This is a tribute I never wanted to have to write.
And an occasion I never wanted to see come to pass.
But such is life, and such is the relentless march of time.
On March 14th, 2022, Akira Takarada – one of Japan’s national treasures, a figurehead of the country’s cinema landscape, and star of the original 1954 Godzilla, five of its sequels, and a multitude of other kaiju-centric films – left this world at the age of 87. Three days later, on March 17th, the world was informed of his passing. At the time these words are being written, the news is only hours old. Emotions are raw. The full impact of this collective sucker punch to the heart of G-fandom has yet to fully sink in.
And in this unprecedented and devastating moment, I find myself treading across two disparate lines, at once lost for words and simultaneously compelled to say so many, many things.
To put it mildly, my heart is broken.
Throughout my many years of loving Godzilla, I’ve seen many beloved figures from the series pass away. Every year claims another face from my childhood, giving fans pause and reminding us of how special they were in our lives. But this passing has hit me differently than all the others. I imagine I’m not alone in feeling this way, either.
As tributes and personal remembrances continue to roll in over the next few days, you’ll begin to notice (if you haven’t already) a trend among those who were lucky enough to meet, interact with, and get to know Takarada-san over the years. You’ll notice words like “kind,” “generous,” and “funny” popping up over and over again. You’ll hear intimate stories of simple – or massive – acts of kindness performed by Takarada-san for his fans, see dozens and dozens of pictures from the countless conventions he attended right up until his passing. And you’ll hear people say, in effect, the same thing: “He was a good man.”
And indeed he was.
If you were to pull out a dictionary and look up the phrase “class act,” you’d surely see a picture of Akira Takarada in lieu of a written definition. And it’s true: the man exuded class wherever he went, all without a single shred of self-importance. While we fans always considered him the coolest, most important person in the room, it’s no assumption to say that Takarada-san felt quite the opposite; to him, we were the most important people in any room he was in. We were the ones to be thanked, appreciated, and honored. The love and respect we showed him was reciprocated tenfold, all with the humility and kindness of a man who (you could always tell) was grateful – rather than inconvenienced – to be interacting with his fans.
And for an amazing 12 years, I was lucky enough to be one of those fans. And thereby hangs a tale to tell…
I first met Takarada-san back in 2010, at that year’s G-Fest. I was 17 at the time, a fresh-faced high schooler who – up until that very convention – had never spoken with a Godzilla fan face to face, let alone met one of the franchise’s onscreen stars.
The trip to Chicago was a big deal at the time, and had been fully paid for as a birthday present. I was on cloud nine, and a bit overwhelmed by suddenly going from complete fandom isolation to being in a crowded building literally bursting with like-minded people. But what really caught my eye that year was the guest list.
As it turns out, 2010 was the first year that Akira Takarada came to G-Fest, a tradition that would continue multiple years until 2019. The moment I rounded the corner in the hallway on the con’s first day and saw him standing there, towering over a crowd of star-struck fans was, to put it mildly, surreal as hell. It was also a significant moment for my personal relationship with the Godzilla franchise; for the first time in my life, the faces I’d grown up with behind a movie screen were really there, existing in the same space as me. It made the whole thing feel very… real, if that makes even the tiniest bit of sense.
For me, my connection to Takarada-san goes back to the very beginnings of my love for Godzilla. At age six, 1999’s Godzilla 2000 introduced me to the world of the Big G, but as it happens, my first full Godzilla film that I saw from beginning to end was 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla. Takarada-san, of course, is the star of that film, and his face was further seared into my mind when Godzilla vs. Monster Zero became the next film I watched. 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra came next, followed many years later by Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and then – oddly enough, considering its wide availability at the time – 1966’s Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster when I was around 14.
As anyone who has seen Takarada onscreen can tell you, it doesn’t take much to become completely entranced by the guy. His charisma on camera was in a class of its own, and it’s no wonder why his frequent nickname over the years was “Mr. Handsome.”
All that to say, seeing him in person was a bizarre and wonderful experience. And then meeting him… well, that was something else entirely. As anyone who has chatted with him at a convention will tell you, Takarada-san treated his admirers well. He sat and waited, smile on his face, while I spent way too long attempting to unroll a vintage ’92 Godzilla vs. Mothra poster for him to sign. But sign it he did, and after the obligatory handshakes and pictures, I left the autograph booth exhilarated.
If only I’d known what was to come a few years later…
Takarada-san would return to G-Fest again in 2012, claiming that the experience of attending the 2010 con had, quite literally, changed his life. So moved was he by the love he received on U.S. shores, that it actually became a challenge to keep Takarada-san from not attending G-Fest! (As if anyone would ever consider turning him away.) To that end, the man who called Godzilla his “classmate” began a tradition of appearing at the yearly show, and soon added other cons to his list.
