Haruo Nakajima Interview

by David Milner and Guy Tucker

Translation by Yoshihiko Shibata

Haruo Nakajima

(Conducted in March 1995)

Haruo Nakajima is best known for playing Godzilla in the first twelve Godzilla films. However, he also plays RODAN (1956), VARAN - THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958), and many of the other giant monster characters that have been created by the Toho Company Ltd.

David Milner: Do you know who made the decision to ask you to play Godzilla in GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS (1954)?

Haruo Nakajima: I think Ishiro Honda suggested that I be offered the role because he was impressed with my work on EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC (1953). (Mr. Honda directed EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC. He also directed GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS, GHIDRAH - THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964), TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), and a large number of Toho's other science fiction films.) I think Mr. Honda suggested me to Eiji Tsuburaya, and Mr. Tsuburaya then suggested me to the head of Toho's acting division. (Mr. Tsuburaya directed the special effects for EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC, GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS, LATITUDE ZERO (1969), and many other movies.) He is the one from whom I received the offer to play Godzilla. (In EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC, Mr. Nakajima plays a bomber pilot who is very badly burned when the aircraft carrier to which he is assigned is bombed.)

DM: How did you react when you were asked to play Godzilla?

HN: Shortly after I was offered the role, I realized that although it would be possible to replace all of the members of the staff and all of the other actors, it would not be possible to replace me. I also realized that if I didn't go into work because I was sick, none of the members of the special effects staff would be able to do their work. All of this gave me a tremendous sense of pride.

DM: How did you prepare to play Godzilla?

HN: Mr. Tsuburaya showed both KING KONG (1933) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) to me. I could tell which scenes featured a person in a costume, so I was able to learn a few things about playing monsters.

DM: Was playing Godzilla very difficult?

HN: Katsumi Tezuka and I both tried on the Godzilla costume during the first day of shooting. The costume was very stiff and heavy. I could walk about thirty feet in it, but Mr. Tezuka could only walk about ten feet in it. (The costume weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds.)

There were three cables coming out of the back of the costume. Two were for the operation of the eyes, and one was for the operation of the mouth. Eizo Kaimai was responsible for the movement of the eyes and the mouth.

The ASA speed of the film that was used at the time was very slow, so the set had to be very brightly lit. Another actor complained that the lights made it too hot inside the costume, but I never complained. (ASA speed indicates sensitivity to light. The higher the speed, the greater the sensitivity.)

Batteries were installed in the Godzilla costume that was made for the second Godzilla movie. They were for the operation of the eyes and the mouth. The batteries made the costume even heavier than the one that had been constructed for the first Godzilla film.

DM: Did you find working on GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955) more difficult than working on GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS?

HN: Working on GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN was easier for me. The Godzilla costume that was built for the movie was made to fit me, whereas the one that had been built for GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS had not been made to fit me.

The most difficult aspect of working on GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN for me was shooting the ending. I had to stand in the middle of the set while a large amount of crushed ice came tumbling down on me. (At the end of GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, the Japanese Self Defense Force buries Godzilla by bombarding the ice-covered mountains that surround the canyon in which he is standing.)

There was a floor underneath the floor of the set. Mr. Kaimai was standing on it while the ice was tumbling down on me. The floor of the set collapsed because the ice was very heavy, so Mr. Kaimai was buried along with me.

Guy Tucker: What was working with another monster actor like? (Mr. Tezuka plays Angilas in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN.)

HN: I alone was responsible for destroying the miniature buildings that had been constructed for GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS, but both Mr. Tezuka and I were responsible for destroying the ones that had been constructed for GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. So, I carefully had to choreograph the battles between Godzilla and Angilas.

I remember the final battle between Godzilla and Angilas very well. (It takes place in Osaka.) Mr. Tezuka, who was the head of the acting division, intended to make me drink the muddy water surrounding Osaka castle! So, I fought him as fiercely as I could! I'd choreographed the battle, so Mr. Tezuka had to obey my instructions. I remember thinking that it was a good opportunity for me to defeat the boss.

GT: Was Godzilla's head intentionally set on fire during the filming of GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964)? (In the movie, Godzilla's head burns for a few moments after several missiles are fired at him.)

