Veteran Action ‘Suit Actors’ Are Like Living Cultural Treasures

Participants in the Kanreki Matsuri make their own “nanori” pauses one by one.

In February, I organized a Kanreki Matsuri (a festival celebrating the age of 60), which was attended by veteran suit actors aged 60 or older. Suit actors wear full-body costumes and full-faced masks as superheroes or their enemies in tokusatsu sci-fi TV shows or films.

The four main participants of the event were Kazuo Niibori, the legendary suit actor who played many red-costumed leaders of the superhero teams in the “Super Sentai” series dramas on TV; Junichi Haruta, who played both the superhero and human persona of the black-clad character of two Super Sentai works; Toshimichi Takahashi, who played villains in numerous superhero dramas in the late Showa era (1926-89); and Tsutomu Kitagawa, who has played various roles, from Super Sentai heroes to Godzilla. Another regular participant, Kenji Oba of “Uchu Keiji Gavan” (“Space Sheriff Gavan”) fame, has been absent from these events for a long time due to health reasons. Instead, his No. 1 disciple, Kenji Takechi, attended the event. Also in attendance was Kihachiro Uemura, who played Green Flash in “Choshinsei Flashman.”

The event provoked much laughter from the audience because the regulars mostly didn’t behave as they had rehearsed. They were supposed to come on stage one by one to start the show but ended up shuffling on in a loose group instead. It took a second take to get it right. These kinds of blunders, which are unthinkable in plays or normal events, created an air of heartwarming fun. The audience looked on with joyful anticipation as to what would happen next at this event full of wonders.

Five great guests also joined in: Eiichi Kikuchi, the suit actor for Ultraman Jack in “Kaettekita Ultraman” (“Return of Ultraman”); Kuniyasu Ito, whose credits include Vul Panther in “Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan”; Yu Tokita, who played the human persona of Dyna Yellow in “Kagaku Sentai Dynaman”; and twin brothers Yuichi Hachisuka and Shoji Hachisuka, the foremost twins of the tokusatsu world.

Kikuchi is in his 80s, but he has a vivid recollection of his career and told us many interesting stories. When he was working on “Return of Ultraman,” a damaged lighting cable almost electrocuted him and a kaiju monster in a pool. He also talked about shooting epic films of the Showa era. He even appeared in a “James Bond” film that includes a scene in which Sean Connery strangles him.

Prompted by Kikuchi’s reminiscences, the other over-60 actors began recalling various incidents. Takahashi, who is often told he looks like Kikuchi, said the late Bunta Sugawara once mistook him for Kikuchi, but Takahashi was so awed by the screen legend that he couldn’t bring himself to say, “No, I’m not Kikuchi” to correct him.

Ito revealed that when he was working as a suit actor in the Super Sentai series dramas, he would measure and record the height of his jumps from high places in action scenes by using a kite string with a weight attached to one end. He said the highest point from which he had jumped was the tracks of a roller coaster in the Korakuen amusement park (now Tokyo Dome City Attractions) in “Dai Sentai Goggle V.” In that show, the five members of the superhero team often had to do a belly flop onto mattresses when they jumped from high places. The landing was called “hara-ochi” (belly landing).

Niibori made a nonchalant comment on the landing: “The air swiftly blew in through the holes of my mask, and it felt good.” Yet that landing is said to be technically more difficult than landing on your back after twisting your body in mid-air.

Ito also said he could never forget the time that Haruta jumped off a building about two meters high wearing a pair of normal boots with hard soles, and then just continued with a combat scene.

“I was really surprised because it wasn’t something you could do with ordinary techniques,” Ito said.

Haruta answered, “Did I really do something that dangerous? I’ve done too many action scenes that I don’t remember doing that.”

Tokita looked back on a shoot for “Dynaman” in the Kyushu region.

“In the story, even though the Dynaman team have access to a giant robot which they use to defeat the enemy, in the end they go home on a sightseeing bus,” he said with a dumbfounded smile.

As for the Hachisuka twins, who look very much like each other, Niibori boasted that he could tell them apart. When Haruta asked him why he had such confidence, he said after a brief pause, “Intuition,” making everyone burst into laughter. The twins are now 61. Yuichi Hachisuka is currently playing Papillon Ohger in “Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger,” while Shoji Hachisuka is appearing in the live-action show version of the tokusatsu TV drama at Theater G-Rosso at Tokyo Dome City. The crowd loved meeting the suit actor brothers and cheered them loudly.

At the end of the show, there was a medley of “nanori” — a set of signature moves superheroes perform as prelude to a fight — which was just amazing, and the audience and I got a burst of energy from watching. The stories told by the people with behind-the-scenes knowledge of superhero shows from the late Showa era to the Reiwa era (2019-) are interesting and precious. I’d like to continue recording their testimonies, which are like intangible cultural treasures.