For 50 years, suitmation was something of a tradition in the Toho Godzilla series. While many of the films made from 1954-2004 used supplementary effects in bringing Godzilla to life (puppetry, animatronics, models, etc.), the dominant technique was always placing a stuntman inside of a monster costume and filming him on miniature sets. As Koichi Kawakita, the late special effects director of the '90s Heisei Godzilla series, once said: “Godzilla’s craft is an extension of Japanese cultural traditions: miniaturization from bonsai to electronics. Giving up to technology would not be Godzilla-like.”
Although it’s been gradually replaced with computer animation in Japan as well as in the United States, it is the age-old practice of suitmation which remains most closely identified with Godzilla. Here are 10 of the best Godzilla suits used in the series. One disclaimer: We are not including the original 1954 suit on this list because it would be too easy. Without the King of the Monsters' original, iconic look, there wouldn't be any of these others.
A popular design with the fans, this was the first Godzilla to appear in both widescreen and in color, when it went head-to-head with the Eighth Wonder of the World in 1962’s box office smash King Kong vs. Godzilla. The King-Goji suit is also significant in that it made a few long-lasting changes from the Godzilla suits of the 1950s: no dragon-like ears, three toes instead of four, just one row of prominent spines along the back.
But what really distinguishes this suit is its serpentine head and neck and its hunched posture, complemented by the unique arrangement of the dorsal spines, with the largest spine positioned behind the shoulders. An interesting detail regarding suit construction: The pupils were painted onto a clear plastic shield covering the eyes rather than painted directly onto them. This resulted in shadows being cast onto the white of the eyes underneath the plastic, making the pupils appear to shift as Godzilla moved — a very eerie and strangely lifelike effect.
One of the more durable Godzilla costumes, the Soshingeki-Goji suit was the starring attraction in four consecutive movies: Destroy All Monsters (1968), All Monsters Attack (1969), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), and Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). As its use in films continued, the head was regularly modified — sometimes out of necessity, to repair damage endured in the previous film.
In all of its appearances, this suit did a fantastic job striking a happy balance between seriousness and friendliness. Very fitting, as this was also the suit used in the final phases of Godzilla’s transformation from a rampant force of nature into a benevolent superhero.
With Godzilla set in his new ways as a heroic figure, special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano intentionally designed a more playful-looking monster for 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon. The head of the suit was modified with each film until reaching its best appearance in the final Showa film, Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975). It was here that the staff hit upon the ultimate look for a no-nonsense heroic Godzilla. The first time we see the King of the Monsters in that film — the camera zooming in upon him, an unexplained source of light illuminating his features — remains one of the finest individual moments in the entire series.
Created in the heyday of the monster vs. monster phase, the 1965 suit was built with more flexible joints, thereby permitting suit actor Haruo Nakajima greater mobility and making it easier for him to perform in battle sequences. The suit first appeared in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), returned for 1966’s Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, was fitted with a new head in the midst of filming (hence Godzilla’s drastically different appearance during his attack on the Red Bamboo fortress), and subsequently demoted to a “stunt suit” in future entries.
From there on out, it would be used to perform more hazardous tasks such as performing in water, until it was damaged beyond repair during the making of Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971). Substituting for the Soshingeki-Goji for when Hedorah drops Godzilla in a pit and pours slime over him, the suit was ruined for good, its endurance and longevity pushed to the limit.
The first Godzilla costume made for special effects director Koichi Kawakita, the Bio-Goji forged the basic design aesthetics that would stay with Godzilla for the remainder of the Heisei series: a more bottom-heavy physique, a smaller head, and double-rowed teeth. One of the many technical innovations Kawakita brought to the table was an alternate way of making Godzilla’s dorsal spines glow when he’s about to use his atomic breath.
Up to this point, the glowing of the spines had always been accomplished with animation; and while animation was still used in the Heisei series, Kawakita also constructed a second set of spines made of semitransparent FRP. Fitted with internal lights, these secondary spines could be flashed on cue. The Bio-Goji was modified into the Ghido-Goji suit used in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) and later relegated to a “stunt suit” in 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra.
In depicting the King of the Monsters on the verge of death in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), Kawakita took one of the costumes from 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, gave it new eyes and spines, and covered the skin with bright orange patches — realizing one of the most cherished designs in the franchise. In order to make the patches on Godzilla’s skin glow, nearly 200 tiny orange lightbulbs were installed underneath semi-transparent vinyl plates and powered by a thick cable which came out of the suit’s tail.
Playing Godzilla — already a dangerous and demanding task — became especially hazardous for suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma due to the constant streams of carbonic-acid gas venting out of the suit. Unable to avoid inhaling the harsh vapors while performing, Satsuma frequently fainted on the set. “[I] nearly died six times,” he recalled.
The first suit made for the Millennium series, Godzilla 2000’s Mire-Goji fares as one of the most impressive Godzilla designs with a larger head, massive jaws (actively used in the monster’s fighting methods), colossal jagged spines, and a lengthy tail which tapered to a point. The suit would be subsequently modified for 2000’s Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, given a brighter color scheme and very slight adjustments to the face.
By far the most intimidating of recent Godzilla designs, several costumes and props were constructed to realize Godzilla in 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (2001). Most impressive was the “performance suit,” which had the most elaborate devices in the neck and face to generate expressions. The performance suit also featured three rows of mobile dorsal spines. Fitted with motors, the center spines, when activated tilted forward and the outer rows fanned away from the center — a unique way of building up Godzilla’s signature atomic breath that sadly goes unnoticed through much of the finished film.
Featured in two of the most popular entries in the series — Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Ghidorah the Three-headed Monster (1964) — this costume hit upon all the right notes for a menacing, all-destroying Godzilla. Contrary to what has been reported in some venues, the head was not used to create the head of the monster Gabara in All Monsters Attack (1969) — special thanks to August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, for debunking this myth — although the suit’s body was combined with the head of the Daisenso-Goji to create the monster Jirass in an episode of Tsuburaya’s television show Ultraman (1966).
One innovation suit actor Haruo Nakajima suggested for this costume was blocks of wood inside the heels. The extra elevation in the heels allowed Nakajima to lean slightly forward and emphasize Godzilla’s menacing personae.
In creating a Godzilla for the monster’s famous 1984 return, the staff at Toho were in universal agreement on one thing: this new Godzilla, in addition to being scary and destructive, would also be an object of sympathy. In addition to bringing back the ears, the fourth toe, and two outer rows of dorsal spines, special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano implemented a number of technical innovations. For one thing, the mouth was built with an interior pneumatic system, creating more lifelike movement in the jaws. For another, the tail was lengthened and made up of individual segments for greater flexibility.
As for the staff’s goal of emphasizing empathy, this Godzilla was purposely designed with smooth, streamlined shoulders to make him appear vulnerable in shots where he walks away from the camera — as noticeably stressed in the movie’s somber finale. “I wanted viewers to feel sorry for Godzilla, and I think I succeeded,” director Koji Hashimoto explained. “The existence of Godzilla itself is a dilemma. Godzilla is a living conflict of evil and sadness.”