Classic Godzilla Actors Recall Horror Stories From Wearing the Suit: "We Risked Our Lives"

The gritty details of a 2008 documentary are worth revisiting in the wake of 'Kong: Skull Island.'
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With King Kong making his return to theaters this weekend in Kong: Skull Island, Heat Vision decided to look back at the other King of Monsters across the Pacific.

Since 1954, Godzilla has wrought havoc upon Japan and inspired perhaps the biggest following of any movie monster. However, in the pre-CGI era, the actual process of bringing the character to life was an enormous challenge for the actors inside those rubber suits.

In 2008, Toho Entertainment, the Japanese production company responsible for Godzilla's films, teamed with American filmmakers to produce the documentary Bringing Godzilla Down to Size: The Art of Japanese Special Effects. The doc featured in-depth interviews with the living actors who had donned the legendary rubber suit and brought everyone’s favorite reptilian demigod to life on the big screen.

It's worth revisiting (see video at the bottom of the post).

Haruo Nakajima, (the original suit actor to portray Godzilla in 1954’s Gojira), Kenpachiro Satsuma (who began his career playing Godzilla opponents such as Gigan and Hedorah in the 1970s before stepping into the leading role in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla) and Tsutomu Kitigawa (who first wore the suit in 1999’s Godzilla 2000) all discussed their unique characterization of Japan’s most notorious colossus.

"My biggest influence came from bears," Nakajima explained. "The way bears move is very interesting."

As one might expect, bringing a rampaging monster to life is often a perilous job, and the three men regaled viewers with tales of the unseen pitfalls that come with destroying a model set of Japan. “The effects crew pays close attention to every detail,” Satsuma said of the model environments. “So the set should break easily, right? Well, it’s not so easy!”

Nakajima recalled destroying a constructed castle miniature that cost over 500,000 yen, twice his salary for the film, while Satsuma said that "the set took the crew 23 hours to build [and] I ruined it in 10 minutes."

The suit itself also offered a unique set of challenges for the actors. “You can’t breathe well inside the suit, so an oxygen tube is attached,” Kitigawa explained. “But it’s removed during takes. Sometimes I started suffocating and had to stop filming.” 

“The original suit weighed 100 kilos [220 lbs.],” said Nakajima. “With all that weight, I couldn’t move much.” 

Nakajima also recalled working in freezing temperatures in the “Big Pool,” a large water tank used for filming ocean scenes, in which the actor had to work in an “ice bath” all day long. Satsuma shared the older Zilla’s concerns with the “Big Pool,” recalling the “gunk piled all over” the bottom. “And I know people peed in there,” he added. 

Even more harrowing was Kitigawa’s experience of being forced underwater by a crane. “I was standing by. The oxygen tube was attached, the crane started to move. As I went down the tube came off,” he said. “I screamed, ‘Stop! I can’t breathe!’ But they kept pushing me into the water. Because of the danger, those shots were stopped. I never want to do that again.” 

“We risked our lives in that water,” Satsuma added.

Yet, the actors were also responsible for so much of the evolution of the suits' designs. "I went to the special effects studio everyday," said Nakajima. "I'd suggest a slit here, a slit there."

Kitigawa got even more technical in his suggestions to make Godzilla more mobile. "To improve the suit's flexibility, I prepared data for the suitmakers, just like an F-1 racer," the actor recalled. "The suit for Godzilla: Final Wars was the most flexible ever."

The suit itself was sculpted out of rubber and fiberglass, designer Shinichi Wakasa explained. "I feel passion for this work," he said. "That's why I'm still here."

Watch excerpts from the documentary below.

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