Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Yoshinori Okamoto : a legendary actor in the sentai franchise


As a 40 year old franchise, Super Sentai has a rich history, has evolved a lot, and has had plenty of actors, voice actors, suit actors who have been involved a lot in the franchise through the years. Among iconic actors, several may come to mind : Naoya Makoto, the first Red Ranger, or the actors who have played several times a ranger, such as Hiroshi Miyauchi (Aoranger in Gorenger, Big One in JAKQ, but also the mentor Miura in Ohranger), Shiro Izumi (Change Pegasus and the first Sixth ranger, Dragonranger Burai), Teruaki Ogawa (Ninjared and Kurokishi), Kenji Ohba (Battle Kenya and Denziblue)  Jun'ichi Haruta (Goggle Black and Dynablack), the latter two having been suit actors as well, notably in their shows as actors. For iconic villain actors and actresses, Masashi Ishibashi (main villain in JAKQ, Battle Fever (Hedder), Dynaman (General Kar), Turboranger (Redha)), Machiko Soga (Queen Hedrian in Denziman and Sun Vulcan, Bandora in Zyuranger), Yutaka Hirose (Ley Wanda in Flashman, Doctor Kemp in Liveman, Tranza in Jetman, Jin in Dairanger), Akiko Amamatsuri (Doctor Mazenda in Liveman, Gara in Dairanger) come in mind. Some actors also may have been both hero and villain, such as Sayoko Hagiwara (Dynapink and Ley Nefel) or Kihachiro Uemura (Green Flash and Chevalier in Fiveman). Most of those actors have also guest starred in other shows as well.
While suit actors and voice actors are less visible, they're even more involved, since they're often involved in much more shows than live actors. While a live actor can play a major role in just a few series when a suit actor can be involved in much more, since they're used year after year : a classic example is Kazuo Niibori, who was the suit actors of almost all Red rangers from Gorenger through Jetman (about a dozen shows).
Likewise, voice actors are often used year after year, and in several cases, in main roles : classic examples include Seizo Kaito, who played the Big Bads in Changeman and Maskman (Bazoo and Zeba), as well as guest starring in other series, or Shozo Iizuka, who played plenty of villains in early sentai series, and even played a major villain as late as Goseiger (Mons Drake).

Yoshinori Okamoto is in my opinion one of the most iconic actors of the sentai franchise, because he can boast of being at once an iconic live actor, iconic suit actor and iconic voice actor, having been involved in several shows as a live actor, while being a very regular suit actor, as well as voicing some of his suit characters. He has an incredibly long and rich career in the sentai franchise, starting being involved since ethe beginning, and then being active during most of the franchise. He's one of the most iconic actors playing villains, but his involvment in the franchise goes even further of course.

Yoshinori Okamoto : an incredible career

1) Beginnings : pre-Soda sentai

The first sentai series in which Yoshinori Okamoto was involved was also the first sentai series as well : Gorenger : ironically, for an actor who would play plenty of villains later, he started being the suit actor of the main heroes in late episodes , such as Aoranger as well as being sometimes the replacement of Kenji Ohba as Akaranger. He was also a suit actor for heroes in  JAKQ as Space Ace (Red) (with Junichi Haruta) and Big One, and Sun Vulcan as Vul Eagle (with Niibori). But very early he also started being a suit actor in villainous roles, first in mook roles in Battle Fever and Denziman. He also played the human form of a Monster of the Week in Sun Vulcan (Spider Monger).

2) The Soda era of sentai : a major villain actor

However, it's during the 80' and the sentai shows penned by Hirohisa Soda that Yoshinori Okamoto would have his most interesting roles, the ones who made him a true icon in the sentai franchise and one of its most memorable villain actors.

