On Long-Overlooked ‘Suit Actors’ and Tokusatsu Superheroes

Noboru Takemoto, left, and Mishio Suzuki talk about “suit actors.”

Last year, I published my second book, “Suit Actor no Kyoji” (The pride of suit actors) from Shueisha International Inc.

In my first book, I explored the relationship between tokusatsu superhero TV shows in the late Showa era (1926-89) and society and culture. In my latest one, I wrote in detail about “suit actors” — key players of tokusatsu TV dramas who play superheroes in full-length bodysuits and masks.

The book features interviews with “suit actors,” who starred in tokusatsu serials such as “Kamen Rider,” “Ultraman” and “Super Sentai.” We discuss how these actors came to be, their evolution and how studio environments in Japan differ compared to overseas. The book is filled with my love for all things tokusatsu.

Upon publication, I was invited by the bookshop B & B in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, to talk about my book at their venue. The other guest at the event on Jan. 22 was Noboru Takemoto, director of several “Super Sentai” shows and others, who has, in fact, been a tokusatsu buddy of mine since we were teenagers. I talked over a beer about what drove me to write the book, problems I had to overcome and what I particularly wanted to talk about in the text. Takemoto allowed me to discuss those topics as I wished.

It took a good seven years between the publication of my first book and when my publisher agreed to the proposal for my new one. Even though Japanese pop culture has been promoted under the government-led slogan “Cool Japan,” it’s always manga and anime that take the center stage. Tokusatsu does not garner as much attention, and suit actors — lead actors who obscure their faces — have had to settle for being relegated to the shadows. With this background, it took a long time before I finally received the go-ahead from my publisher in late 2022.

Once the project got rolling however, I became concerned about how I did not have much knowledge about suit actors currently active or those who work in genres outside of my expertise, like those featuring giant superheroes and kaiju monsters. To fill this gap, I asked more than 50 individuals for interviews, which took me more than a year in total. I finally completed the manuscript in spring of last year. The book took long enough to produce a Hollywood epic.

What I wanted to get across the most in “Suit Actor no Kyoji” is how outrageously overlooked suit actors are, and how that has been going on for far too long. It has been long since superhero shows became seen as a gateway to success for young actors — but no matter how many good-looking stars there are, superhero dramas cannot exist if not for the suit actors who, despite wearing masks that hide their faces, can engage in impassioned acting and electrifying action performances. What’s more, it’s nothing short of pure talent to be able to do all this while wearing full-length bodysuits that hamper movement.

At the event, as I conversed with Takemoto, we reached the conclusion for that day that the root of the problem is that not enough budget is being spent on tokusatsu shows and how the genre’s future is far from rosy unless changes are made to the status quo. If corporate Japan wants to continue selling Japanese pop culture overseas, I hope that they will direct their attention to the tokusatsu scene as well.

During my discussions, I renewed my determination for this year: to keep on doing what I can, no matter how little, for tokusatsu superheroes and the people who make them.