Being Godzilla: An Interview with Nakajima Haruo, the Man Inside the SuitCulture
Well-Suited to the Role
Hardcore fans of Godzilla movies know the monster from the inside out—quite literally. That is to say that serious fans are familiar with, and have the greatest respect for, Nakajima Haruo, the actor who wore the Godzilla suit.
Sixty years ago, for the original Godzilla film, Nakajima was chosen to don the heavy rubber suit of the monster dreamed up by special-effects director Tsuburaya Eiji (1901–70). And his splendid performance in that role was precisely what helped to bring the monster alive on the screen, giving birth to rabid Godzilla fans around the globe.
Nakajima was born in 1929 and made his screen debut as a fighter pilot in the 1953 film Taiheiyō no washi (Eagles of the Pacific), produced by the studio that contracted him as an actor, Tōhō Co., Ltd. In the film, he performs a stunt in which his plane catches on fire.
After his success in that daring role, the young actor and stuntman was shown a script for an upcoming film tentatively known as “Project G” (G sakuhin). The film was treated like a top-secret plan; Nakajima couldn’t find out any more details about the project from the head of the acting department who handed him the script or from the director chosen for the film, Honda Ishirō. The director told Nakajima to direct his questions to Tsuburaya.
Top-Secret “Project G”
The hush-hush “Project G” became the legendary 1954 film Godzilla, which earned its special-effects director Tsuburaya his moniker as the “god of tokusatsu.” Nakajima recalls that when he met Tsuburaya to find out more about the secret project, the director spread out a couple of pictures, out of a dozen, from the storyboard for the film to give him a basic idea and then said:
“We’ve come up with the character, but I’m not really sure about how it’ll work out. I’ll only know once you get in the costume and walk around. We can iron out the rest of the game plan later.”
Tsuburaya showed Nakajima King Kong to give him a better idea of what the upcoming film’s monster would be like, although the 50-meter-tall Godzilla towered over that cinematic ape, which was only a fifth of its height.
“You’re the actor, so just concentrate on giving your best performance,” Tsuburaya instructed Nakajima. “Leave the overall acting direction to me, as director. Just be ready for whatever directions I give. The costume weighs a ton, by the way. Will you be OK?”
Nakajima answered with an enthusiastic “Yes,” his pride as a professional not allowing him to answer otherwise. The director followed this up by urging the actor to “stick it out no matter how hard it gets”—eliciting another keen affirmation from Nakajima.
Shuffling Along in a 100-Kilo Suit
The special effects for the 1933 Hollywood movie King Kong were created using stop-motion animation. But Godzilla, with its short production schedule of just six months, did not have the luxury of using that time-consuming technique. Instead, Tsuburaya chose to build a miniature set and have an actor in a monster suit wreak havoc on it.
Running around in that first Godzilla suit proved to be a far tougher assignment than Nakajima could ever have imagined, however. The costume was made out of hard rubber, like that of a car tire, and weighed about 100 kilograms. On top of this, he had to wear thick wooden sandals, or geta, inside the costume. All of this contributed to making every movement a chore.
“It was a very solitary feeling inside that suit,” Nakajima recalls. “My thoughts were just focused on the next movement to make. It was pointless to think about anything else, since the whole job came down to playing the part without toppling over from the weight.”
But Nakajima still came up with clever ways to give the movements of Godzilla a distinctive quality. As many Godzilla fans know, he made a point of stopping by the Ueno Zoo almost every day to study the movements of the elephants and bears there. And since Tsuburaya was filming the action at 2.5 or 3 times the normal speed, Nakajima had to alter the pace of his own movements accordingly.
The key to getting the Godzilla walk right, according to Nakajima, is to shuffle your feet, as he explains: “No one should ever see the monster’s heels. Godzilla won’t look strong without that shuffle. The same is true of a sumō wrestler, you know.”
An Unforgettable, Riveted Reaction
Nakajima’s only blooper in performing the role of Godzilla was when he knocked over Ginza’s famous clock tower in a manner too laconic for Tsuburaya’s liking.
Nakajima assumed that his tour of duty as Godzilla would be a one-off job, but he ended up shuffling around in the iconic monster suit for a total of 12 films. He takes pride that he only had one mishap during all those performances. That blunder occurred in the scene in the original film where the monster crushes the famous clock tower on the Hattori Building in Ginza (now called the Wakō Building).
“I ended up smashing the building in a way that was a bit too casual for Tsuburaya’s liking, and he told me so. We had to reshoot the scene, which meant rebuilding parts of the miniature. And we had to wait about a month for the plaster to dry properly. In the scene we reshot, the clock on the building chimes and Godzilla looks at it, out of curiosity, and then smashes the clock to pieces. It was a relief that I got that scene right the second time around.”
The original Godzilla film, released in November 1954, was a huge hit in Japan, drawing in around 9.6 million moviegoers. Two years later a re-edited English version with added scenes debuted in the United States under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters, marking the monster’s first (shuffling) step toward becoming a global sensation.
Today, 60 years after Godzilla’s Japanese debut, Nakajima still vividly recalls the reaction of audiences at the time.
“After the film was released, I bought a ticket to see it for myself. I sat in the front row so I could look back to see the reaction on the faces of people in the audience. What I saw was fascinating. The children in the audience were jabbering during an early scene when the scientist played by Shimura Takashi is talking. But then, suddenly, there is the thunderous sound that marks Godzilla’s arrival, and I saw the children’s eyes light up, every one of them. It was so marvelous for me to see that reaction that I broke out in tears.”
And just recalling that feeling is enough for Nakajima to get teary-eyed again, six decades later.
Over the course of his career at Tōhō, Nakajima played a whole range of monsters, most notably Rodan. He also appeared as other creatures on TV shows, such as Ultra Q. When asked what monster made the most fearsome foe for Godzilla, he told us: “I would have to say that human beings are the scariest creatures for Godzilla. After all, we manage to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas.”
Special-effects master Tsuburaya Eiji (center) took on directing duties for scenes involving monsters.
Nakajima Haruo’s 12 Godzilla Films
|1||Godzilla||Nov. 3, 1954|
|2||Godzilla Raids Again||Apr. 24, 1955|
|3||King Kong vs. Godzilla||Aug. 11, 1962|
|4||Mothra vs. Godzilla||Apr. 29, 1964|
|5||Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster||Dec. 20, 1964|
|6||Invasion of Astro-Monster||Dec. 19, 1965|
|7||Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster||Dec. 17, 1966|
|8||Son of Godzilla||Dec. 16, 1967|
|9||Destroy All Monsters||Aug. 1, 1968|
|10||All Monsters Attack||Dec. 20, 1969|
|11||Godzilla vs. Hedorah||Jul. 24, 1971|
|12||Godzilla vs. Gigan||Mar. 12, 1972|
(Original Japanese article based on a June 12, 2014, interview. Banner photograph is an image of Nakajima Haruo taken during the filming of the 1966 film Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.)
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