Okamoto's first main villain role was first a pure suit acting role : Bio Hunter Silva in Bioman (Silva was voice by Kazuo Hayashi) ; however, the suit acting played a major role in making Silva being such a scary and threatening villain, and Okamoto's role can't be underestimated. Okamoto also suit played and voiced the first Mechaclone made by Doctor Man in episode 28, and when Doctor Man was seemingly killed by the Big Three, he did everything to avenge his master, showing his deep loyalty towards his makers, even convincing the Bioman to help him. His loyalty was poorly rewarded, since he fell as a victim of Dr Man's trap against the Bioman. This role as Mechaclone n°1 allowed Okamoto to show some dramatic skills, by playing a mook with personality and honor.  

a) Buuba

However, his first major role in the franchise as a real actor was in the following show, Changeman. Yoshinori Okamoto played Buuba, the Space Pirate who worked for the Gozma Empire. Buuba was his first role as a main character which he would both play AND voice. While Buuba's face was mostly covered by a mask, Yoshinori Okamoto was still able to make him an iconic villain thanks to his remarkable low voice, his great action skills, and of course, because Soda managed to make him both a ruthless character, but also with a more complex side.
Buuba was a ruthless pirate who was cruel, sadistic, and a fierce and violent warrior. Most of the villains played by Okamoto would show a similar characterization. Buuba would gloat while seeing his enemies in danger, would show his anger when his plans were foiled. Few actors were able to express as much rage and frustration in the classic "Onore" screams than Okamoto. As a stunt actor, Okamoto also allowed his characters to have remarkable fight scenes, and fight scenes involving Buuba were always intense.
But Okamoto also was able to display the more complex side of Buuba : a pirate who longed for his freedom, instead of having to be Bazoo's slave, a man who didn't have a home planet he could go back, and a man who cared for his fellow general, Shima. Okamoto also showed dramatic talent in the two episodes which explored Buuba's more sensitive side : the episode where he meets his former fellow female companion, who wanted him to go with him again, and how he was torn between his desire to go with her and the fact he had to fight for Bazoo ; and of course his final episode, where he decided to sacrifice himself to free Shima of Bazoo's slavery : not only he had an epic final battle with ChangeDragon (with Beethoven's ninth symphony as a musical background), he also did a very touching final selfless act, allowing Shima to have the freedom and a chance to go back home he would never had.
Buuba was the first real acting role in the sentai franchise for Okamoto, and he was lucky to be able to start at a time sentai villains started being more complex instead of  "pure evil" antagonists. While the lower part of his face was covered, he still act with his body, his voice and the upper part of his face, including the eyes.

b) Bo Gardan and Oyobu

Yoshinori Okamoto would also have important roles in the two follwong sentai series, Flashman and Maskman.
In Flashman, Okamoto played Bo Gardan, a strong warrior who's Alien Hunter's Ser Kaura's friend. While Gardan only appears in about 5 episodes, it allowed Okamoto to play with his face completely shown, allowing him to be a true face actor during several episode, playing a character with a strong connection with a main character. Bo Gardan was your classic Okamoto warrior : strong, brutal, but also loyal and honorable. While he only appeared shortly, he was still a great opportunity for Okamoto to do face acting. Okamoto alos was the suit actor for Hero Titan.

In Maskman, Okamoto would play again a fierce warrior : underground ninja Oyobu. Oyobu was the warrior servant of commander Baraba and was very loyal to him. He fought the Maskman in manu battles, being a dangerous opponent with his ninja skills and his great speed. While he was loyal to Baraba and Emepror Zeba, he deeply distrusted Kiros,and disapproved when Barabas joined Kiros in a plot involving the frozen Princess Iyal to trap Takeru/Red Mask. He ended up frozen in the Hells's Wind, but used his fire powers to thaw himself. Because he felt Baraba betrayed him when he joined Kiros, he refused to join his Barabs in the latter's final fight. When Kiros asked him to use his fire powers to unfreeze Iyal, he refused, showing once again his unyieldable loyalty to Zeba and Tube. At the end, he sacrificed his life to raise the underground Castle, dying to serve his emperor : even if he was used by Zeba, he accepted it, because he felt it was his duty.
Oyobu was less hot-blooded than most of Okamoto's villains, and he was usually the stoic compared to Baraba's hot blooded personality. However, he was still a very skilled warrior and dangerous enemy.
 Like Buuba, Oyobu's lower face was partially covered, and he only used the upper part of his face, especially his eyes, in facial expressions. However, other than that, it was another regular villain for Okamoto.

