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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Harou Nakajima, a giant of the big screen, dies but Godzilla lives on

Japanese actor dressed in a concrete and rubber suits to play the rampant reptile

Haruo Nakajima, got suited up as Godzilla to terrorise cities 12 times, from 1954 to 1972, but also enjoyed playing other monsters in Japanese Kaiju films. The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Haruo Nakajima, got suited up as Godzilla to terrorise cities 12 times, from 1954 to 1972, but also enjoyed playing other monsters in Japanese Kaiju films. The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

A giant of the film industry, the man who portrayed the very first iconic movie monster Godzilla on-screen has died, prompting reflection on the series that made him a household name.

Japanese actor Haruo Nakajima, 88, succumbed to pneumonia on Monday after being hospitalised last month.

Nakajima first pulled on the scaly lizard suit in Toho Studios’ 1954 film Godzilla, and went on to appear in another 11 movies in the series, which has since run to 29, including the most recent reboot Shin Godzilla (2016).

His final appearance as the monster was in the 1972 instalment Godzilla vs Gigan.

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The film legend began his career at the age of 33 in Sword for Hire. He was originally contracted to Toho Studios as a stunt performer and appeared in small, often uncredited roles in several samurai and war films – including portraying a bandit in Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai – before he got his (very) big break in the soon-to-be legendary Godzilla later that year.

As the giant lizard Godzilla, Nakajima was required to wear a concrete bodysuit weighing up to 100 kilograms – the oft-ridiculed rubber suits of the movie legend would not come until later due to the shortage of rubber in Japan after the Second World War.

The actor told CBS News in a 2014 interview that the temperature inside the cumbersome costume reached up to 60 degrees Celsius.

Nakajima said he based Godzilla’s movements on observing gorillas and elephants – interestingly, not lizards – at his local zoo, and also by watching the original 1933 King Kong film.

His monster movement observations served him well. In the 20 years following his debut, the actor would go on to be the go-to costume actor of Japanese Kaiju (monster) cinema. He played a pterodactyl-like insect in Rodan (1956), then another giant insect, Mothra, in Toho’s 1961 Kaiju film of the same name. In a postmodern twist, he then played his trademark Godzilla battling Mothra in Mothra vs Godzilla (1964); Manbat in Latitude Zero (1969), and even got the chance to portray his original simian inspiration, King Kong, in the 1967 United States/Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes.

Haruo Nakajima in the concrete bodysuit as Godzilla, in 1954. Courtesy Rialto Pictures
Haruo Nakajima in the concrete bodysuit as Godzilla, in 1954. Courtesy Rialto Pictures

Nakajima may no longer be with us, but his memory will be well-served by the ongoing popularity of his most famous character. There have already been a number of Hollywood adaptations of the adventures of the rampant reptile, as well as cartoons, comic books, video games and even a colourised and re-edited Italian remake, Cozzilla.

And there is plenty more to come. The original concept of a mutated, radioactive giant lizard-dinosaur creature may have been very much a product of post-Hiroshima Japan but the character’s popularity shows no signs of waning in the 21st century.

The next, animated, instalment in the Toho franchise is due on Netflix later this year, while in Hollywood, Warner Brothers has two movies starring the much-loved monster on the slate – Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, due in 2019, And Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong the following year.

As the actor told The Big Story in March this year: “In the end, the Godzilla I played remains on film forever. It remains in people’s memory, and for that I feel really grateful.”