HN: No. It was an accident.

DM: When did Toho reveal to the public that Godzilla was played by a person in a costume?

HN: Not until GHIDRAH - THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER was released. The head of the publicity department decided to promote the film by having a person wearing the Godzilla costume that had been used in the production of the movie appear in public.

DM: Why wasn't it revealed that Godzilla was played by a person in a costume sooner?

HN: The people who worked in the Japanese film industry back in the 1950s and early 1960s tried to keep their techniques as secret as possible. They did that because they wanted a mythical atmosphere to surround the industry. No one would be allowed to visit the set.

GT: How did you feel when a comical touch was brought to the Godzilla series?

HN: I liked seeing Godzilla shei in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965). I also liked seeing him scratch his nose in the manner of Yuzo Kayama in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966). (Godzilla sheis (jumps up and down while bending his arms and legs) after he and Rodan defeat Ghidrah for the first time. Mr. Kayama, who plays the title role in YOUNG GUY IN COLLEGE (1961), COME BACK, YOUNG GUY (1981), and all sixteen of the other YOUNG GUY films, scratches his nose in a distinct manner in a number of the movies.)

GT: How did you feel when Godzilla began to be portrayed as a hero instead of a villain?

HN: That didn't bother me. When I read the screenplay for GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969), I realized that it was intended to appeal to children. I knew that Mr. Tsuburaya loved children, so I decided to do my best to provide an enjoyable fantasy for them.

DM: Why did you decide to stop playing Godzilla after GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972) was produced?

HN: Two reasons. One was the death of Mr. Tsuburaya, and the other was my age. I was 43 years old. It had become very difficult for me to play Godzilla. (Mr. Tsuburaya died in 1970.)

DM: Did you control Rodan's wings with your arms while you were working on RODAN?

HN: Yes. I controlled the wings with my arms.

While we were shooting the scene in which Rodan flies over the bridge in Saikai Village in Kyushu, the pulley from which I was suspended broke. I fell from a height of twenty-five feet, but the wings and the water, which was about one and a half feet deep, absorbed much of the impact.

DM: What was working on MOTHRA (1961) like?

HN: I was first in line inside the larva. Mr. Tezuka was second. We just had to walk around on the set.

DM: Was it difficult for you, Mr. Tezuka, and the other people who played the larva to coordinate your movements?

HN: Left, right, left, right. It was just like working on a war film.

DM: What was playing King Kong in KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) like?

HN: I found it difficult to move the way an ape would instead of a man.

The arms of the King Kong costume were very long, so my hands did not reach those of the costume. I had to grasp onto sticks that were attached to the hands of the costume.

GT: Were two different King Kong costumes made?

HN: Yes. I wore a costume with shorter arms whenever we shot footage of King Kong battling other monsters.

DM: Were you any more enthusiastic about playing King Kong than you had been about playing Rodan, Mothra, and so on?

HN: I very much enjoyed playing King Kong. The man who held the copyright to the character and his wife came from the United States to visit the set.

DM: Which of the giant monsters you played did you most enjoy playing?

HN: I enjoyed playing all of them. That's why I kept playing monsters for eighteen years.

DM: I've heard that you studied the movements of animals in order to prepare for your giant monster roles. Is this true?

HN: Bears, falcons, and reptiles. It was helpful for me to study the movements of only large species. Smaller species, unlike Godzilla, Varan, and so on, move very quickly. So, it wasn't helpful for me to study them.

DM: Playing giant monsters is physically demanding. Did you exercise in order to prepare for your monster roles?

HN: Yes. I constantly worked out. My lifestyle was a very Spartan one.

DM: Did you study karate or any of the other martial arts?

HN: I was a black belt.

DM: Which of your giant monster roles were most physically demanding?

HN: Playing Godzilla for GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS was very difficult. Playing Rodan also was difficult because the legs of birds, unlike those of human beings, bend backward.

DM: You played a small number of quadrupedal monsters. Was that any more or less difficult than playing bipedal monsters?

HN: Playing quadrupeds was more difficult because their hind legs, like the legs of birds, bend backward.

DM: Was shooting footage of Godzilla in water very difficult for you?

HN: Yes. It was. However, I've always loved water. So, working on those scenes never bothered me.

