He stomped over miniature bridges and buildings in a rubber suit and gave the world Godzilla, the fire-breathing, screeching monster that became Japan's star cultural export and an enduring symbol of the pathos and destruction of the nuclear age.
Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed Godzilla in the original 1954 classic, died Monday of pneumonia, his daughter Sonoe Nakajima told The Associated Press on Tuesday. He was 88.
The film, which went on to become a mega-series and inspired Hollywood spinoffs, struck a chord with postwar Japan, the only nation in the world to suffer atomic bombing, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II.
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Vivacious and energetic, Nakajima said he invented the character from scratch, and developed it by going to a zoo to study how elephants and bears moved. He said it was important to show the pathos of the creature, which could only smash everything in its way.
The theme of his Godzilla was grand and complex, he said, addressing universal human problems, as it spoke to a Japan that still remembered wartime suffering.
"If Godzilla can't walk properly, it's nothing but a freak show," Nakajima said in a 2014 interview with the AP at his suburban Tokyo apartment, proudly sitting among sepia-toned photos of him as a young man and Godzilla figures.
"It's not some cowboy movie," he said.
He recalled that the rubber suit he wore was so hot, especially under the glaring lights of the movie set, that the sweat he wrung from his shirt would fill half a bucket.
In the original movie, directed by Ishiro Honda with an unforgettable score by Akira Ifukube, Godzilla surfaces from the Pacific Ocean suddenly, a mutation as a result of nuclear testing in the area.
Nakajima was a stunt actor in samurai films when he was approached to take the role of Godzilla. Some fans prefer Nakajima's version over some Hollywood depictions, which they say resemble an evil-looking animal.
Although recent Godzilla films use computer graphics, the latest Japanese Godzilla remake, released last year, went back to using a human actor, Mansai Nomura, a specialist in the traditional theater of Kyogen. His movements were duplicated on the screen through "motion capture" technology.
Until recently, Nakajima had continued to be a star guest at festivals and events. He had been scheduled to be featured at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October.
"I am the original, the real thing," he said in 2014. "My Godzilla was the best."
A funeral is to be held for family and close friends.