have been in Japanese without subtitles, getting a picture book like this is a nice trade-off for English-speaking collectors.

Will there eventually be a domestic release of this 4K restoration? Maybe, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Toho has a long history of only offering substandard masters for overseas distribution—witness the poor-quality masters that they provided to Criterion for the Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 Blu-ray set. Time will tell, but if you want to see the King Kong vs. Godzilla in its uncut Japanese version in the best possible quality, Toho’s 4K release is the only option. Exchange rates are currently favorable, too. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be cheap, because physical media in Japan has always been expensive relative to North America, and a boxed set like this will set you back a pretty penny. Whether or not it’s worth the cost is up to you. I have no regrets.

- Stephen Bjork

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