c) Doctor Ashura

It's in Chojuu Sentai Liveman that Okamoto would have his best role in the franchise, when he could use all the range of his talent, playing once again a regular villain, and a pretty complex one as well.
Okamoto plays Busujima Arashi, a low life thug, poorly educated (he's unable to count without his fingers), but very strong physically. Arashi isn't very smart, and suffer a lot for it, especially with the Academy nearby bringing together the smartest minds on Earth. As such, he hates everyone linked to the Academy, including the Liveman. One day, he encountered strong savages apemen created by Volt, and managed by himself to overcome them, and even use them for his crimes, startling the Volt members, including Professor Bias. Impressed by Arashi's amazing physical strength, Bias took the criminal with him and managed to enhance his intellectual abilities. Now having become a very smart man, Arashi took the identity of Dr Ashura, and started his career as Ashura by taking revenge on intellectuals by kidnapping professors, submitting them to a quiz, and killing them if he managed to outsmart them. Ashura took revenge on his suffering because of his lack of intelligence as Arashi by using his newfound intelligence. 
Ashura became very quickly a very dangerous enemy to the Liveman : he was already very strong, but his enhanced intelligence made him even deadlier, because he was able to create technology, such as his "Cyber Bunshin", allowing him to create three humanoid monsters who could help him in his attacks. By becoming smarter, Ashura took great pleasure in seeing his rivals struggling, often mocking them for their failures.He alos loved tormenting the Liveman.
An interesting element of Ashura is that, unlike his fellow Volt, he didn't join professor Bias because he desired it, like Kemp, Mazenda and Oblar, or because he was built by him, like Guildos and Butchy, but because Bias kidnapped him. While he was grateful for his enhanced intelligence, he was also more prone to question Bias's motivations, for example, when the latter wanted the death of a young girl from the future. During a plot involving a hacker Brain Monster, Ashura uncovered a secret file about Bias and wanted to check it.
However, Bias never had any real respect for Ashura, because he knew his intelligence wasn't natural, unlike Kemp and Mazenda's, and he only used him to create a rival to his two favorite students. He knew Ashura would never have the 1000 point brain he wanted, and once he felt Ashura was of no use or even a danger for him, because he would uncover his secrets, Bias decided to strip him of his intelligence and to kill him.
Ashura survived a murder attempt, only to discover he was Arashi again, an uneducated and stupid thug. He was furious against Bias, humiliated for having been used like a pawn, humiliated to have lost his intelligence he was so happy to have.
However, despite having lost his intellectual abilities, he had still his strength, his courage, and his recklessness. After a last meeting with Gou, the former Doctor Oblar who had left Volt, and after at last knowing a answer of a simple multiplication, he decided to have a final revenge on Bias by destroying a powerful Brain Monster in a suicide attack.
Ashura is by far the most interesting character Yoshinori Okamoto played in the sentai franchise. While Ashura had still the classic "Okamoto villain" elements, such as great fighting abilities and arrogance, he was also a very complex character, and Okamoto could really use his acting talents. The tragedy of Arashi/Ashura is the pain of lacking intelligence and education, especially when confronted with smarter people. In a show like Liveman in which both protagonists and antagonists were gifted people, Arashi was the perfect foil, lacking in everything the other characters had, and being very bitter about it, and trying to compensate using brute force. When Bias gave him enhanced intellectual abilities, Arashi had at last, as Dr Ashura, what he desired so much : feeling equal and even superior to all those smart people of the academy who reminded him of how stupid he was. With intelligence of course, came arrogance, and Ashura, who was already arrogant as Arashi, now, could also boast of his intelligence. While, as Arashi, he was arrogant to try to compensate his low self esteem due to his lack of education, as Ashura, he wanted to humiliate others the same way he felt humiliated before. But none of the non robotic Volt members did have any real respect for Ashura, who wasn't truly smart because of real abilities, but only because of an artificial modification. At the end, Ashura was stilll the idiot among the more intelligent ones, even with his enhanced mind.
When he became Arashi again, Ashura missed the intelligence he had before. But he also realized that he still had his true skills, his fighting skills, his bravery. At the end, he accepted the fact that he was never meant to be an intellectual, and after at last being told the answer of a algebra problem which tormented him for so long, he found peace within himself, and died with dignity destroying a dangerous Zuno Beast at the same time,  doing the best he could to stop Bias's evil plans to get his revenge on him.
Yoshinori Okamoto was able to play a real dramatic role, well beyond a more classic "ruthless warrior", but a man who was evil, but also with torments and doubts, and was on equal footing with the other main villain actors, such as and Hirose, Amamatsuri and Nakata. With Ashura, Okamoto wasn't just a suit actor or a voice actor, but a real actor with a real dramatic role, who was able to play a complex character.

