Rubber-Suit Monsters Fade. Tiny Tokyos Relax.
CHOFU, Japan — Daisuke Terai plays one of the best-known characters in the history of science fiction, but few fans have ever seen the actor’s face. That is because Mr. Terai puts on a bright silver and red rubber suit before stepping onto a set made of miniature trees and buildings to do battle as the cosmic superhero Ultraman.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Terai’s character was locked in mortal combat to defend the Earth from a giant extraterrestrial dinosaur with glowing eyes and forked spikes called Grand King. When the cameras paused, a sweating Mr. Terai, 36, peeled off the top of his Ultraman suit, while stagehands removed Grand King’s foam spikes to reveal a zipper down the back of the 65-pound costume.
For decades, Japanese studios dazzled, terrified and tickled global audiences with monster movies and television shows featuring actors in rubber suits laying waste to scaled-down Tokyos, or dueling atop miniaturized Mt. Fujis. The genre, known here as “tokusatsu,” or “special filming,” helped take the Japanese film industry global by creating such fabled creatures as Godzilla and Mothra, pioneering the way for other fantasy genres like animé.
But now, in an era when lifelike digital effects have made the use of small models and suited actors look quaint and kitschy, tokusatsu is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The last Godzilla movie shot in this style, the aptly named “Godzilla Final Wars,” was released almost a decade ago, after a half-century span during which the creature appeared in 28 films, sometimes every year.
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