The success of 1933’s King Kong not only resulted in the Japanese production of a silent comedy short spin-off that same year, but also helped the Japanese discover their love of kaiju–or, giant monster–cinema. Unfortunately, their next attempt at a Kong film might have had even less to do with Kong than the last one.
In 1938, a number of monster films from the previous decade were re-released to U.S. theaters. Films like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932) loomed large on the silver screen once again, ready to to terrorize and mystify a new generation of American theater-goers–albeit with fewer scenes than their original releases, thanks to Haye’s Code censorship. Not one to be upstaged by the pipsqueak monsters of Universal, RKO’s King Kong was among them (likewise censored).
Because of Kong‘s success in the Land of the Rising Sun back in 1933, it was decided that the film would see a re-release in Japan as well. Just like last time, Kong was a smash-hit. And just like last time, a Japanese production company decided to cash in on the Kong craze with their own Kong-related movie. Sort of.
This time, the studio was not Shochiku, but a poverty row company by the name of Zensho Cinema. Like Wasei Kingu Kongu (1933), this film is both silent and lost (for the same reasons as discussed in that article). Unlike Wasei Kingu Kongu, this film is not a short comedy, but rather a dramatic period piece (the Edo period, to be exact) told over the course of two feature-length films released a week apart: The Episode of the Monster on March 31, 1938, and The Episode of Gold on April 7, 1938. Also unlike its Japanese predecessor, there’s some debate as to whether or not Kong in Edo can be legitimately called a Kong film as we understand it. More on this in a bit.
First, a short synopsis:
Local boss Hyoue Toba (Reizaburo Ichikawa) calls his men together with news that his daughter Chinami (Reiko Mishima) has been kidnapped under mysterious circumstances. Hyoue offers a large reward to anyone who can find and rescue Chinami, and his top man Yuzuru Kawasaki (Noboru Takashima)–among others–sets out to find her. One of Hyoue’s employees, a man by the name of Magonojyō Gō (Eizaburo Matsumoto), declines the offer. This is because Magonojyō is the one who kidnapped her with the help of “King Kong” (Ryūnosuke Kabayama) his father’s trained gorilla.
In a twist that will remind some of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Magonojyō has a vendetta against Hyoue because Hyoue had Magonojyō’s father killed when he refused to counterfeit coins for Hyoue. Magonojyō has apparently been plotting revenge against Hyoue for years, going so far as to disguise himself and become one of Hyoue’s men just to get close to him. When the time is right, Magonojyō reveals himself to Hyoue, trading the whereabouts of Chinami for the reward money. Hyoue agrees, and Magonojyō instructs King Kong to take Hyoue to a secret cellar, where he is to be held prisoner. As is typical for this type of movie, King Kong becomes agitated and begins rampaging, killing Hyoue in the process. Hyoue’s men show up in time to kill King Kong and rescue Chinami–but Magonojyō slips away with the money in the ensuing chaos.
As you can see from the synopsis, this film has more in common with Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” than with Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong. Though the promotional materials that survive (really, just one full page ad/poster), it looks like Kong might be giant, or can possibly change size–but the synopsis makes no mention of either of these potentialities. This has led many to believe that Zensho used the Kong name merely to cash in on the rerelease.
But the issue isn’t as cut and dried as one might expect. Fuminori Ohashi, the man who designed and built the 1954 Godzilla suit, stated in a 1988 interview that he designed the make-up for Kong in Edo, as well: “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.” From this, it sounds like Kong was in fact meant to be a giant gorilla.
Now, you might say that Ohashi was just the costume/make-up guy; it’s entirely possible that he is misremembering things, or didn’t really know what was happening on set in the first place. What if I told you he starred in the film as well? For you see, Fuminori Ohashi was once known as Ryūnosuke Kabayama, the man who was Kong in King Kong Appears in Edo!
Sadly, it’s a moot point. Whether the gorilla in Kong in Edo was giant or not, whether Zensho was just cashing in on the craze or not–it scarcely matters now, as this film, like Wasei Kingu Kongu, is lost and is unlikely to be rediscovered anytime soon.