Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sayonara, Gojira-san: Haruo Nakajima, 1929 - 2017

It's funny how so many people can say that their lives have been changed by the movies, or even a single movie actor. However, usually that means an actor whose face is known to millions. Haruo Nakajima became one of the most influential and important actors of his generation, and did so with the public not knowing what he looked like until years later. That's because Nakajima was the first to play Godzilla, the biggest and most insanely successful Japanese movie and pop culture export, ever.

Think about that for a minute. This man made an enormous global impact with his work, and it was done inside a hot, sweltering rubber costume with no ventilation that at its heaviest weighed over 200 pounds. To be able to emote effectively under those conditions would be next to impossible for most actors--and Nakajima did it without complaint for eighteen YEARS. Godzilla, Rodan, King Kong, Gaira, Varan, Gezorah, he played them all. When he got the call from Hollywood in the 60s, his superiors at Toho Studios begged him not to go, telling him, "We can't make these movies without you!" Out of loyalty, he stayed in Japan and passed up the chance of a lifetime. But of course, he already had nailed the role of a lifetime.

I was fortunate enough to have met Mr. Nakajima twice--once in 2000, and once again a few years ago. I will always remember the first meeting, in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, following a screening of the film that made his career, "Gojira". He was holding court with a group of fans, and he was delighted to be able to chat with us outside of the formal Q&A session indoors. With my heart in my throat, I told him how his movie had changed my life when I had first seen it as a boy in the 70s. He laughed, held up his index finger, and said, "Ichiban! Number One!" Hai, number one indeed. This picture is from that meeting.

I still get a little boyish giggle inside me when I tell people that I've met the biggest movie star in the world. Inevitably, they ask me, "Who? Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt?". You should see their faces when I tell them, "No...GODZILLA."--usually a mix of disbelief and envy. "You met the guy in the rubber suit???" Yes, I've met the man in the rubber suit. The biggest international movie star whose face you never saw.

Sayonara, Nakajima-san. You will be missed. BANZAI.

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