A pool was set up on stage nine during the production of SON OF GODZILLA (1967). (Stage nine is one of the largest on Toho's lot in Setagaya.) We used the pool, which was about five feet deep, to film the shot of Godzilla rising above the surface of the ocean.

I was on a cart on a rail. I held onto the handle of the cart while it was towed by a truck. As the cart moved forward, I slowly rose out of the water.

GT: Did you just hold your breath while you were underwater?

HN: I wore a very tiny air cylinder that contained enough air for about ten minutes. The water that rushed by my face while the cart was being towed made it very difficult for me to prevent the mouthpiece from coming out of my mouth.

GT: Were the same Godzilla costumes used to shoot footage of Godzilla in water as those that were used to shoot footage of him on land?

HN: The costumes that had been constructed for earlier Godzilla movies were used to shoot the footage of Godzilla in water.

DM: Were you ever injured while playing a giant monster?

HN: Only once. My stomach was very badly burned when we filmed the shot of a truck exploding underneath Varan.

DM: You make a cameo appearance in GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS. (Mr. Nakajima throws the switch that sends current through the electrical towers that surround Tokyo.) Do you make cameo appearances in any of the other movies in which you play a giant monster?

HN: Yes. I make cameo appearances in several of them. Sometimes when Mr. Honda knew that I was waiting around for the special effects staff to set up a shot, he would ask one of his assistants to bring me over to his set.

DM: What was working on EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC like?

HN: I had to wear both a flight suit and a wet suit so that I wouldn't be burned. We didn't rehearse the scene for which I was set on fire. It would have been too dangerous.

DM: Do you appear in any other films that aren't science fiction movies?

HN: Yes. I usually spent six months working on a Godzilla film, and six months working on other movies.

I play one of the bandits in SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). I appear in the sequence in which three bandits arrive in the farming village. I'm killed by Seiji Miyaguchi. (Mr. Miyaguchi plays Kyuzo, one of the samurai.)

Many flowers are seen in the love scene featuring a young samurai and a village girl. It was shot during winter, so all of the members of the staff and cast had to help plant artificial flowers.

At one point in THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958), Minoru Chiaki and three wanderers get lost in a fog. They soon afterward are attacked by a number of soldiers. I play one of the three wanderers. (Mr. Chiaki plays Tahei, a peasant. In GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, he plays Koji Kobayashi, a pilot.)

I worked on several of Hiroshi Inagaki's films. I knew how to wear real armor properly. The armor that actors wear these days is made of plastic. It's not as heavy as real armor. (Mr. Inagaki directed THE WANDERING GAMBLER (1928), THE THREE TREASURES (1959), UNDER THE BANNER OF SAMURAI (1969), and many other movies.)

I play a bandit in one of Mr. Inagaki's films. Toshiro Mifune appears in the movie. I replaced an actor who had become ill. I'd not been shown a copy of the screenplay before we began rehearsing, so I didn't know what I was supposed to say. Mr. Inagaki asked me what the problem was, and I told him that I hadn't seen a copy of the script. So, he had Teruo Maru, his chief assistant director, show me one. We did a little more rehearsing, and then began filming. Mr. Mifune said his lines, a second actor said his, and then I said mine. While I was speaking, five or six of the people who owned the theater in which we were working showed up. Mr. Inagaki saw them, and then said to me, "No, no, no. That's not what you're supposed to say, Godzilla!" I didn't know what I'd done wrong. I thought that I had spoken my lines correctly. After we did another take, Mr. Inagaki said, "Hey, Godzilla - that's wrong!" That's when the owners realized that I was the person who played Godzilla. Mr. Inagaki had just been trying to point me out to them. (Mr. Mifune is best known as Kikuchiyo, one of the samurai in SEVEN SAMURAI, and Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the samurai for hire in YOJIMBO (1961).)

While I was working on SWORD FOR HIRE (1952), I had to help herd about three hundred stampeding horses. The horse I was riding had not been trained to herd, so he became afraid and just returned to the stable with me on him. Whenever I had to ride a horse for a movie from then on, I would take a large bag of carrots with me. I would feed the horse some carrots before shooting got underway, and then give him a few more carrots after filming had been completed for the day. (SWORD FOR HIRE was directed by Mr. Inagaki.)