3) Early 90' sentai : some guest appearances and Signalman

After Liveman, Okamoto slowed his involvement in the sentai franchise, mostly coming back for guest appearances, notably in the Sugimura era.
He did a very short appearance as a martial arc master in episode 30 of Jetman. 
Afterwards, he played the Yamato King in Zyuranger, adoptive father of Tyrannoranger Geki, who had a memorable sword fight with Geki and Burai's real father, played by Tokimichi Takahashi, in which he ended victorious.
In Dairanger, he guest starred in several episodes Touhouten, a Gorma warrior, who was working with three other warriors as the four Deva Kings and was able to fuse with them to form a four-headed Gouma. He appeared in the four episode KiryokuBazooka/Daimugen arc. In Kakuranger, he played Saizou's ancestor in the early episodes (so, technically, the first Ninjablue  ;) ), as well as an evil warrior in a standalone episode. In Ohranger, he played a MOTW, voice, and suit and a masked  human form, Baranightmare, a renegade Machinebeast, but still an incredibly evil one, who collects little girls and keeps them in comas to use them in his demented games : he's pretty much how a sentai episode can display a somewhat pedophile character : Okamoto's voice helps make that monster feel incredibly creepy. Most of the cases, Okamoto was involved as a live actor.
However, Carranger was the next show where Okamoto would play a major role, being the suit actor for Signalman. For the first time since a long time, Okamoto only played a character as a suit actor, as Signalman had a different voice actor. Okamoto pretty much played against type, not only as a good guy, but also as a comedic character. Okamoto had the opportunity to have a comedic body language to play such a character, and it was a nice change, and it's obvious that he had a significant contribution in making Signalman a funny character.

4) Early 2000' sentai : return to major roles

Okamoto's work on sentai almost stopped after Carranger , with only a few guest appearances once or twice, notably as a guardian of the Londarz prison in the first episode of Timeranger.
However, 2002 was the big comeback in the sentai franchise for Yoshinori Okamoto. In Ninpuu Sentai Hurricanger, he would play for the first time in almost 15 years a main character in a sentai series, and a villainous one. Interestingly, Hurricanger was making several homages to Liveman, with the main heroes having similar colors and mechas as the Liveman, and having Okamoto involved in a major role was also part of the tribute. Okamoto was the suit actor AND the voice actor of the Fifth Dark spear of the Jakanja, Sargain. Sargain was actually an insect like creature who lived in an robotic body he made for himself. This robotic body was so well done that Sargain was able to be a skilled swordman with his body, and was a very dangerous threat for the Hurricanger. Sargain was also a skilled engineer, being able to build mechanic monsters aiming at making Earth rot and/or defeating the Hurricanger. His skills, both as a warrior and as a technical genius earned him the admiration of Wendinu and Furabijou, the two Jakanja kunoichi, who enjoyed working with him, and were deeply sad after his death. He was also able to build giant robots, to oppose the Hurricanger's and Gouraiger's. Sargain was a proud warrior, loyal to his leader Tao Zanto, and wanting to do his best to serve his master, always angry when someone doubt his abilities. He especially hated Sandaaru, who was arrogant and condescending to him and his plans, and didn't trust the devious shark like ninja. His conflict with Sandaaru would end up being his downfall, with Sandaaru killing him traitorously, just after Sargain had a harsh fight with the Hurricanger and their allies.
Okamoto was again able to play the hot blooded villain, even if in this case, he was only doing suit acting and voice acting. He did also guest starred as the father of Gozen sama. Lastly, he did a short cameo as an human double of Bat the Rumba, the villain of the 10 years after movie.

