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MY HEROES / Suit actor recalls risks, adventure of pre-CG era

Kazutoshi Yokoyama poses during the Yokoyama Matsuri event in June.

By Mishio Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior SpecialistImagine jumping off the top of a building or seeing your own arms on fire. The likelihood of either of these things happening to you is pretty slim. For the average person, such incidents would most likely mean their time was up; they’re the kinds of things people hope never happen to them.

However, there are some who remain cool in the face of such dangers and go on to perform even more audacious acts.

Kazutoshi Yokoyama is one of those people. He’s a member of the Japan Action Enterprise, formerly called Japan Action Club, which has produced many action stars and stunt actors. When he was a trainee there, he was impressed by a stage show based on the tokusatsu sci-fi action drama “Hikari Sentai Maskman,” which encouraged him to become a suit actor — an actor who plays superheroes after their transformation from human form. He played lead roles in “Kido Keiji Jiban” (The Mobile Cop Jiban), “Tokkei Winspector” (Special Rescue Police Winspector) and other dramas in the Metal Hero series. He was also the suit actor for the superhero team leader in a red costume in some Super Sentai Series dramas, including “Choriki Sentai O-Ranger” and “Gekiso Sentai Carranger.”

Last month, I organized a Yokoyama Matsuri event featuring the actor as the main guest and asked him about some of the action scenes he has been involved in.

He was a suit actor during a time when computer-generated images were not widely used in TV and film. It was normal then to shoot dangerous scenes — scenes that would be done using CG today — with actors performing the stunts.

Describing a scene in which a robot performs a number of flips in the air, Yokoyama said a suit actor in costume was suspended by piano wires from the ceiling and actually rotated.

“The wires sometimes snapped,” he said. Recalling a time when this happened, he said he was hurled into the air: “I’d gathered speed, so I wasn’t sure for a moment where I was heading.” In addition to their habit of breaking, wires also made a nerve-racking noise when the suspended actors moved.

Yokoyama described another of his scenes in which both of his arms were set alight. A special flammable material that is meant to prevent burns was used in the stunt, however, it was still very hot, he recalled. “It felt like I’d been burned, but I had to prepare for the next scene, wearing a superhero suit and gloves. Afterward I realized the skin had come off my arms,” Yokoyama said, which prompted gasps of shock from the audience.

He went on to reveal more stories about dangerous shoots as if they were minor incidents. For example, he once had to leap between moving vehicles traveling at 40 kph. During the first shoot of “O-Ranger,” one of the cast fell into the basin of a waterfall in midwinter and took a worryingly long time to emerge.

At the event, he spoke with some guests who were former suit actors. The content of the conversation would shock most ordinary people: “How many times were you covered in fire?” “Maybe six times that day.”

These fearless people helped to create the tokusatsu superhero programs of today. The young actors who play the roles of superheroes before their transformations are the ones in the spotlight nowadays, rather than the suit actors. But I’m convinced that people like Yokoyama, who performed with their faces hidden behind superhero masks, have made significant contributions to the tokusatsu genre.

Yokoyama, now an actor who mainly performs at theaters, will appear in the play “Makai Tensho,” which will commemorate the 65th anniversary of Nippon TV, starting October.

Suzuki is a Yomiuri Shimbun senior specialist and an expert on tokusatsu superhero films and dramas.Speech

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