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Rest in Peace - Haruo Nakajima - Godzilla Suit Actor

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My Tribute to Haruo Nakajima

by Stephen O'Brien Age 14



Haruo Nakajima was the man who made Godzilla an iconic character.

Mr. Nakajima was born on January 1, 1929, in a small town in Yamagata, Japan.

From the time he was a young boy he was very athletic by diving for seaweed for an after school job. During World War II he was trained to be a pilot but never saw any action.

After the war he became a stuntman in the rising Japanese film industry, usually cast in samurai movies, including a part in the 1954 classic Seven Samurai.

Meanwhile Toho studios had planned to make a film in Indonesia but that project was canceled by the Indonesian government.

Toho was desperate for a hit but was not sure how to proceed.One day  producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was looking out the window of his plane and saw the dark, menacing ocean below and wondered what might lurk down there. All at once he had an image of a giant, terrifying monster.

In America, the classic movie King Kong, originally screened in 1933 was re-released in 1952 and a new monster movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), featuring stop-motion action caused a sensation. Back in Japan the special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya who saw King Kong as a boy wanted to bring the Toho monster to life through stop-motion. The problem was that stop-motion animation was an expensive, complex and time consuming process and there were no technicians in Japan skilled enough to work on it. Furthermore Tsuburaya estimated that it  would take seven years to complete, Tanaka objected to this plan so it was decided to use a man in a suit, but this new concept presented its own problems; he needed someone strong enough to play the part .

Haruo Nakajima was working on a film called Eagle of the Pacific and there was a scene where an actor had to jump out of a burning plane, and since he had been trained as a pilot, he volunteered. When Ishiro Honda saw this he asked Haruo to play the role of the kaiju (monster) in the upcoming film and Haruo accepted. No one had any idea of what the creature might act like, so Haruo decided to have lunch at the zoo and observed large animals such as bears and elephants so that he could replicate the way large animals move.

When the suit of the creature was finally revealed and Haruo tried it on, it was so heavy and hot  that he could barely move. Therefore, another suit was created and while it would still be troublesome, it was somewhat better than the first. In order to create the illusion of a giant monster, the camera would have to be sped up two or three times faster so Haruo had to walk very fast in order to match the footage. He also kept his arms close to his body so that he looked more like a dinosaur.

To ease the burden on him, a special half-suit of Godzilla’s legs were constructed and held up by suspenders. This was used for shots in which the viewer can only see Godzilla’s legs.

When Gojira (In America, Godzilla 1954) opened, the film was a success so when the next film,Godzilla Raids Again (1955) was being filmed, a better constructed suit was made, but it was still cumbersome and hot. In this movie Godzilla fought Katsumi Tezuka’s Anguirus and during the climax, after being covered in an avalanche of ice, Haruo crashed through the stage floor.

In 1956 Toho was planning to make another kaiju movie called Radon (Rodan).

This one was about murders taking place in a mine with the killers revealed as giant bugs called Meganulons. An enormous egg is also discovered which turns out to be a huge flying reptile called Rodan. A scene where Rodan attacks a bridge and falls in the water was really an accident; the cables holding Haruo broke, but he fortunately landed in the water tank below saving his life.

He played two more giant monsters in the 1950s: Moguera in The Mysterians (1957), and Varan in Varan the Unbelievable (1958). His next role was in 1961’s Mosura (In America, Mothra) in which he played the head of the Mothra larvae (the suit was forty feet long and had to have seven actors in it). In scenes were Mothra is a moth, the kaiju is a puppet rather than an actor. His next film was one that would return him to the Godzilla role, King Kong vs Godzilla (1962). He would also play Maguma in Gorath (1962). His only kaiju role in 1963 was as a mushroom man from Matango. Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) was perhaps Haruo’s most difficult time playing Godzilla. For instance when Godzilla attacks the Nagoya castle, he stumbles into the pagoda but it didn’t collapse as expected because it was so well made. Another time, when the army attacks Godzilla, his head is seen catching fire but he was fortunately not injured because the fire did not reach the neck where his breathing and eyeholes were.

Haruo played Godzilla again in Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster (1964) and Godzilla vs Monster Zero (1965); although Ghidorah mostly used puppets and Monster Zero mostly used a giant foot and stock footage. His next role would be in Frankenstein vs Baragon (1965), more commonly known in the U.S as Frankenstein Conquers the World. He played Baragon, a giant dinosaur who fought the Frankenstein monster in the film’s finale; his role in this movie is amazing because he had to be buried under the stage, something no other actor had ever done. He wore the suit four more times;  twice in the tv show Ultraman as Gabora and Neronga, once in Ultra Q as Pagos and for what little screen time Baragon has in Destroy all Monsters.

Haruo’s next role was his favorite next to the first Godzilla. This was Gaira the green Frankenstein from 1966’s Frankenstein’s Monsters; Sanda vs Gaira, (In America War of the Gargantuas). Gaira is the only character whom he played who had eye slits, and Haruo felt that he was able to give more emotion to the role. The same year he played Godzilla for the seventh time in Ebirah: Horror of the Deep. Around the same time he was helping Eiji Tsuburaya with Ultra Q and Ultraman by choreographing monster battles and by  playing monsters in the shows. Next he played Godzilla for only a few scenes in Son of Godzilla because the suit was bigger than usual to contrast with Minya. Another thing that Haruo did that no man ever did and probably never will again is to play both Godzilla and King Kong, as he played the title character in King Kong Escapes. Unfortunately Kong’s eyes were plastic and looked unrealistic and he wasn’t able to give Kong the same emotions as he had with Gaira. Still, he delivered a nice role by doing things an ape might do, such as walking on his hands, pounding his chest and, like Kong, using a tree as a weapon.    

By 1968 Haruo Nakajima had worn the Godzilla suit in twelve movies; as well as having played different characters in modified Godzilla suits such as Gomess from Ultra Q and Jirass from Ultraman but at this time Toho was planning to make just one more Godzilla film called Destroy all Monsters. However they decided to make another called Godzilla’s Revenge (1969) and it mostly used stock footage except for the final battle. The next film Haruo worked on was Latitude Zero (1969), in which he played a griffin. Space Amoeba (1970) he played Gezora and Gainemes which would be two of the strangest Toho monsters ever and perhaps two of the most interesting roles he would ever play; Gezora being a giant cuttlefish and Ganimes being a crab.

Haruo began to lose interest in the role of Godzilla because Eiji Tsuburaya had died in 1970 but in 1971 he returned as Godzilla in Godzilla vs Hedorah. Godzilla vs Gigan (1972), was the last Godzilla film he made and besides some very minor roles in other movies, this was the last time he played the character which he had brought to terrifying life. After many years of retirement, he appeared at G Fest, a Godzilla convention several times and has been mentioned in G Fan magazine many times, as well as having a comic about him telling the story of his life in (G Fan issue 109).  There is even a plastic toy (which is very rare) of Nakajima using the Godzilla legs with suspenders. On August 7, 2017, there was sad news for G Fans everywhere. Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla, had died at the age of 88. Although he is dead he is still remembered by G Fans all over the world. In an interview with him called The Man who was Godzilla he said this, “In the end, the Godzilla I played remains on film forever”.

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Seriously? Age 14? This was a beautifully done and very thorough tribute from someone so young, Stephen. The film industry harbors so may untold stories and it's wonderful to see one told in the thoughtful way in which you've told the story of Hauro Nakajima. Many thanks to you. I've enjoyed many Godzilla movies over the years and now I'll be able to enjoy them with this new perspective.

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