Early days of Super Sentai, Kamen Rider recalled

©Kanreki Matsuri
Veteran “suit actors” gather at an online edition of the “Kanreki Matsuri” show in April.

In April, I convened an online gathering of the Kanreki Matsuri, the second time the event was held on the small screen amid the pandemic.

One of my longstanding talk event series, the Kanreki Matsuri features veteran suit actors — the people inside the costumes of iconic superheroes in tokusatsu sci-fi action films and TV shows — who have reached age 60 or older. Conceived as an intimate conversation with the stars themselves, the event series started out as the furthest thing from all those newfangled technologies like the internet. But here we are. As it turns out, the jump to the web has been surprisingly seamless and hasn’t slowed the pace or frequency of the proceedings, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of the participants, who have gone above and beyond to ensure the events are a success.

Headlined by Kazuo Niibori and special guest Kihachiro Uemura, the digital stage was shared by usual members Junichi Haruta, Toshimichi Takahashi and Tsutomu Kitagawa, as well as Kenji Takechi, who filled in for a convalescent Kenji Oba.

The year 2021 is a big year for the two major tokusatsu TV drama series in Japan, marking the 45th installment of the Super Sentai series and the 50th anniversary of Kamen Rider. Having appeared in both series, Niibori and his colleagues were from the generation whose physical feats supported the growth of the action-packed genre. At the event, I asked these doyens to regale us with their insiders’ accounts of the tokusatsu sets in the latter years of the Showa era (1926-89).

Haruta revealed one war story about trampolines in the early days of the Kamen Rider series. He said the suit actors used trampolines to execute various action routines, including the drama’s iconic Rider Kick. They had only one day to shoot all the trampoline scenes, which meant he was bouncing up and down for hours on end. It was late afternoon before they got all their takes and he was finally able to dismount. After all that time on the trampoline, it took a while for Haruta to regain his land legs. “I felt so strange, as if I was still floating in the air,” he said. The early Kamen Rider masks also reportedly gave him trouble because they weren’t one solid piece, but rather, consisted of detachable upper and lower parts. He said that he had to be careful whenever he jumped, so as not to let the lower part fall down.

Niibori and Kitagawa also remarked on filming scenes where members of the superhero team had to run together abreast. They said it was up to the character in the red suit, who was always positioned in the middle as the leader of the team, to play the role of the pacesetter. “But I would always get spooked by the explosions and take off in a sprint halfway through the shoot, giving a hard time to the other actors,” Niibori said.

On the other hand, Takahashi often played the villain, which frequently meant appearing onscreen without a mask, or even a shirt. Although he could already boast an impressively muscular physique, he would still work out before each shoot to pump up his muscles even more.

The two-hour event, which also included a gesture game and a trivia session, flew by in a flash. At the end, I asked everyone to strike a pose and introduce themselves. The online Kanreki Matsuri offers the advantage of a quiet environment to listen to the recollections of these legendary actors. I’d like to make the most of it and uncover even more interesting stories from the annals of superhero history. Stay tuned for the next episode, which is scheduled to take place in the autumn.