For the best part of two decades, from the first Godzilla in 1954 through Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972, actor Haruo NAKAJIMA served as the literal backbone of Toho Company’s tokusatsu production. A pioneer of the process of special effects suit acting, Nakajima performed the difficult and often dangerous task of bringing some of Japan’s most iconic larger-than-large monsters to life.
Though best known for originating the role of Godzilla, a part he would revisit across a total of twelve film appearances, in many ways Nakajima was the golden age of tokusatsu filmmaking. He was the underground monster Baragon, the flying beasts Rodan and Varan, a liquified H-man, and even the fungally-possessed Matango. Growing up in the 1980s, when much of his work was in local TV rotations and the wonder-tech of VHS had finally made film accessibly obsessable, I watched with wide-eyed wonder over and over again. The dubs were often as lousy as the prints were shabby, but this sort of spectacle speaks in its own indelible language. I didn’t know Nakajima’s name then, but as his characters laid waste to the elaborately miniaturized edifices of human civilization I knew I wanted to be him.
Sure, like the rest of the kids in school, I’d say I wanted to be a sailor or a scientist or, in my more honest moments, a writer. Deep down, though, I always wanted to be Godzilla.
Haruo Nakajima (中島春雄, b. 1929) passed away earlier this week at the age of 88. Needless to say he and his work have meant a lot to me over the years, as they have to countless others. Here, then, are a few personal favorites from among his performances, presented in no particular order.
The Mysterians : dir Ishiro Honda : spfx dir Eiji Tsuburaya : 1957
Giant monsters may play a more supplemental role in The Mysterians than in some other Toho effects productions, but that hasn’t kept them from becoming one of its most memorable features. Nakajima appears as the first of a pair of underground robots deployed by the eponymous extraterrestrial Mysterians, whose rampage early in the film serves as a distraction from the aliens’ scheming. The actor provides an appropriately dispassionate performance for the remote-controlled Mogera, who tangles with high tension towers and levels a mountain village with heat rays before bumbling its way into a Defense Force trap.
Mogera might have been memorable enough by virtue of its bizarre, angular design or the film’s lavish color ‘Scope production values, but the cold physicality of Nakajima’s performance stands out for me. In a genre that quickly came to be defined by its increasingly personable slate of monster characters, Mogera remains deliberately unrelateable, an arbitrary and mindless destructive force and a warning against the thoughtless misapplication of space-age science.
godzilla vs. the smog monster : dir yoshimitsu banno : spfx dir teruyoshi nakano : 1971
Yoshimitsu BANNO’s Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster has serious business on its mind, namely the rampant ecological disregard that was making life miserable in Japan (and elsewhere) in the 1970s. What better to combat such human foibles than the indisputable King of the Monsters, here presented in the starkest heroic terms the series had yet offered.
Nakajima is a delight in his penultimate Godzilla performance, particularly in his playful pantomime exchanges with future-Godzilla Kenpachiro SATSUMA, here playing the chortling and sinister Hedorah. With the second half of the film dominated almost entirely by a protracted confrontation between the pair at the base of Mt. Fuji (so many effects set ups!), one imagines this to have been a particularly demanding turn for both actors, but the effort more than pays off. Smog Monster stands as one of Nakajima’s most charismatic monster turns.
Mothra vs. Godzilla : dir ishiro honda : spfx dir eiji tsuburaya : 1964
Nakajima would return to his most iconic role twice in 1964 alone, with the Winter release of Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster signalling the character’s first furtive steps into more heroic monster-fighter territory. That leaves Mothra vs. Godzilla as the last example of the monster as antagonist until the 1984 series reboot.
Here Godzilla remains much as he was in the first film – brutish and demonstrably angry at the civilization that atom-bombed him out of his deep-sea niche and into the modern world. Nakajima’s performance is intimidating and even frightening, but also strangely vulnerable. The clumsiness here (the film’s most iconic scene of destruction results from the monster slipping and falling onto a national treasure) is deliberate, a contrast to the peaceful elegance of the insect-god Mothra and a metaphoric representation of the worst impulses of Cold War-era mankind.
King Kong Escapes : dir ishiro honda : spfx dir eiji tsuburaya : 1967
Compared to the early days of Toho science fiction 1967’s King Kong Escapes feels positively confectionary, which makes sense. Escapes was, after all, a Japanese-American co-production between Toho and Rankin-Bass derived loosely from the former’s animated King Kong show. Nakajima stars as the island King, here tasked with battling a mad scientist, unchecked nuclear proliferation, and a devilish mechanical version of himself, with some time on the side for the requisite dinosaur wrangling.
Nakajima shines, particularly in light of how awkwardly built the suit appears to be (in keeping with the cartoon, the Kong here has tiny legs and extended arms and hilariously beefy shoulders), and plays Kong as noble, heroic, irrevocably strong, and perhaps a little too dumb for his own good. It’s a winning combination, particularly when set against the wiles of the kangaroo-kicking Gorosaurus and the dastardly Mechani-Kong (both performed by frequent Nakajima co-star Hiroshi SEKITA).
Gaira / Green Gargantua
War of the Gargantuas : dir Ishiro Honda : spfx dir Eiji Tsuburaya : 1966
Out of all of Nakajima’s performances this is my undisputed favorite. Paired once more with Hiroshi Sekita (playing Sanda, or the Brown Gargantua depending upon which version of the film you’re viewing), Nakajima and his co-star develop such soundly realized characters that the narrative of monster brother against monster brother utterly supersedes the well-produced human drama that surrounds it.
In a rare overtly villainous turn, Nakajima instills the man-eating Gaira with as much cowardice as fury, concealing the creature’s barely sublimated fears with out-sized bravado. Gaira is quick to threaten his brother when tides turn against (those arms in the air say it all), but opts for cheap shots and flight rather than direct confrontation. Sekita’s Sanda contrasts perfectly, erring on the side of diplomacy until Gaira’s indefensible actions force his hand. The resulting battle is as ferocious as it is tragic, culminating in the monsters’ wholly avoidable, yet irresistible destruction. William Wyler’s lauded Cold War Western The Big Country comes to mind. In its way Gargantuas can be quite profound.