We have lost a kaiju legend. Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla who did the Tokyo smash like no other and played an array of other mutant species for Toho Studios, has passed away at the age of 88 ... but his work is as immortal as the those big-screen monsters.
Godzilla was the brainchild of several mega-imaginations, including Nakajima's. He observed bears and elephants at the zoo in order to create a believable walk for the creature, whose rise from the sea after nuclear testing was a fire-breathing reminder of the perils of nuclear war in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He actually tried to avoid moving freakishly in the immensely heavy rubber suit of an altered organism that was already a freak.
Nakajima would go on to play other larger-than-life-forms, including the massive Pteranodon-esque Rodan in Rodan, hulking humanoid Gaira in Batle of the Gargantuas, and King Kong in King Kong Escapes (who did the cannonball to end all cannonballs). Besides possessing almost paranormal strength that withstood rubber suits weighing hundreds of pounds, the actor was incredibly brave to face near-death experiences such as a brush with drowning while filming a water scene in Rodan. He was something of a rare mutation himself — in the best possible way.
Take a look back at lizards and leviathans as we remember eight monster moments in Haruo Nakajima's film career.
That first deafening roar in Godzilla (1954)
This isn't about how many enormous monsters you can pack into one fight scene as much as it is about the terror unleashed by the original. Sometimes you wonder if the human screams are even louder than even that earth-shattering sound. Of course, there is no way you wouldn't shriek your brains out if you suddenly saw something that looked like T-Rex on steroids rising above a hill seemingly out of nowhere.
Even though Godzilla just stands there for the most part, waving around his claws and showing off his tremendous teeth, the thunderous bawl of the behemoth became one of the most iconic noises in cinematic history. How can you hear it and not think an entire city is about to be vaporized?
Godzilla has the design DNA of a Tyrannosaurus (no surprise there) and Iguanadon spliced with Stegosaurus dorsal fins. Weighing in at 220 pounds, the suit was so monstrous that Nakajima actually lost 20 pounds from all that heavy lifting.
Facing off against Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Just when Godzilla thinks he's the only terror to stomp on Tokyo, enter Anguirus, something that looks like part ankylosaur, part Pinhead and all beast. Something with its own built-in body armor isn’t easy prey for even a gargantuan DNA-altered reptile. Even blasts of Godzilla breath aren't enough to roast this thing. The two seem to be struggling in an eternal deathlock of scales and spines to the point that you almost can't tell whose roar is whose anymore, and two massive monsters fighting to the death are also inevitably going to knock over a couple buildings. Meaning, another wall is going to come crashing down in your face every time you try to escape, screaming in vain. No big deal.
This film marks when the kaiju genre really hatched as Godzilla realizes he isn't the only prehistoric terror roaming Tokyo. Anguirus is a relic raised by the same hydrogen bomb that reanimated Godzilla.
Soaring into chaos in Rodan (1956)
When a pilot's last words before his signal goes dead are It’s coming at me barely a minute into a movie, you know plenty more than just one plane is going to come crashing to the ground. Rodan is like the Godzilla of the air. Not only does this mutant Pteranodon have the wingspan to rival a Boeing 747, but whatever it flies directly over is either suddenly airborne or gets turned to dust from the sheer force of wind it generates. Buildings crumble to their foundations. Shingles scatter like confetti. Buses and cars are blown off bridges. The thing doesn't even need to waste its energy in flight, because it can create winds of mass destruction from just perching atop a skyscraper and flapping its enormous wings.
Superhuman as he was, Nakajima didn't have to actually fly in that rubber suit — the flight sequences were portrayed by puppets, but he did get the full glory of perching on buildings and blowing away everything else.
