By Mishio Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior SpecialistWhenever I interview suit actors — performers who play a superhero or a monster in a mask and a full-body suit — I’m amazed at the unthinkable working conditions in which they accomplish their feats. Highly difficult and dangerous action scenes are shot as part of their daily routines, not as something special. It’s constantly been like this for the past nearly 50 years.
Tsutomu Kitagawa is known worldwide as a suit actor for Godzilla. The other day, I organized the Kitagawa Matsuri, an event at which he talked about various experiences from his career.
Kitagawa, who spent his younger days in Yamaguchi Prefecture, was a fast sprinter and an all-round athlete who was particularly good at gymnastics. Aspiring to become an Olympian, the boy took part in big sports meets such as inter-high school championships and the National Sports Festival. But upon graduating from high school, he found he wouldn’t be able to make a living as a gymnast and joined the Japan Action Club (JAC, which is now called Japan Action Enterprise) to become a stunt actor.
The young Kitagawa wanted to become a suit actor for his favorite series: “Ultraman.” Unfortunately for him, JAC was supplying suit actors for Toei Co.’s tokusatsu sci-fi action dramas, while “Ultraman” was created by Tsuburaya Productions Co.
Kitagawa thus made his suit acting debut in Toei’s “Akumaiser 3” and played a superhero for the first time in “Battle Fever J,” which was part of the company’s Super Sentai Series. His character was actually a woman named Miss America.
Kitagawa did his part as the suit actor for Blue Three in “Chodenshi Bioman,” Blue Mask in “Hikari Sentai Maskman,” Shishiranger in “Gosei Sentai Dairanger” and other superheroes, before being offered the role of the famous monster Godzilla in films including “Godzilla 2000” (1999).
What’s great about Kitagawa is that when he talks about all the dangerous action scenes he performed, he never sounds like he’s speaking about something dangerous. For example, the actor once stood without a safety line on the edge of a rooftop of a high-rise building in Shinjuku, Tokyo, for the opening song of a Super Sentai Series drama. At the recent event, he simply said, “I don’t remember the scene very well,” as if it were nothing.
Kitagawa added he did not feel scared because he “would never be told to jump off a building as high as 150 meters or so.” He said that “I’m more afraid of working on a six-story building or at a 20-meter-high cliff because I’d be asked to do an outrageous stunt like jumping off those places.”
Indeed, JAC members were often seen jumping off six-story or seven-story buildings or high cliffs in tokusatsu dramas and films at that time, even though these scenes aired on free TV to children and families, not to a paying audience at film theaters.
Wearing the Godzilla suit, Kitagawa was once submerged in a 5-meter-deep pool, and no sooner was he underwater than his breathing device became unhooked. The first thing he did was to tell himself, “Don’t rush.”
In another incident, when taking part in a shoot of a sci-fi film, Kitagawa had to walk into a burning set wearing a shoddy fire-protection suit. The director told him to bear the heat as long as he could, to which he duly obliged.
These stories make me realize once again that we have been blessed with opportunities to watch great visual media works thanks to those athletic daredevil heroes.
I repeat myself every time, but I will say it again: Those suit actors deserve much better recognition. With the government using the Cool Japan initiative to promote Japanese culture, suit action is definitely a cultural aspect Japan can be proud of.