DM: What was working on INVISIBLE MAN (1954) like? (Mr. Nakajima plays the invisible man.)

HN: We used a black background instead of a blue one. I wore black makeup on my face. (If footage of actors is going to be superimposed onto other footage, the actors are shot performing in front of a blue background. The background is then removed, and the other footage is substituted for it.)

GT: Were you a member of Toho Geino? (It is an organization of actors who are employed by Toho.)

HN: No. I wasn't a member of that organization.

GT: Did you receive much fan mail after Toho revealed that Godzilla was played by an actor in a costume?

HN: I received many fan letters.

GT: Did you receive any from the United States?

HN: Yes. I received some from the United States.

DM: Have you worked on any television series?

HN: Yes. All of the television series on which I worked were made by Tsuburaya Productions, Inc. I mainly played monsters, but I sometimes played human characters. (ULTRAMAN (1966-1967), MIGHTY JACK (1968), and ULTRAMAN POWERED (1995) are among the series that have been made by Tsuburaya Productions.)

DM: How was working on television series different from working on movies?

HN: The shooting schedule always was very tight. So, very few scenes would be redone.

DM: What work did you do before you became an actor?

HN: I flew a training plane during World War II. I had trained to become a pilot at the naval base in Nara when I was fourteen years old.

After the war, I drove a truck for the American military. It was a General Motors truck. I transported supplies and equipment between the port of Yokohama and the American base near the city.

DM: What work have you been doing since you stopped playing Godzilla?

HN: I've been working for a clothing company.

DM: What was working with Akira Kurosawa like? (Mr. Kurosawa directed SEVEN SAMURAI, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and YOJIMBO. He also directed SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943), NOT YET READY (1993), and a large number of other movies.)

HN: Mr. Kurosawa would spend an entire day filming one shot. None of the other directors with whom I worked would do that. Working with Mr. Kurosawa was like working on a play instead of a movie. We would spend a great deal of time rehearsing. It was torturous.

DM: What was working with Mr. Tsuburaya like?

HN: Mr. Tsuburaya was a gentleman. He was very charismatic.

Mr. Tsuburaya would never express his anger at me or the other monster actors. However, he would express his anger at the members of his staff.

Mr. Tsuburaya often pretended to be asleep when he in fact was just thinking about his work. Once he had decided what he wanted to do, he would pretend to wake up. He then would begin giving instructions to the members of his staff.

There were two things Mr. Tsuburaya hated. One was snakes and the other was bloodshed.

I remember that someone once asked Mr. Tsuburaya why he never showed bloodshed in the monster films on which he worked. Mr. Tsuburaya replied that he never showed it because he knew that children went to see the movies.

One day, a Toho employee suggested that the studio produce a film about a giant snake. Mr. Tsuburaya didn't like the idea, so the movie was never made.

Mr. Tsuburaya would try to inspire the people with whom he worked. His inspiration helped me keep playing giant monsters for eighteen years.

I always continued performing for a few seconds after Mr. Tsuburaya yelled, "Cut!" So, he would tell the cameramen not to stop shooting the instant he yelled, "Cut!" Mr. Tsuburaya very much appreciated the extra effort that I put into my work.

GT: Did Mr. Tsuburaya have a nickname for you?

HN: He called me Haru-chan. (Chan usually is used to indicate that the person being referred to is a child. However, it also is used to express affection.)

GT: Did the manner in which the special effects staff worked change very much after Teisho Arikawa was promoted to special effects director? (Mr. Arikawa, who worked on THE MYSTERIANS (1957), WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and many of Toho's other science fiction films as a special effects cinematographer, directed the special effects for SON OF GODZILLA, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), and YOG - MONSTER FROM SPACE (1970).)

HN: No. The manner in which the staff worked didn't change at all.

Mr. Tsuburaya reduced his role in the production of Toho's science fiction movies to an advisory one because he was not in good health. He had diabetes. He had to be on a very strict diet. (Mr. Tsuburaya is credited as the "special skill supervisor" on SON OF GODZILLA and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. He died before production on YOG - MONSTER FROM SPACE got underway.)

