Another death rocked the pop culture world earlier this week. The name Haruo Nakajima is not instantly recognizable by most, but he was a key figure in many people’s youths – he was the first man to don the Godzilla suit way back in 1954. He played the King of the Monsters twelve times over the course of 18 years (not including stock footage appearances), beginning with the original 1954 Gojira (and its 1956 American re-edit Godzilla, King of the Monsters!) all the way up to Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972. Right in the middle, in 1962, Nakajima got to portray the big guy as he did battle with the other King of the Monsters, King Kong, in the aptly titled King Kong vs. Godzilla.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is exactly the movie that its title promises. A nuclear submarine discovers an iceberg in the arctic that has a green glow to it. Upon investigation, they discover that the legendary Godzilla (Nakajima) is inside, and he promptly sinks the sub and heads for Tokyo (because where else would he go?). Meanwhile, a pharmaceutical executive sends a team to an island in the south pacific that is said to contain apple-sized berries that have wondrous powers. On the island, they discover King Kong (Shôichi Hirose, who was also in House), who, after fighting off a giant octopus, helps himself to some of the berry juice and falls asleep, allowing the team to capture the ape and bring him back to Tokyo. This sets up an epic confrontation between Kong and Godzilla, with the people of Tokyo caught up in the middle of the feud.
In a world where movies like Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator exist, King Kong vs. Godzilla was the original crossover epic (yeah, it came after the Universal monsters crossovers, but those weren’t “epic”). Like all of the good Toho Company kaiju movies, King Kong vs. Godzilla was directed by Ishirô Honda from a script by Shin’ichi Sekizawa, adapted from an earlier script by American producer John Beck (Harvey, The Singing Nun). It is played more for comedy than for scares, with corny humor provided not only by the human actors, but also by Kong himself in an attempt to make at least one of the monsters seem “good” and less frightening so that audiences could root for a side. It may have been a Japanese production, but the American icon King Kong was considered the “hero” of the picture.
Although Godzilla was Haruo Nakajima’s first giant monster portrayal, it would not be his only. Credited in most cases as a Stunt Choreographer (if he was credited at all), Nakajima became somewhat of a niche performer. In addition to Godzilla, he also performed the title monster roles in movies like Rodan, Mothra, and Varan the Unbelievable. He even went on to play King Kong himself in King Kong Escapes. His monstrous mayhem was not confined to the big screen either, as he took on various monster roles on the television show “Ultraman.” Essentially, if a monster appeared in a Japanese movie in the fifties or sixties, there’s a good chance that Haruo Nakajima was in the rubber suit.
Unlike today’s slick CG monster movies, the classic Godzilla films were done with practical, in camera effects, so Nakajima actually got to stomp around on miniature city sets and trample model cars and tanks during his performances. The effect is fairly obvious in King Kong vs. Godzilla, with even the non-monster scenes seeming to be populated with small replica vehicles and buildings. The costumed monsters fit the whole campy vibe of the movie; there’s very little that’s scary about either beast. King Kong looks especially goofy, with an unconvincingly plastic facial expression and a pair of extra-long simian arms. There are a few special effects scenes that use rear projection or stop motion, but for the most part, King Kong vs. Godzilla is all Nakajima and Hirose in their costumes, fighting away like Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live on a miniature set that’s built to look like Mount Fuji. And that’s just as awesome as it sounds.
Like many Japanese kaiju movies, there is an American version as well as a Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. American John Beck retained the global rights to his initial screenplay, and had screenwriters Bruce Howard (“The Dukes of Hazzard”) and Paul Mason (“CHiPs”) retool the script for his homeland, re-editing the timeline and “westernizing” the story. The American version also uses additional footage directed by Thomas Montgomery (who also directed – and starred in – episodes of “The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis”) that features a UN reporter and a scientist spoon-feeding exposition to the American audience. The climactic fight in the American version is a bit different, too, with some earthquake and tsunami footage spliced in to make the damage to Japan look even more catastrophic. Contrary to urban legend, there is no difference in who wins the fight, only a few subtle changes in how the ending can be interpreted. Without spoiling who the victor is, just know that both versions feature the same combatant rising from the ashes (or from the waves, as the case may be).
Another difference between the two versions is the music. The original Japanese King Kong vs. Godzilla had a suitably monsterific score by kaiju go-to composer Akira Ifukube. The American version uses stock music written by the likes of Henry Mancini and Hans J. Salter that sounds, well, like stock music. The stock music cues accomplish Beck’s objective of making the film sound more “western,” but the American soundtrack doesn’t have the same bite as the original score. It sounds like the score for basically every other sci-fi/horror movie from the fifties. Because basically, it was.
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk once said that “the goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” When Haruo Nakajima passed away at the age of 88, he left behind a legacy of movies that will live forever. His place in pop culture history is assured, and most people wouldn’t even recognize his face. Everyone knows his character’s roar, though.