Immediately upon its release, Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 spectacle King Kong was a Depression-era smash hit–not just in the United States, but all across the globe.
King Kong was so popular that even Imperial Japan caught Kong fever when Shochiku Studios distributed the film to Tokyo theaters in Autumn 1933. As history buffs and weeaboos alike already know, Japan was largely closed off to the rest of the world prior to World War II–so the fact that a Western film could attain such popularity in such an isolated society is quite impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that Shochiku, after noticing the movie’s popularity, sought to film their own short tie-in as a way to ride the coattails of RKO’s success.
That tie-in is Wasei Kingu Kongu (or Japanese King Kong), and if you love all things Kong like I do, there are a few things you should know about it.
1. It’s a silent film.
While the United States film production companies had sound film capability as early as 1927 (see Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer), it took the rest of the world’s production companies a little while to adopt the technology. This was sometimes due to a lack of availability, a lack of perceived interest from the public in what might be a passing fad, a lack of funds to make such an expensive investment to upgrade, or any mix of the three. Whatever the reason, Japan was one such nation whose film companies did not utilize talkie tech at this time.
2. It’s a Kong film in name only.
Those who see the still images of Wasei Kingu Kongu without any context are likely to be surprised to discover that Kongu is not a short horror film, nor is it a short monster film. It isn’t even a short adventure film.
It’s a short comedy.
A meta-comedy, to be exact. Directed by comedian Torajiro Saito and using the real world popularity of Kong as a basis, Kongu tells the story of Santa (Isamu Yamaguchi), an unemployed vagrant who picks up coins from the street in order to keep from starving to death. Santa has his eye on a middle-class girl named Omitsu (Yasuko Koizumi), but Omitsu’s father (Kotaro Sekiguchi) isn’t interested in permitting his daughter to live a life of poverty and attempts to hook her up with a rich man. Dejected and frustrated by his inability to find employment and win the girl of his dreams, Santa is inspired to create a vaudeville show based on RKO’s smash hit King Kong, whereby he would dress in an ape suit and act out the scenes of the film using miniatures. After making the pitch, he’s hired by a local theater to put on his show.
During the performance, Santa notices Omitsu and her date (the rich guy her father encouraged her to date) in the audience. Enraged, Santa leaps from the stage and chases them out of the theater and onto the street–but because he forgot to remove his ape costume, pedestrians mistake him for a real escaped gorilla. Santa is chased around town by panicked hunters and firefighters until he runs into Omitsu’s rich date on a deserted backstreet. Santa fights with Richie Rich, knocks him out, puts the gorilla suit on the now-unconcious rich guy, and leaves the scene as quickly as possible. On his way back to the theater, Santa is met by his equally poor friend Koichi (Nagamasa Yamada) who informs him that the theater owner loved the act and is willing to pay a lot of money for repeat performances. Now financially successful, Santa marries Omitsu and they apparently live happily ever after.
Even though Wasei Kingu Kongu isn’t a Kong film in the strictest sense, it deserves to be viewed by Kong fans at least once–as a curio that was spawned from the popularity of the RKO classic, if nothing else. Unfortunately, that won’t be possible, because…
3. It’s a lost film.
If you couldn’t already tell from the title of this article, this film is sadly “missing, presumed lost.” While we’ve been able to retrieve a summary and a handful of still frames and ads from trade magazines of the time, the short film itself hasn’t been seen in almost 90 years. There’s not even so much as a rumor that a copy exists in the hands of a private collector.
What happened to the film is unclear. It’s likely that it was destroyed during World War II, the casualty of a bombing run (if not a casualty of one of the bombing runs). It’s possible that it was lost to an undisclosed or undiscovered (by Westerners, anyway) vault fire. Shochiku might have employed similar practices to its Western counterparts and, seeing no future value in the short, destroyed or recycled the nitrate on which it was printed.
Whatever the reason for its current status as “lost,” what is certain is that fans of Kong (and fans of Japanese cinema, for that matter) are unlikely to ever see it.
NEXT: Son of Kong (1933)