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MY HEROES / Suiting up for life-and-death action

Tetsuya Nakayashiki poses onstage.

By Mishio Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterTetsuya Nakayashiki was a “suit actor,” a Japanese-English term referring to a performer who plays a superhero — or super villain — while wearing a full body suit and a mask.

In addition to performing stunts in action scenes, a suit actor also expresses the full range of the character’s emotions with his body. I suppose this is a peculiarly Japanese profession. Another actor plays the role without a mask or suit when the character is in his non-superhero form.

Nakayashiki’s most famous roles were in superhero suits for the Kamen Rider (Masked Rider) series, such as Kamen Rider V3, Skyrider and Kamen Rider Super-1, in the latter years of the Showa era (1926-89). He was so well known for these parts that fans called him “Mr. Kamen Rider.”

I run many events dealing with tokusatsu dramas, which are sci-fi dramas with superheroes. In one regular event that has been held since 2006, an actor from these dramas is invited as the main guest. That actor then names the performer who will become the main guest in the next show.

At the 51st show in November, the main guest was Hiroshi Fujioka, who played Takeshi Hongo, the first Kamen Rider. He named Naka- yashiki as the next guest, saying: “He’s my comrade in arms. We both risked our lives to create the shows under difficult shooting conditions.”

I therefore invited Nakayashiki to the show on Feb. 10. The show was titled “Nakayashiki Matsuri” (Nakayashiki festival), and I asked him to talk about his career and all the good memories of those days.

Nakayashiki comes from Kuji, Iwate Prefecture. As a middle school student, he got hooked on movies and aspired to become an actor, though at one point he temporarily put aside this dream to become a carpenter like his father and brother.

Unable to give up his desire to act, however, he eventually went to Tokyo, although he only had enough money to travel to the capital. While working as a live-in apprentice cook, he joined a theater company and made his debut as an actor in 1968. An acquaintance then introduced him to Ono Kenyukai, a group of actors specializing in sword fight scenes, which set him on the path to becoming Mr. Kamen Rider.

There were no computer graphics back then, so Nakayashiki had to perform a succession of dangerous action scenes himself.

The most famous of these appeared in the fourth episode of “Kamen Rider V3,” in which the superhero V3 struck a pose while standing on top of a 50-meter-tall chimney without a safety rope. According to Nakayashiki, a staff member on another show who was working at the same studio asked him one day, “Do you think a man can act on top of a place 50 meters above ground?” Nakayashiki casually replied: “I guess so. Depends on the actor’s motivation.” He didn’t give it much thought, since they were talking about another show.

A few days later, though, that staff member was transferred to the V3 film crew and proposed doing a scene on the 50-meter-tall chimney. Nakayashiki agreed, the word “motivation” coming back to smack him like a boomerang. “I had no choice but to do it,” he said, smiling wryly.

Surprisingly, Nakayashiki felt no fear of dying in the scene. He was much more frightened by a scene in another work — it could be “Skyrider” but he does not remember well. In that scene, he had to cling to the edge of a cliff inside a waterfall. He had to act as if he was about to fall, although the cliff was only four meters high. Nakayashiki rehearsed the scene without a mask but for the real performance he had it on. The water poured through the slits of the mask, and he could barely breathe as the water filled it up.

“I struggled, trying to get help, but the people watching me just said things like, ‘He’s doing a good job.’ That was really scary,” he recalled with a chuckle.

Nakayashiki now works as an actor at the Nikko Edomura (Edo Wonderland) theme park in the Kinugawa spa resort in Tochigi Prefecture. Fans of the Showa Kamen Rider series sometimes come to see him, he said. I suggest you join them if you would like to see Mr. Kamen Rider.

(The next installment appears March 12.)

Suzuki is a senior writer in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Digital Media Bureau and an expert on tokusatsu superhero films and dramas. She runs a talk event with tokusatsu performers and anime/tokusatsu song singers.

Tetsuya Nakayashiki poses for a photo.Speech

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