Haruo Nakajima was a giant of Japanese cinema. Striding across its landscape, he destroyed cities and protected the planet from invading monsters and aliens. And as the first actor to play the monster Godzilla, he helped to create not just an iconic movie character but to define an entire subgenre in fantasy film – daikaiju or giant monster movies.
Born January 1, 1929 in Yamagata, Japan, Nakajima was picked to fill in the monster suit created by Toho Studio’s special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya for the original 1954 Gojira. He would go on to play the giant mutant monster in the next eleven Godzilla films from the studio, a run that culminate with Godzilla Vs. Gigan in 1972. He would also play a number of other Toho giant monsters, in films such as Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), Matango (1963) and Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965).
The productions were often hazardous and Nakajima had a couple of near-dangerous accidents. While filming the first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, a platform that he was standing on in costume collapsed during the shooting of the film’s climactic special effects sequence. On Rodan, some cables that were supposed to suspend the actor in the costume of the giant prehistoric flying lizard over a model landscape snapped, dropping Nakajima some twenty feet. Fortunately, a combination of the costume and landing in a pool of water that was part of the model cushioned his fall significantly enough for him to escape uninjured.
Outside of the monster suits, Nakajima had a few roles in various Toho productions including two of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces – Seven Samurai (1954) and The Hidden Fortress (1958). He also made a handful of appearances on three television series created by Tsuburaya – Ultra Q, Ultraman and Ultra Seven – both in human and monster roles.