In 2016, he returned for his third G-Fest, greeting even more new fans and creating cherished memories for every one of them. It was my third time meeting the great man, and although I couldn’t confirm it at the time, it was during that particular con that I got the distinct impression he remembered me. Was it even remotely possible that I – just one out of the thousands and thousands of people he’d met over the years – had left an impression? Surely not, I’d thought to myself. Just wishful thinking…
But as it turns out, it wasn’t. And only a few days after G-Fest ended, I would discover firsthand the kind of man Akira Takarada truly was.
In late July of 2016, a mere week after leaving Chicago, I boarded the first of three flights for Tokyo. After years of fantasizing about visiting the Land of the Rising Sun – home to so many of the cinematic monsters that had inspired me – I’d finally saved up enough dough to make the journey. It was coming hot on the heels of surviving five-and-a-half grueling, humiliating years of art school (the full horrors of which are far beyond the purview of this article), and needless to say, I was more than ready to decompress and, quite literally, live a dream.
What followed was a life-changing eight days in Tokyo. Eight days of fun, laughter, and memory upon wonderful memory. However, of all the amazing things that happened to me in Japan, one particular moment stands head and shoulders above them all…
During my visit, I had the opportunity to dine with a group of actors, actresses, and technicians from Japan’s Golden Age of film and television. Among those in attendance were Hiroko Sakurai (beloved for her role as Fuji in the original 1966 Ultraman series) and, wouldn’t you know it, the legendary Akira Takarada himself. Despite having to evade a swarm of admirers on his way to the small boat where we’d be eating our meal, he arrived looking dapper as ever and smiling ear to ear.
No one in my group of vacationers had paid for Takarada-san to be there, nor had his involvement been a planned part of the trip. Takarada-san had invited us, and made the night even more special by calling in some favors and inviting an entire boatload of kaiju eiga alumni. When we sat down in front of our tables, Takarada-san sat among us, no more important or special (at least in his mind) than any of us gaijin nerds.
When asked if he would say a few words to our group, Takarada-san humbly turned his head around to face each of us one at a time. He then lifted the small mic we’d handed him to his lips and said in English, voice trembling, “I want to cry.”
It was a powerful moment. It meant every bit as much to him that we were there as it meant to us to have him there. That, my friends, is true humility.
And then, something else happened.
Everyone who has met Akira Takarada has that one special story that they will never forget. Perhaps he signed an extra DVD for you free of charge. Maybe you rode the elevator together at G-Fest, or he joined you at your dining table after the con’s daily activities had ended. There are so many special stories that Takarada-san has made possible for his fans, each intensely personal to that particular fan.
This is my story.
At a certain point during the night, I pulled out my phone to show my fellow vacationers some pictures of my kaiju artwork. Of particular interest to them was a half-finished teapot that I’d sculpted into the visage of the kaiju Varan, a piece that had become a bit of a sore point for me over the previous few years. While I’d loved working on it, the pot had been one of many pieces created during my art school tenure that my professors had outright despised. In fact, by 2016, the darn thing had been siting unfinished for nearly half a decade, with my teachers unwilling to help me operate the kiln and fully glaze it. Without getting into too much detail, that single piece had become all but a posterchild for how isolated my passion for character design had made me during college. It represented a lot of humiliation and misunderstanding, but in that moment, drifting in Tokyo Bay with like-minded fans, I figured it might find some appreciation and, just maybe, some genuine critique.
Suddenly, as I continued swiping through my phone to look for kaiju-related art, a head appeared next to my shoulder. To my immediate right sat Sojiro Uchino, who had acted in episodes of Ultra Q and Ultraman, among other roles, as a child. He asked to see my phone, and before I knew it, he was passing it around the celebrity table! Actors, special effects artists, and suit performers were suddenly looking at my artwork, each oohing and ahhing as they realized what they were looking at. Talk about surreal.
And then, Takarada-san reached out his hand to take a look.
The phone was passed to him, and I stood in frozen wonderment as the man whom I had watched land on Planet X as a child examined my teapot.
A few seconds later, he looked up towards me.
“You made this?”
I nodded. “Yep! I sure did!”
He held the picture on the phone towards me.
“Can I buy?”
I blinked a few times, not quite believing what I’d just heard.
“Uh… yeah! Yes!”
A few seconds later, Takarada-san produced a business card from his breast pocket. With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he passed both the phone and the card across the table and into my hands.
At that point, the world stopped moving. Anything that might have been wrong in my life melted away.
For the rest of the night, Takarada-san shot occasional glances my way, holding up his hand like a phone to his ear. I nodded each time, still not quite believing what had just happened.
Needless to say, having one of my heroes offer to buy a piece of my art – especially a piece that represented so much of what was exasperating about my time in art school – is easily the single most surreal and wonderful thing to ever happen to me.
It was like he knew. Like he understood what I’d been going through.
But that’s just the person he was.
In a world full of celebrities with huge heads, even bigger egos, and a sense of self-importance heavy enough to sink a ship, Akira Takarada was the kind of man who would offer to buy artwork from a fan of his films.
