Haruo Nakajima – greater than Godzilla
Haruo Nakajima died early last week. The man and the force that gave life and soul to a creature that would likely have been a cheap B-movie novelty act if left in the hands of a lesser performer. I am, of course, talking about that living mountain of scorched awesomeness, Godzilla.
As a kid, I saw the creature exactly as he appeared on screen and never associated him with anything deeper than a flat yet exciting image on my grandparents’ old TV set. Then I hit my teens and came into that really annoying ‘put away childish things’ phase that kids think is the smart and mature way to go.
I began looking at everything with a more critical eye and found myself looking down my nose on things which I absolutely adored as a tot yet which no longer gelled with my newfound ‘maturity’. Many fell victim to this mindset and the realm of my childhood nostalgia became a killing field littered with the corpses of immaturity.
Eventually, this phase ended, and I’m glad it did even though some good did come of it. I learned to balance critical thinking with enthusiastic imagination, and through this alliance, I could objectively appreciate both the sensible and the absurd. And so, the blacklist ended and Godzilla was finally allowed back into the country.
It had been easy to exile him in the first place since, on the surface, what intelligent person would get enjoyment from watching a guy staggering around in a dumpy monster suit? This dismissal was made even easier by the fact that, back then, I simply didn’t care about the immense effort, toil, and craft put into a simple shot of a lumbering Godzilla leveling whole neighborhoods and swatting Japanese fighter planes out of the air.
And if someone lesser than Haruo Nakajima, a veteran stuntman and martial artist, had donned that legendary suit, then the result would have been just a shallowly amusing smash-fest. But Nakajima fought through the stiff, overweight suit and managed to convey a personality for Godzilla beyond ‘I will smash this!’
Granted, that’s all a creature as big and angry as him could ever accomplish, but between all the destruction set-pieces that define the series, subtle sparks of a soul were conveyed by the man inside the rubbery, unwieldy beast. This soul wasn’t apparent at first since the suit used in the original 1954 film was so heavy and stiff that just moving in it was an accomplishment.
Still, this defect ended up adding to the movie’s atmosphere and invested the on-screen creature with a palpable sense of crushing weight and terrifying gravitas. Much like George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, the low budget, untested technology, and largely inexperienced crew of the first Godzilla movie created an unexpectedly darker, grittier atmosphere than what was intended. One of those rare occasions where the movie’s technical faults actually added greatly to its bleak aesthetic.
As the suits of later films became lighter and more flexible, Nakajima was afforded greater latitudes of expression as Godzilla. My favorite early example was in Godzilla vs Mothra in which Nakajima invested the beast’s movement with a strange grace and quiet menace that beautifully underscored the destruction he wreaked across the film’s landscape. Instead of coming across as a big, dumb monster, Nakajima’s suit-acting evoked the persona of a monster that moved with unnerving calmness but attacked with a frenzied rage when obstructed or threatened.
A little kid watching these movies rarely recognizes the subtle touches that give great weight to an iconic monster like Godzilla. The kid just sees the cool monster smashing stuff. Then the kid gets older, hopefully gets a little wiser, and recognizes that there’s a lot more going on in order to bring the monster to life on screen. Haruo Nakajima was the first to breathe life into Godzilla, and he did this so well that his successors, whether by suit or CGI, gladly follow in his monstrous footsteps…
…Except for a handful of times when Godzilla inexplicably broke out dancing. The less said about that, the better.
Image credits: TOHO Studios