Kenpachiro Satsuma fought against Ghidorah, Mothra, and Destoroyah.

This week, Japanese actor Kenpachiro Satsuma passed away. Satsuma’s big break came when he was 37 years old and landed the starring role in a popular action film released just before Christmas in 1984. He would go on to play the same role six more times over the next 11 years, with the number and rapid frequency of sequels speaking to how well his performances were received by the movie-going public.

And yet, it’s probably safe to bet that the majority of the fans of Satsuma’s work wouldn’t have recognized him at all out of costume, because that costume was Godzilla.

▼ Kenpachiro Satsuma and his work outfit

The official Japanese Godzilla Twitter account broke the news of Satsuma’s death with the following announcement:

“We wish to offer our condolences for the sudden passing of Kenpachiro Satsuma. He was a true legend who did so much to make the Heisei Godzilla series what it was. The way in which he breathed life into Godzilla as his suit actor is forever engraved in the hearts of fans. We are grateful to him from the bottom of our hearts, and pray that he is resting in peace.”

Satsuma, born Yasuaki Maeda in 1947 in Kagoshima Prefecture (“Satsuma” being the previous name for the Kagoshima area) was Godzilla’s second suit actor, as the performer inside the kaiju costume was called in the pre-CG/motion-capture era. After making his franchise debut in 1971 as Hedorah the Smog Monster in Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Satsuma shored up his kaiju credentials playing Gigan in Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon. Then, in 1984, Satsuma went from fighting against Godzilla to fighting as Godzilla, when he was chosen to portray the King of the Monsters in The Return of Godzilla, also known as Godzilla 1984 or, upon its overseas release the next calendar year, Godzilla 1985.

Following the retirement of original Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima after 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, filmmaker Toho used three different actors for the next three Godzilla movies. After Satsuma’s Return of Godzilla performance, though, the role remained his alone for the rest of what’s now called the “Heisei series” of Godzilla films, Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993), Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995). To this day, Godzilla’s on-screen battles against Ghidorah, Mothra, and Destoroyah are some of the most iconic fights in the entire franchise.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

Satsuma is reported to have passed away from pneumonia on December 16 while in the hospital. A funeral is planned for close family members, with a larger owakarekai, or “farewell gathering,” for fellow industry members and acquaintances at a later date.

Though this is sad news for fans, it’s nice to know that before the 76-year-old Satsuma went, he got to see the Godzilla character/franchise rise to its highest-ever level of global popularity and success. In addition to the Legendary Pictures/MonsterVerse movies seeming to have found their stride, the Japanese-produced Shin Godzilla reminded audiences of the series’ potential for serious, dramatic storytelling, something that continues with the just-released-overseas Godzilla Minus One, which has been both a critical and commercial hit in the U.S. So even if Satsuma’s literal footprints are nowhere near as big as Godzilla’s, he’s still left a huge impression on moviegoers worldwide.

Source: Twitter/@godzilla_jp via Anime News Network/Anita Tai, The Sankei Shimbun
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