Because I considered myself an intellectual in college, that meant I had to watch a lot of old movies. This misspent era of my youth did leave me having watched a few unblemished gems. Foremost among those were the films of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese film director.
But I don’t want to talk about Kurosawa. I want to talk about Godzilla. Well, actually, the guy who wore the Godzilla suit.
Recently I was reading up on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, the film about ronin samurai that went on to make all the best Western movies possible. I don’t regret a second of my obsession with Kurosawa — it led me to study the Japanese language for two years. In a fit of nostalgia, I decided to write a blog post about this incredible film. Doing some cursory research, I was looking through some Google results, and was surprised to see that one of the cast members, who played an unnamed Bandit, had appeared in dozens of Japanese films. Specifically, the giant monster films we all know as “Godzilla movies.” (Forgetting that abomination spewed out by Roland Emmerich, which not only ruined New York but also Matthew Broderick’s career.)
I was delighted in the connection, because in addition to watching old artsy movies, I also spent a lot of time in my undergraduate years watching schlocky monster movies. (This is how it goes, you see: the avant-garde is balanced precariously between the artistically incomprehensible and the obnoxiously cheesy. These are the book-ends on the Spectrum of Pretentiousness.)
Let’s just say that the Kurosawa post morphed into a Godzilla post.
The most famous of the kaiju actors is Haruo Nakajima. Japan’s evolving relationship with these types of supernatural powers is embedded in the story of Nakajima himself. Born in 1929 in the Yamagata prefecture, he served in the Japanese Imperial Army, and became an actor in a Japan experiencing a deep existential crisis. Shaken by the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the soldier was in reality simply happy to get work. He found it, and a niche in stunt roles. The role of Godzilla was a turning point for him – graduating from faceless stunty to a leading presence, he nonetheless remained ambivalent about the shock the mutant monster would bring to the world. As he revealed in an interview with John Rocco Roberto, he expected the audience to be very frightened at the “atomic messages” in the film.
The work couldn’t have been easy. For the first film, Godzilla, his costume weighed over 200 pounds, had little to no ventilation, and restricted the actor’s movements to a distance of about 30 feet before he fainted. (Which he did do, several times, collapsing on expensive miniature sets which needed to be rebuilt.) While later suits were designed to fit him more comfortably, there were other tribulations filming early tokusatsu films (without the benefit of modern safety precautions). He and fellow actors risked drowning in flooded sets, being crushed by staged avalanches, falls from great heights (including one 25 foot plunge while filming Rodan), and severe burns from explosions (as happened during an exploding truck sequence in Varan).
Nakajima retired from kaiju acting in 1972. Accounts of his reasons for retirement vary – the most common being that his friend and colleague Eiji Tsuburaya, a special effects director, died – but the most likely explanation is that he was getting old. At the age of 43, he’d been donning suits for 18 years, engaging in the kinds of physically demanding work that were taxing even in his youth.
I’ve always been a fan of Nakajima’s performances – I just didn’t know it. Through all the cheese and the buffoonish action, Nakajima really did change the monster movie from the ground up. Tokusatsu never caught on in North America like it did in Japan, but Nakajima’s jerky movements and “come get some” rough pugilism are visible in everything from the monsters of Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings.
And yet you’ve probably never seen his face.
It’s not for lack of real, human faces in these films. If you’ve ever seen one of those old Godzilla movies, you’d know that not much time is spent featuring giant monsters fighting. Most of the screen time is spent on absolutely awful plots featuring live and definitely not awesome humans. One of the worst – or best? I can’t separate the two sometimes – is the 1974 film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. It’s got Space Monkeys in it. For real. And not a lot of Godzilla.
And yet the giant beast is still the hero of the film. Well, mostly. Sometimes he’s the villain. It’s something I’ve never quite figured out: is Godzilla a good guy or a badguy? My first exposure to Godzilla came when at the tender age of eight I rented Godzilla 1985. This was one of the “slick” Godzilla films that was heavily edited and styled along the lines of an American film. (It is also notable for starring Canadian actor Raymond Burr, known to most of us as Perry Mason and Ironside.) This features the Godzilla we all think we know: Godzilla the terrible destroyer of cities, the beast who evokes the worst of a modern, nuclear society.
But this sketch of Godzilla isn’t in keeping with most of the films done while Nakajima was wearing the kaiju suit. Nakajima completed twelve Godzilla films, in addition to many other kaiju films at Studio Toho. By the fifth film, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla had become the hero of the tale, saving Japan from a different (and usually thematically hilarious) kaiju beast. It was this transition from villain to saviour that marked the beginning of a huge expansion of the tokusatsu film industry – no longer were these beasts merely the avatars of modern apocalypse, but they also represented a kind of resistance, or appropriation of those powers to good ends.