Okamoto's next major work was in Abaranger. He was the suit actor of the "Dark Armor Knight", meaning that when a character was using the evil armor, he was suit acted by Okamoto. It was an interesting opportunity for Okamoto, since in Abaranger, several characters have been using the evil armor, and as such Okamoto was able to play different characters in a same show : first, he played Messenger of Darkness Gaildon (aka Mizuho), in the first episodes of the show, and play him as a ruthless and brutal warrior. Even if Gaildon only lasted two episodes, Okamoto's suit acting helped him stay memorable. During the next 30 episodes, the user of the armor was Destruction Messenger Jeanne, and as such Okamoto had the opportunity to suit play for the first time a villainess.Once again, Okamoto's suit acting played a role in displaying Jeanne's brutality whenever she used the armor, but also her vulnerability and doubts, first when she didn't have complete control of it, and then, when the mysterious girl was reminding of her past. Afterwards, the next user was Asuka, who, in that case, was pretty much struggling to try to keep control of the armor's powers, and Okamoto clearly showed Asuka's struggles, but also when he lost the fight and was being a brutal enemy against his will. Okamoto was also the suit actor of Dezmogevirus, an entity looking like the evil armor but was actually part of the Big Bad, and he even played ... a training ball, made to look like a warrior with the dark armor in a virtual training field.
However, in all those roles, Okamoto's suit actor really showed the evil armor as a brutal power, yearning for destruction and brutality, and you really felt that, even with different people using it, the armor felt like it had a life on its own, even if his suit acting was different with each host. Okamoto also guest starred as an evil warrior in the Edo era.

Afterwards, Okamoto was involved in Dekaranger, where he was the suit actor of the only regular villain of the show, Agent Abrella. It was an interesting role, since Abrella wasn't the "brutal warrior" type, but rather a sleazy merchant, who was mostly acting behind the scenes. it was a pretty new kind of role for Okamoto, who here played a character who did only seldom confront directly the heroes, but was more doing business with other alien criminals. While most of Okamoto's villains are rought characters, Abrella, as a bat like creature, needed a much smoother approch in body acting.
Okamoto also was guest starred as the suit, human form and voice actor of an Alienizer, Aladonian Gyanjaba, a sadistic criminal who used an innocent alien for his crimes and who had no problem threatening her life in the most ruthless ways.
He also played an Alienizer  in the Dekaranger movie, Algolian Whinsky, voice acting, suit acting and even briefly, playing his human form,  alongside his former Liveman fellow villainess Akiko Amamatsuri.

Afterwards, Okamoto was less involved in sentai, but still guest starred in Gekiranger as a loud, but ultimately nice bathowner who taught a nice lesson to Jan/Gekired.
And of course, he came back in Gokaiger, where he, once again, was the suit actor for heroes, Akaranger and Big One.

5) Akibaranger : the big tribute

Okamoto appeared in episode 8 of season 2 of Akibaranger, and this episode was pretty much a big tribute of his big career in sentai, in the same way Kazuo Niibori had his tribute in season 1 as the major Red ranger suit actor. Okamoto appeared as himself in the show, and met the main heroes, and had the opportunity to explain how he wanted to make his villain roles look good, notably when his characters were defeated. The MOTW of the episode was pretty much imitating most of the villains played by Okamoto, and the final battle between Akibared and the villain was pretty much a replaying of the classic Changedragon vs Buuba fight, once of Okamoto's most memorable final fights.
It was a nice opportunity to remind viewers of the important role Yoshinoro Okamoto has played in his long career in the sentai franchise, and how much he helped making villains feel awesome.