There was a coffee dispenser in the dubbing room. Mr. Tsuburaya often would ask Ms. Samatsu, the script girl, to get some coffee for him.

DM: What was working with Mr. Arikawa like?

HN: Whenever Mr. Arikawa had to get an aerial shot, he would remove the door of a helicopter and install a board on the landing gear. He would lie on the board and shoot while the helicopter was hovering.

I play the person who drops food for the Frankenstein creature from a helicopter in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965). Mr. Arikawa is in the helicopter with me. The first time I dropped the food, it landed in the wrong place. So, I had to try again. The food landed in the right place the second time, but since the helicopter was tilted and the door had been removed, I almost fell out!

By the way, Mr. Arikawa was trained to fly Zero fighters. I don't know if he fought in World War II or not.

GT: What was working with Mr. Honda on GODZILLA'S REVENGE like? (He directed most of the special effects for the film.)

HN: Mr. Honda, like Mr. Tsuburaya, was a gentleman. He was very likeable.

Mr. Kurosawa always told the actors with whom he worked exactly what to do, but Mr. Honda would give those with whom he worked as much freedom as he could. That's the way Mr. Tsuburaya worked as well.

DM: What was Mr. Honda's relationship with Mr. Tsuburaya like?

HN: They were very close friends. I never saw them argue with each other.

DM: What was working with Teruyoshi Nakano like? (Mr. Nakano directed the special effects for GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971) and GODZILLA VS. GIGAN. He also directed the special effects for LAKE OF DRACULA (1971), THE WAR IN SPACE (1977), GODZILLA 1985 (1984), and a number of other movies.)

HN: Mr. Nakano allowed me to choreograph the movements of the monsters. He never told me what to do.

By the way, Mr. Nakano became Mr. Tsuburaya's chief assistant just before production on GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA got underway.

DM: Did the other special effects directors with whom you worked also allow you to choreograph the movements of the monsters?

HN: Yes. They all did.

DM: What was working with Kenpachiro Satsuma like? (Mr. Satsuma plays Hedorah in GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER, and Gigan in both GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973). In addition, he plays Godzilla in the seven most recent Godzilla films.)

HN: Mr. Satsuma couldn't move very much in the Hedorah costume. So, almost all of the choreography that I did for GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER was for Godzilla.

DM: What was Motoyoshi Oda like? (Mr. Oda directed INVISIBLE MAN and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN.)

HN: Mr. Oda was very modest.

GT: What was Mr. Oda's relationship with Mr. Tsuburaya like?

HN: He was not as close to Mr. Tsuburaya as Mr. Honda was.

DM: Did the directors of the science fiction movies on which you worked come to visit the special effects set very often?

HN: Almost every day. They would come to speak with Mr. Tsuburaya.

DM: Did Nick Adams come to visit the special effects set at all? (Mr. Adams plays Glenn, the American astronaut, in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, and Dr. James Bowen, the American physician in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD.)

HN: Mr. Adams and his wife came to the special effects set a number of times.

Mr. Adams called me Japan's finest. He once told me that I could have retired and lived a very comfortable life after working on five or six Godzilla films if they'd been produced in the United States.

DM: Which of the movies in which you play a giant monster are your favorites?

HN: WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is my favorite. I also very much like GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS.

DM: Why are those two your favorites?

HN: I based the choreography I did for WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS on the techniques of professional wrestlers. I think it turned out very well.

I like GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS because it's the first giant monster film on which I worked.

DM: Have you seen the more recent Godzilla movies? (GODZILLA VS. GHIDRAH (1991), GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993), and GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995) are among them.)

HN: Yes.

DM: What do you think of them?

HN: When I was playing Godzilla, we would show him wrestling with the other monsters. These days Godzilla and the other monsters only are shown firing their rays at each other.

Period films are enjoyable because they feature sword battles. Westerns are enjoyable because they feature gun battles. The recent Godzilla movies are like period films without swords and westerns without guns.

DM: What do you think of the Gamera movies?

HN: They're enjoyable. It's amazing that a turtle can fly.

DM: How do you feel about TriStar Pictures producing a Godzilla film in the United States?

HN: I'm pleased by that. I hope that a competition will spring up between Toho and TriStar.

Haruo Nakajima Interview © 1998 David Milner