The way the world works is that everyone will eventually get old and die. Sadly, some people will leave us before their time, while others will die after mostly being forgotten. It’s just the nature of the world that the actors and artists we love for so long will eventually leave us, but we always hope we’ll get a chance to commemorate them before they’re gone.
Passing away at 88 this past week, Haruo Nakajima was not a name most people would know offhand without hitting Google. Like so many artists making movies, his work was done almost completely behind the scenes and in the obscurity of working in a country far from our own. Much of his work wouldn’t be discovered and loved until decades later.
In case you missed this earlier in the week, Nakajima-san was the man inside the Godzilla suit from 1954 to 1972, playing the beloved monster in 12 movies produced by Toho Pictures. He also portrayed Rodan in the movie of the same name and another popular creature, Mothra, in his (or is it her?) debut. These movies created and helped define a genre known as “kaiju,” one which continued to create a fanbase that was compounded over time.
Nakajima was also an actor who appeared sans monster suit in two of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest films, Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, something that’s almost a footnote to all the monster roles he played.
Mind you, I was a very impressionable kid and while I don’t remember exactly when I first discovered Godzilla and the other monsters, but chances are that it was a Saturday just like this one and I was flicking through the TV channels unsupervised — because we could do that as kids back when I was one — and came upon one of the Godzilla movies. Definitely not the original Godzilla, but one of the fun ones where he was fighting other monsters, and more than likely it was after 1972 after Nakajima had already finished his tenure as Godzilla.
My favorite of those movies was Destroy All Monsters, because that had all of Toho’s kaiju in one place, Monster Island — called “Monsterland” in the Japanese version — and they all teamed up with Godzilla to fight King Ghidira, the three-headed dragon from outer space that shot lightning-like “gravity beams” from all three heads.
Watching those movies for the first time as a kid, you were never thinking “Hey, there’s a bunch of dudes in monster suits fighting each other.” No, you literally sat there with your mouth open, watching all the amazing things Godzilla would do to defeat insurmountable odds. I’m sure I watched many of those early movies a dozen times or more before it dawned on me that those were guys wearing suits and even longer to realize that it was way more than just games they were playing.
That’s what was so amazing about Haruo Nakajima’s work, because he wasn’t just a paid actor who was putting this suit on to earn a quick buck. Like most actors, he could have continued to do background roles in the extensive number of films being made in Japan throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. But once he was insided the suit, Toho Studios realized that they couldn’t have Godzilla without Nakajima-san.
When you’re watching those Godzilla movies, even now, it’s hard not to be amazed by the expressiveness of his movements, often showing real emotion despite the primitive mechanics of the suits. Remember that this was even before animatronics, let alone computer visual FX, so that was all being done by Nakajima on set as the cameras rolled.
Like I said, this wasn’t just a paid gig for Nakajima, but a true passion, where as an actor, he would go to the zoo and watch lizards and other creatures that he would incorporate into his performance, but then there was a lovability Godzilla evoked that clearly came from the actor’s own personality.
The influence those kaiju movies and Nakajima’s work had on future filmmakers and artists is incredibly vast, most notably to Guillermo del Toro, who would constantly insert giant creatures into his work. Sure, he would use CG to create most of them, but he also worked extensively with Doug Jones and other “creature actors” to bring these creatures to life. Let’s get something straight, though — Doug Jones is a great actor with or without the creature FX — he just has the physique to excel when bringing fantastic creatures to life, as he did in the Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth.
On the other side of the globe, but closer to Japan, Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson had such a love for the original King Kong it drove him to remake the movie 72 years later. In this case, he had already seen what could be done with CG and performance capture, so he once again hired his go-to guy Andy Serkis to portray the giant ape. Instead of wearing a suit, Serkis put on a special performance capture rig that was converted into CG by the fine folks at WETA. The influence of Haruo Nakajima is still evident, because Jackson knew that only a talented actor like Andy Serkis could instill emotions into what is otherwise merely a giant gorilla.
Serkis would go on to build his own performance capture studio and continue to push the envelope on what could be done, most notably as Caesar in the three Planet of the Apes prequels. Many feel he should be honored by the Academy for his performance in the most recent one.
I’m not sure if Serkis ever had a chance to meet Nakajima at the monster conventions he would appear at more regularly in the nineties and afterwards, but the influence of what Nakajima did to create Godzilla and other monsters remained.
Just as recently, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo was inspired by the monster movies he loved as a kid to write and direct Colossal. Although he didn’t dare put Anne Hathaway inside a monster suit, the general principle of these monsters being affected by and emoting true human emotions was there.
Sadly, I never had a chance to meet Nakajima-san. If he had been at a convention that I also was attending, I just didn’t realize it.
My love for Godzilla continues to this day, and even though there have been some misfires along the way, nothing brought me more joy than watching Godzilla: Final Wars with an audience at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2005. Although director Ryûhei Kitamura used CG to create his kaiju, the spirit of those earlier Toho Studios movies and some of my favorite monsters was still there. You know that the director and his entire animation team went back to rewatch Nakajima’s movies in order to try to recreate the humanity he brought to Godzilla and other monsters.
I’m sure the folks at Toho Pictures also rewatched those old movies when they revived Godzilla in last year’s Shin Godzilla, which was finally released in the States on DVD and Blu-ray just last week. Nakajima’s early work and influence on the genre is still evident in every scene despite the evolution of technology since 1972.
In 1983, Nakajima-san had the opportunity to try on the Godzilla suit one more time, and thankfully, someone captured that on film, which you can watch below. His legacy may be a silent one, but it’s one that will last for a very long time.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor