Film Reviews

GODZILLA (1954)

By • May 7th, 2004 •

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1954 Toho (re-released in 2004 by Rialto)

When the first GODZILLA film roared onto American screens in 1956, the critics tore at it, calling it a cheap looking exploitive monster movie with bad acting. TV Guide listings for GODZILLA and it’s many Japanese made sequels were equally unkind. These critics failed to realize they only saw chopped up, dubbed (usually by bored voice talent) versions of much better Japanese films.

In 1954, GODZILLA was a unique production for Toho, Japan’s leading film studio. Other than a version of THE INVISIBLE MAN, the Japanese had never made a monster movie. Director Inoshira Honda and Special Effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, both fresh off of Toho’s popular World War II epic, EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC, were assigned to bring to life the story about a giant, destructive monster rejuvenated by atomic bomb testing.

The resulting film, which was titled GOJIRA, was an enormous hit in Japan. Two years later, an American film distributor, Avco-Embassy, bought GOJIRA for stateside release. They edited out 40 minutes of the 98 minute film, and added 18 minutes of scenes featuring an American reporter played by Raymond Burr, then a Hollywood character actor. The new footage includes Burr watching from an office window as the 400 foot fire breathing Gojira (now called Godzilla) crushes and burns most of Tokyo. Some of Burr’s eye-line editing works. At other times Perry Mason looks like he’s staring into space.

The stateside success of GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS prompted American distributors to import almost all the following Japanese monster films. These films included RODAN (1957), THE H-MAN (1959), MOTHRA (1961), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), GORATH (1962), GHIDRAH (1965), FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965), SON OF GODZILLA (1967) and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1969). Like Elvis and beach party movies, Godzilla became a main staple of 60’s American B-Movies culture.

This spring and summer, Rialto Pictures is treating American audiences to the original 1954 Japanese version of GODZILLA. We can now see GODZILLA, cleaned up, uncut, and with English subtitles. This real version of GODZILLA begins rapidly, with a series of unexplained shipping disasters that leaves only a few dying survivors (“It look like the sea blew up!”) We learn the disasters are caused by a giant T-Rex type of dinosaur named Godzilla, who was resurrected from atomic bomb testing. Forced evacuations and dangers of radiation poisoning from the monster remind Japanese citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the night, Godzilla rises from the water and levels Tokyo, leaving an enormous death toll. The only solution to this problem comes from a physically and emotionally torn young scientist, Serizawa, who has a new destructive weapon that can kill Godzilla.

One has to wonder what it was like to watch this film in a Japanese movie theater only nine years after the war. The scene in an over-flowing hospital after Godzilla’s attack must have looked exactly like a Hiroshima hospital. Godzilla is often filmed from below, as if being lensed by a documentary crew. To create the illusion of Godzilla, Eiji Tsuburaya had a full body suit of the monster created. Tokyo was an incredibly detailed miniature made of plaster (and in some later films, made of cake and bread!) The actor playing Godzilla in this film, and in eleven of the sequels was a youthful, athletic actor named Harou Nakajima.

I was lucky to conduct a phone interview with the Tokyo based Mr. Nakajima this past week. A translator was needed for the language barrier. Mr. Nakajima sounded very strong and lively for his seventy-five years. The man who played the destroyer of Tokyo laughed often, enjoying the conversation.

GLENN ANDREIEV (FIR): Well, being a fan of the Godzilla films since childhood, I would like to thank you, Mr. Nakajima, and all involved for this interview. When did you begin acting?

NAKAJIMA: When I was eighteen, I answered an ad for an acting school. I entered the school in 1949.

FIR: How did you get the role of Godzilla?

NAKAJIMA: I was a contract player at Toho. Mr. Honda, the director of GODZILLA knew from other films I acted in that I was very strong, and could endure such physical stress.

FIR: Was the Godzilla suit uncomfortable?

NAKAJIMA: The Godzilla suit weighed over 200 pounds. It was very difficult to move around in the costume in the beginning. The first time I wore the suit, I had no experience for this type of acting. I had to try very hard.

FIR: Did they modify the Godzilla costume for later films?

NAKAJIMA: Yes. You see, with every film, the costume was badly damaged, so for each film, a new costume was built. I played Godzilla in twelve movies.

FIR: In the later Godzilla films, Godzilla was more agile. In fact, in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1966) Godzilla fights a monster and goes into a victory dance!

NAKAJIMA: (Laughs) I kept on telling the special effects people how uncomfortable that costume was.

FIR: As an actor, how did you prepare for the role of Godzilla?

NAKAJIMA: I acted based on the script.

FIR: Do you have a favorite Godzilla fight scene?

NAKAJIMA: (Laughs) No, I have no favorite. I was always just concerned with the script.

FIR: Do you have any funny stories about acting as Godzilla?

NAKAJIMA: No, I have no fond memories about the costume, because it was such hard work.

FIR: Did you have any idea the original film would be so popular?

NAKAJIMA: No, because when Godzilla dies at the end of the 1954 film, we thought that was it.

FIR: Did you get to know any of the non-monster actors that always worked on Godzilla films, people like Aihiko Hirata (Dr. Serizawa in the first film), Kenji Sahara and Takeshi Shimura?

NAKAJIMA: The only time I got to see the other actors was at the wrap party. Mr. Honda filmed the non-monster scenes at the same time Mr. Eij Tsuburaya directed the special effects scenes.

FIR: Did Akira Kurosawa ever visit the set?

NAKAJIMA: Yes, Mr. Kurosawa often visited the Godzilla set.

FIR: I understand you appear in Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (made at the same time as GODZILLA) Where do you appear in the film?

NAKAJIMA: I am one of the bandit scouts. There is a scene where Toshiro Mifune waits in a tree for us to come up a hill. Me and two other bandits come up to a tree, and Mifune ambushes us. I am the first bandit they kill.

FIR: Did you ever see the special effect films by Ray Harryhausen, films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS?

NAKAJIMA: Yes, that was wonderfully filmed.

FIR: I’d like to ask you about some other films. Were you in THE INVISIBLE MAN?

NAKAJIMA: Yes. I was the Invisible Man. In the film there are two invisible men. One dies in a traffic accident, but the other lives, hiding under clown make-up while he battles gangsters.

FIR: The film was made in 1954, but was never released in America. It’s a shame, because it’s such an interesting film. I understand you are in THE H-MAN (Inoshira Honda’s noir-ish and extremely entertaining take on THE BLOB)

NAKAJIMA: THE H-MAN? Is that an American title?

FIR: Oh yes, I believe it was released in Japan as THE BEAUTIFUL MAIDEN AND THE HYDROGEN MAN.

NAKAJIMA: That’s right. I played a sailor who gets swallowed up by the H-Man. I did extra work in most of the Honda monster films. If Mr. Tsuburaya was busy with lighting or prepping a miniature set, and I had waiting time, Mr. Honda would ask if I could be an extra in the non-monster scenes. Very often I played a soldier or something like that. In the first GODZILLA, I play one of the power station engineers waiting to pull the switch when Godzilla walks up to the high tension wires.

Harou Nakajima’s filmography:
STRAY DOG (1949) Akira Kurosawa’s superb noir thriller. (To be released by Criterion this year) Nakajima is in a deleted bar-fight scene.
THE SWORDFIGHTER (1952)
EAGLE OF THE PACIFIC (1953) as a doomed fighter pilot.
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1954) Title role. Do try and hunt this one up!
GOJIRA (1954) As the big G himself!
BEAST MAN SNOW MAN (1956) as a really ugly Yeti.
PRISON SHIP (1956)
RODAN (1956) As Rodan
THE UNDERWORLD (1956)
THE MYSTERIANS (1957) As the giant space robot. Cool movie.
GIANT MONSTER BARAN (1958)
THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) Bit part.
THE H-MAN (1959) As a doomed sailor. A big ‘Films In Review’ favorite
SAGA OF THE VAGABONDS (1959)
THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960)
I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR (1960) Japan’s film version of the Pearl Harbor attack.
THE DEVIL IN THE CASTLE (1961)
MOTHRA (1961) As Mothra (in caterpillar form)
GORATH (1962) As a giant walrus (cut from US prints) One of Honda’s best sci-fi films.
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) as Godzilla.
ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (1963) As a giant evil laughing mushroom.
Trust me, this is quite a good movie.
KAMIKAZE (1963)
HORAFUKI TAIKOKI (1964)
GODZILLA VS. THE THING (1964) as Godzilla
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965) as a giant dinosaur.
GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER (1965) as Godzilla.
ULTRA Q (1965) Sci-Fi TV series
GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966) as Godzilla
KING KONG ESCAPES (1966) as King Kong
WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966) as the good gargantua. A personal favorite
GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1966) as Godzilla
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) as Godzilla
BLACK COMEDY (1969)
GODZILLA’S REVENGE (1969) as Godzilla
LATITUDE ZERO (1970) as a giant flying lion. Stars Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero.
YOG, THE SPACE MONSTER (1970) as a big whimpering space squid.
GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971) as Godzilla
GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972) as Godzilla
TITAL WAVE (1973) Prime Minister’s Chauffeur


Crew:
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Screenplay by Takeo Murata and Inoshira Honda
Directed by Inoshira Honda

Cast:
Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takeshi Shimura.

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2 Responses »

  1. I know Mr. Nakajima well. I interviewed him at conventions several times and drank scotch with him often– most recently at G-Fest Chicago in 2008. The only corrections I have are that he was the BAD gargantua (green) in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (not the good one), and he is VERY proud of that role, and also in YOG MONSTER FROM SPACE he performed as both the squid Gezora and the the Crab Ganime.
    He has cameos in many of the Godzilla films as well, not in suit. As a army officer in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS and RODAN, as a reporter in both GOJIRA and in GHIDORAH THE THREE HEADED MONSTER.
    Thanks! Great fimography by the way. I did not know he was in HIDDEN FORTRESS.

  2. […] The form of the initial monster suit was created using thin wires and bamboo wrapped in chicken wire, which would be covered in fabric. Liquified latex was applied to the costume to complete Godzilla’s skin. It was 6.5 feet tall and charcoal grey. A stunt actor, Haruo Nakajimi, was hired to play Japan’s most famous titan of terror. “I was a contract player at Toho. Mr. Honda, the director of GODZILLA knew from other films I acted in that I was very strong, and could endure such physical stress.” – Haruo Nakajimi, in an interview with Films In Review. […]

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