"There is so much writing in English on Japanese cinema that can't be accepted at face value — not because the writers are careless, but because the differences in culture and language are just too intricate. When I see August Ragone's name on a piece of writing, it gives me permission to place my faith in it completely. Among Japanese fantasy film historians, he's the best working in English." —Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

Thursday, January 1, 2009

They Called Him "Godzilla"! January 1, 1929

誕生日おめでとう ゴジラさん=中島春雄!

Enjoying some tea on the set of MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964).

The Dean of Monster Suit Actors, Haruo Nakajima, got his start at the age of 20, as an uncredited background actor and stuntman at Toho Studios, working on Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG (1949). While the scene was an intense knock-down-drag-out-brawl, shot on a rather sweltering summer day, Nakajima laughed that, after all of the retakes, the footage unceremoniously ended up on the cutting room floor. Still, that didn't deter him, as he dutifully appeared, and died, in an endless succession sword films. As thankless as many of those stints were, Nakajima relishes the fact that, as "Bandit C", he was cut down by the stoic Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) in Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

But, it was a stunt that he volunteered for, that really brought him to everyone's attention at Toho. A scene in Ishiro Honda's World War II spectacle, EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC (1953), required a live stunt in which a pilot becomes immolated when his Zero Fighter, sitting on the deck of a aircraft carrier, is hit by an incendiary. Asking for volunteers, it was Nakajima who fearlessly stepped up to the plate, and performed the first such fire stunt in Japanese Cinema. With this accomplishment, Nakajima became the "go-to guy" for stunt work, so when it was decided that Godzilla would be brought to life primarily by a man in a suit, his was the first name that came to mind.

From Honda's GODZILLA (1954) through Jun Fukuda's GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972), Nakajima was the primary Godzilla performer, who was also tapped by Eiji Tsuburaya to essay all of the major monsters for Toho's Fantasy Films of the 1950s and 1960s. Among Nakajima's favorites is Gaira (the Green Gargantua) from Honda's THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966). In the mid-1960s, Nakajima brought his considerable experience to television for ULTRA Q, ULTRAMAN, and ULTRA SEVEN. During this period, now considered a master at his craft, he helped to train a whole new generation of monster performers. In 1972, this all came to an end, when Toho disbanded its contract players, and Nakajima retired from monster acting.

Mr. Nakajima, despite recent health issues, traveled to Chicago last summer to attend G-FEST, where he received his "Mangled Skyscraper Award." During the ceremony, he was surprised by a proverbial flood of congratulatory letters from film professionals on both sides of the Pacific, extolling admiration for him and his work. While I had last met with him eight years ago at G-FEST in Hollywood, Nakajima was still as strong and tenacious as ever, still wielding that vice grip-like handshake, and a sharp and fiery tongue. Well, isn't that what one would come expect from Godzilla himself?

Cheers to Haruo Nakajima, King of the Monsters!


Armand Vaquer said...

Nicely written, August. He may have been the "terror of Japan" in many kaiju forms, but he is really one of the nicest guys in show biz.

He was deeply moved by the ovation he received when he was awarded the "Mangled Skyscraper." I noticed tears in his eyes while photographing the ceremony. It was definitely an award richly deserved!

August Ragone said...

Thanks, Armand! Yes, Nakajima is unpretentious, frank and warm — he's one helluva guy. I remember first meeting him, and he had that iron grip! It really left a lasting impression.

I'm glad that everything came together for the award, but sometimes I wonder if he should have received it in 2000? Well, no matter, because I don't think that all of those letters could have been assembled, and been more heartfelt, than were written last year.

I've just getting out of my sick bed, so I'm going to link your page to this entry, so people can forward more birthday greetings to Mr. Godzilla!


Armand Vaquer said...

Glad to hear you're on the mend. I've been lucky this year, so far [knocks wood], no colds or flus.

Wait 'til you see the photos Sonoe sent me of her dad at the Godzilla statue at Toho Studios with his award. They'll be in the next G-FAN (#87).