Let that sink in. How many movie stars can you name who would do something like that for a fan? Probably not many.
My path would cross with Takarada-san’s again at 2019’s G-Fest, which he attended after missing the 2018 convention due to an unexpected hospital visit. It was during the opening ceremonies for that year’s con that I – and everyone in attendance – witnessed another display of just how amazing a man Takarada-san was. When given the mic to do his introduction during the opening ceremonies, the legendary actor took the opportunity to – in perfect English, by the way – tell us all how deeply sorry he was for missing the previous year’s show. And as he spoke, he began to cry.
For nearly a minute, he wept in silence in front of nearly 1000 Godzilla fans. 1000 people who he felt he’d let down. Of course, nothing could’ve been further from the truth. We stood, tears in our own eyes, and cheered for him. When he’d recovered, he held out his hands, voice still trembling, and swore he’d do his best for all of us that weekend, and for as long as he could after that weekend had passed.
If there’d ever been any doubt about Akira Takarada’s devotion to Godzilla fans, it was gone in that moment. That he could be moved to tears at the fear of having disappointed us… well, needless to say, it was an emotional and powerful moment.
The last time I would ever speak to Takarada-san face to face came the final day of the convention, when I happened to pass him headed back to his autograph table. Despite the throng of people following him and the tight schedule he had for the remainder of the day, he nevertheless saw me, stopped dead in his tracks, and headed in my direction with a huge smile on his face.
“Good to see you again!” he said, stretching out his hand.
I returned the sentiment, shaking his hand firmly as I gave him a slight, respectful bow.
After that, the crowd caught up, and he departed for his autograph table. I headed back to my room as giddy as could be. It seems I had made an impression on him, after all.
And although I dearly wish that hadn’t been our final meeting, it’s a final memory that I’ll always cherish.
Over the next few years, I eagerly awaited the return of conventions and hoped with all my heart that Takarada-san might be well enough to attend a few of them. As of a few days ago, it was tentatively planned that I venture to Indianapolis in September for the All Monsters Attack Expo, where – at long last and after years of personal setbacks, material-sourcing challenges, shipping issues, and COVID delays – I would FINALLY deliver Takarada-san’s freshly finished (and free of charge, at my insistence) Varan teapot.
But now, for the worst reasons possible, none of that will be happening.
As I mentioned before, I’ve lived through my fair share of kaiju eiga stars and creators passing away. But the passing of Akira Takarada is a different beast entirely. Part of that is surely his ties to the original Godzilla, and the origins of the genre; with Takarada gone, Godzilla – in many ways – now stands alone. As the last living member of the film’s cast, a long-standing final tether to the past has been severed forever. There’s now no one left alive who was there, no one who can describe first-hand what it was like to be on that set and watch history being made. Losing that last, tangible connection to the 1954 classic now makes the film feel oddly distant, detached from the modern world.
Part of the weight of Takarada-san’s passing also stems from his personal relationship with Godzilla and the franchise that made both the man and the monster famous. Takarada-san was, in many ways, Godzilla’s best friend and ultimate ambassador; he embraced his relationship with the series, singing its praises and spreading the anti-nuclear, environmental, and peaceful messages of the original film far and wide. His passing is more than just a loss for fans; Godzilla himself has lost an ally.
And then, of course, there’s Takarada-san’s close relationship with the fan base. And on an even more personal level, there’s the unique and life-affirming relationship that I was able to form with him over the years. But the layers run deeper, because my story is just one of many. Every fan who met this man was touched by him in some profound way, and they all have their own special story.
To lose someone so profoundly kind, genuine, and supportive of our little community of kaiju lovers is truly devastating. But when the dust settles and the emotions become less raw, where do we go? What do we do next?
For me, the answer is simple: we remember, and we carry on where Takarada-san left off. As he treated people with kindness, so too should we. As he preserved the legacy of Godzilla and ensured that people remembered the power of that original masterful film, so must we preserve its memory and share it with future generations. As he found gratitude and fulfilment in his association with the King of the Monsters, so must we with our own passions and callings.
And above all else, we must remember the man himself. A man who wasn’t just an icon, but also a genuine, available, and true friend to us all. Someone who loved us as much as we loved him.
If we can do those things, we can honor his legacy. And – if you’ll forgive me the cliché – is anyone as beloved, respected, and honored as Akira Takarada ever truly gone?
I’d like to think not.
During his many convention panels, Takarada-san would often invoke the names of directors and co-stars who has passed on, particularly his fellow Godzilla veterans Ishiro Honda, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, and Haruo Nakajima. He would gesture to the ceiling, sometimes even looking up as if to address his departed friends directly, and tell the audience that he believed the spirits of those long-gone men and women were smiling down on us, approving of our love for Godzilla.
And if he was right, those spirits are surely in good company right now.
Sayonara, Takarada-san. And thank you.