What Was It Like To Play Godzilla, King Kong, Rodan, And Mothra?
When monster movie fans think of the names Godzilla, King Kong, Rodan, Mothra and Varan they most often times have fond memories of 200-foot-tall creatures stepping on buildings while terrified townspeople flee for their lives in terror. Though these monsters may be household names to just about everyone, the man who actually climbed into the hot and cumbersome costumes to make them come to life has been an unsung hero who has very rarely received any credit.
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That man is Haruo Nakajima, a Japanese actor who from 1954 to 1972 put on the heavy rubber costumes to play Toho's most famous movie monsters.
Nakajima started out in the Japanese movie industry as a bit player in the early 1950's. The eager young actor was mostly cast as a background extra and often times found himself on the wrong end of a sword, that is, until one day Eiji Tsuburaya (known as the father of Japanese special effects) approached him about volunteering for a risky stunt. The film that would ultimately bring both Nakajima and Tsuburaya together was the WWII action film "Operation Kamikaze" in which a pilot was to emerge from a crashed aircraft completely engulfed in flames. A stunt where an actor was to be set on fire had never been attempted in Japan before and Tsuburaya was looking for someone brave enough to be the guinea pig. Nakajima was the only actor to step forward when called.
As fate would have it, a year later Tsuburaya would be looking for someone to once again do something never before attempted in a Japanese movie, this time however he needed an actor to wear a heavy monster costume made of melted car tires for a film called "Gojira" (Godzilla). As Nakajima explains Tsuburaya, and the film's director Ishiro Honda (who also directed Operation Kamikaze) knew exactly who to call, "The film makers were scratching their heads wondering who they could get to put on the suit, then the remembered my stunt. They thought, hey let's get that guy we set on fire last year."
Though Nakajima didn't know what he was about to get himself into, he accepted the job, if for nothing else, to keep himself employed.
Nakajima endured wearing that 200-pound costume for the entire filming of "Gojira". Though other actors were cast to play the monster, only Nakajima could tolerate the costume, long working hours and awful filming conditions.
The filming for "Gojira" took place in the summer of 1954, which would be one of the hottest on record in Japan. Since the stages at Toho had no air conditioning and because Nakajima had to wear that heavy costume, the production was moved from a normal shooting during the day to a 5pm to 5am schedule. According to the actor "The crew often times said that the shooting schedule was the real Gojira (Monster)."
The success of "Gojira" spawned numerous sequels and other special effects driven films. Every time one of those films needed a monster Nakajima was called upon to do the dirty work. In the sequel to Gojira/Godzilla, entitled "Godzilla Raids Again" Nakajima's character was pitted against another monster, Anguirus, who was played by fellow actor Katsumi Tezuka. Nakajima took Tezuka under his wing to teach him how to act in the monster's cumbersome costume. Though the actor did his best, Nakajima knew that his understudy didn't have what it took, "He had a hard time in the costume and he could only move around in it for short periods of time."
Likewise on the set of "Rodan" a cable snapped while Nakajima was inside the monster's costume suspended some 10-meters above the sound stage, "The cable broke and I began to spin wildly before the whole thing gave way and I came crashing to the ground. Luckily the costume had wings and I landed in the water which protected me."
Tsuburaya was very pleased to see that Nakajima was okay stating, "I'm glad that you didn't die."
Nakajima notes that not all of the parts he played were difficult, in fact the role of Moguera in "The Mysterians" was literally a walk in the park, "The role was easy, all the robot did was walk around and the suit was light."
Nakajima's hardest role came in 1967 when he was called upon to play another world-famous monster, King Kong, in "King Kong Escapes". The actor recalls, "The monster was very hard to play because the suit was so different. The arms were long, longer than my own, and I had to use sticks to control the hands, also the legs were short so I had to walk all hunched over."
On the set of "Frankenstein Conquers the World" Nakajima had the pleasure of showcasing his martial arts skills against fellow actor Koji Furuhata (as Frankenstein). Likewise he would also get to showcase his fighting skills three years later, this time against Yû Sekida in "War of the Gargantuas".
Nakajima remembers sparing against Furuhata and giving the young man a few tips on acting, "The guy that they got to play opposite me wasn't an actor so I had to take some time to teach him how to work in front of the camera. I did enjoy working with him though, we got to match our martial arts skills. He was a black belt and I used my judo."
As Baragon, however, the actor had yet another unique experience on set, "The monster didn't fly as such, but had to leap great distances. There were four or so crew members with wires that had to pull as hard as they could to get me to launch forward."
Though playing monsters was hard, Nakajima never complained, thinking that he would be a fool to pass up such work, a fact that Tsuburaya playfully reminded him of on several occasions, "He would say to me 'even a fool could do this', so I never complained or said no."
Though Nakajima has played a vast number of monsters, it was revealed at this years Monsterpalooza that two of the monsters he has been credited as playing were not actually him at all. One being the insect-like Meganeuron from "Rodan" and the other being the giant walrus from "Gorath". When asked about these two monsters Nakajima stated that he never played them, though several pieces of documentation state that he did.
Haruo Nakajima is not the only actor to ever play Godzilla, there were two others, but his ground-breaking work in the early days of Toho monster movies set a standard for which every other suit actor would be measured. He gave the "King of the Monsters" and his brethren life and helped establish the monster as a world-wide cinema icon. His hours of hard work has brought such joy to movie fans around the world. It is only fitting that this unsung hero of the silver screen get the kudos that he much deserves.
Haruo Nakajima we take off our monster heads to salute you!