Clashing with mutant lobster claws in Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep (1966)
If there's anything (almost) scarier than Godzilla, it has to be the shrieking lobstrosity known as Ebirah rising from a tumultuous ocean, snapping its claws as an invitation for the giant lizard to splash over and fight. Ebirah obviously didn't know he was out of his depth. As if those pincers could possibly penetrate Godzilla’s mutant reptilian skin! When they get too close, the giant lizard cooks the lobster with a monster blast of its atomic breath before wrestling it one last time as both beasts slosh around in the water. You already know who wins. What makes it even more awesome is the scaly victor holds up his enemy arthropod’s dead claw, snapping it as a gory battle trophy.
Nakajima actually wore a wetsuit under his already heavy rubber Godzilla suit for this one and filmed all underwater sequences in an immense aquarium, which is why the water scenes took an extra week to wade through. He swore he never got cold.
Tangling with tentacles in the War of the Gargantuas (1966)
As hairy humanoid Gaira, Nakajima entangles himself in the tentacles of a giant red-eyed octopus that was just about to sink a fishing boat in the stormy night. It's just that amazing to see what could pass for a moldy-looking Bigfoot challenging a Cthuloid of equal size and then throwing his vicious arms up in victory, but do you really think this creature is out to save the terrified sailor on board? That boat might as well be plastic in hands so huge he can easily grab it in just one. Then he has all the fun he possibly can have splashing the thing around like it's a bathtub toy. While Gaira doesn't roar like Godzilla, he still has a nightmarish scream that kind of sounds like a dinosaur with bronchitis.
You really have to give Nakajima props for every single suit he submerged in water, especially those hairy ones that had the added bonus of monster fur getting waterlogged and just making them more frustrating to maneuver in.
Making a splash in King Kong Escapes (1967)
You may have never imagined a giant gorilla taking the Polar Bear Plunge, but that's exactly what Kong does in a desperate attempt to escape robotic doppelganger Mechani-Kong (created to dig for a highly radioactive element in the icy wastes) and swim to Japan, fleeing mad scientist Dr. Who’s base in the North Pole. He even runs for the water at an incredible speed for a hulking mass of muscle and fur and attempts to get into the rhythm of something vaguely resembling a stroke. Except apes of that size generally don't float too well. Where is that leviathan lobster when you need it? Still, Kong jumping off the icy edge into black waters is just about the most intense cannonball ever.
You can only wonder at how Nakajima actually ran in what must have been a suit even hotter than Godzilla's — taking all that fake fur into account — and then jumped. Plunging in must have been a relief.
Exterminating giant bugs in All Monsters Attack (1969)
Welcome to Flight 131 direct to Monster Island should be enough initiative to jump from a plane. In case it isn't, you'd be wise to keep yourself hidden in the jungle as the monster lizard faces off against a swarm of mutant giant praying mantis, aka Kamacuras. Godzilla is the ultimate exterminator. He hefts one over his head and slams it down to the ground in a puff of dust, but when that proves too much effort, he just needs to exhale on another one for it to drop dead. These things obviously don't have much more brain than an actual praying mantis since another Kamacura that tries to wrestle him only gets body-slammed and then fried by fire breath. Godzilla almost seems to be having fun squashing the bugs, which gives the whole thing a sort of morbid hilarity.
While stock footage from other Godzilla and kaiju movies was used here, All Monsters Attack is still a thrilling monster mash.
The ultimate mutant showdown in Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
What do you get when you throw Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra together to take down something with three heads and way too many teeth? You get a shrieking, slithering, writhing freak show that's just about impossible to look away from. Godzilla and Rodan charge in after Mothra is rendered useless from alien dragon Ghidorah's paralyzing gravity beams. Even when something as gargantuan as Godzilla gets knocked over, he easily gets to his feet again (I marvel at Nakajima for being able to pull that off in a 200-pound rubber suit) and proceeds to whack the living daylights out of Ghidora's multiple tails while a half-recovered Mothra, riding on Rodan's back, shoots it with her silk. When all that Silly String still doesn't entangle the beast, Godzilla finally has his moment and throws the screeching thing off the edge of a cliff.
You can't help but marvel at Nakajima's incredible strength here. Being able to heave one ridiculously huge rubber suit with three heads while stomping around in another is pretty badass.