The Godzilla-Sized Legacy of Haruo Nakajima
By Daniel Dockery
For twelve straight films, from the 1954’s haunting Gojira to 1972’s bloody, rambunctious Godzilla On Monster Island, stuntman Haruo Nakajima wore the costume of the titular beast. Along with portraying Godzilla, Nakajima played other various Japanese monsters for the film company Toho, and he is just as important to the history of Godzilla as director Ishiro Honda, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and composer Akira Ifukube. Why? He was hidden by a hot rubber suit literally 100% of the time. He definitely didn’t fit the classical definition of “actor.”
Because, while many filmmakers have established that Godzilla is a metaphor, Haruo Nakajima is one of the only people to establish him as a character.
To Nakajima, Godzilla wasn’t just a force of nature, an atomic reckoning that lumbered through Tokyo until he got bored with spitting beams and returned to the bay. He was a beast. He was a hero. He had a personality. He wasn’t just a savior to the beleaguered citizens of Japan that had once again found themselves attacked by a King Ghidorah or a Gigan. He was a giant, fire-breathing Hulk Hogan. Go back and watch the way his Godzilla moves and falls and fights and reacts to things. That’s a monster with a soul, not just a man being paid a few bucks to put on a lizard outfit and kick over buildings.
Each time he played Godzilla, he brought something unique to the table. Look at his performance in Gojira. It’s slow and deliberate, but never mindless. Yet, despite Godzilla being Godzilla at his most atomic bomb metaphor-ey, he’s still a creature, swatting at the efforts of the ineffective jets that zoom around him. Then move to Godzilla Raids Again, where he is a savage animal, fighting to the death with Angilas, clawing and scratching and biting his way to a frantic victory.
Look at Godzilla in King Kong vs Godzilla and Godzilla vs The Thing, where he isn’t just the stronger monster, but a bully. The Godzilla here is the final boss of the whole world. And then, for the exact opposite, look at Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster and Monster Zero where Godzilla, outmatched by a cackling three-headed demon from space, is forced to tag team with characters that he’d previously spent entire movies kicking the crap out of. And then compare that to Team Leader Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters and Protective Daddy Godzilla in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla’s Revenge. Then look at Pissed Off Island Godzilla in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Disgusted, Confused Godzilla in Godzilla vs Hedorah. And finally, check out a Godzilla performance that can best be described as “You built a tower that looks like me? Nah, bro” Godzilla in Godzilla On Monster Island. All performances that are definitely and unmistakably Godzilla, but are never phoned in.
It saddens me that Nakajima never got the recognition he deserved. Nowadays, film critics debate the merits of special effects-assisted performances, like Andy Serkis’ motion capture roles in King Kong, Lord of the Rings, and War for the Planet of the Apes. And I hope that one day, Nakajima’s name gets thrown into that discussion. This isn’t a plea to get him some kind of reward, but it is a request to remember his legacy in the grand scheme of monster movies, especially the ones that focus on the Big G. Because the King of the Monsters wouldn’t be the icon that he is today if Nakajima hadn’t given the role everything he had.