Toei producer Shinichiro Shirakura talks about the casting process and other behind-the-scenes information.
Newcomers are often cast in lead roles in Kamen Rider and Super Sentai. These debut actors may have little to no experience prior to these programs. While success in the field is never guaranteed, many alumni find stardom after appearing in Toei’s shows.
But the question is: what is it about these actors that get cast in the first place? Toei producer Shinichiro Shirakura is the only person who would know the answer to this.
Shinichiro Shirakura joined Toei as an assistant producer in the middle of Kamen Rider Kuuga, and has been involved in many works as a producer since then. He is responsible for casting some of Japan’s most famous actors such as Joe Odagiri (Yusuke Godai, Kamen Rider Kuuga) and Takeru Satoh (Ryotaro Nogami, Kamen Rider Den-O).
Initially though, he did not want to cast any newcomers or even thought about training them to become better. The reason is because of the budget. Shirakura goes into further detail in an interview with Ten-Navi.
Kamen Rider is known as the “Gateway to Success for Young Actors.” Can you tell us about training newcomers?
May I be frank? At the very beginning, I didn’t have the slightest desire to cast newcomers or to train them.
Wha— I can feel the foundations crumbling (laughs).
Because productions costs are low, so we can’t pay high actor fees. Putting in the quality of work into consideration, we save more hiring experienced actors. However, it can be fun to work with fresh new actors and watch them grow.
I hear the Kamen Rider side of things is very particular about auditions when choosing the cast.
We do have cases where we pick actors with a high level of acting. But in the end, everyone does need to audition.
Why is that?
We don’t often get the chance to meet newcomers, so we use this opportunity as research to see what kind of young actors are out there. Of course, we have people audition so we can choose lead roles, but more roles will come up as the story progresses.
So you’re saying there’s a chance you can appear as a guest even if you’re not chosen for any roles?
There are times when we ask people to appear as guests, and there are also times when we think, “Oh, that person from two or three years ago would fit this role,” and we reach out to said person. It’s different from a test where you either pass or fail. Some may feel down and think, “I wasn’t good enough for them…” but we base our evaluation on how fit for a role someone is instead of their acting ability.
How many applications do you receive for a single audition?
Including the paper screening, we get about 5,000-6,000 applicants. We only have so much time for auditions, so we narrow our candidates to a few hundred people. We need to spend at least two minutes with each person to get a feel for their personality.
What kinds of questions do you ask in just two minutes?
It’s all case-by-case, but basically, we just chit-chat. It doesn’t matter who you are. This may be my own personal belief, but there are two things I look for.
Oh? What would those be?
One of them is human emotion: joy, anger, grief and pleasure. I want to see their smile. The other is how quickly they respond. I want to see how quickly they can throw a ball back if it’s thrown at them from out of left field.
Why do you focus on those two points?
It’s important that one’s natural expression has charm. That is why I want to see their expressions. On the other hand, one’s response speed basically lets you see their comprehension abilities. With these two points, actors will definitely grow. There are times when directors will have you perform something differently from the performance you had in mind. When this happens, it’s important to listen to those around you instead of being entrenched only in your own ideas.
What if you don’t have the acting abilities at that point in time?
It’s fine if you don’t. We do have actors perform, but it’s not like we grade based on whether or not you can do something. You can always improve a week, a month, or a year from now. But even if you can perform something you’re told to right now, those with a lack of comprehension won’t be able to grow.
Are there any actors that you have discovered through auditions that have left a lasting impression on you?
Takeru Satoh’s audition was special. The role he played in Kamen Rider Den-O was a difficult one that was out of league for newcomers.
He played the main character, Ryotaro Nogami, who is possessed by multiple beings called Imagin that would change his entire disposition, right?
We ask you to read the script at the audition, and we look to see if you can read out what we expect out of the script. The script I gave to Takeru Satoh was for him to play a character with multiple personalities, but the words “multiple personalities” weren’t written anywhere in the script. If you just skim the script, you wouldn’t know that a character has switched personalities.
So it was a script to test whether you can see that you’re playing a role with multiple personalities.
Correct. If you have poor intuition, you’ll think there’s simply a change in tone. But with good intuition, you’ll find that there personalities A and B. Those with better intuition would have found personality C.
It’s a trick script that makes you think, “There are only two personalities,” but there is actually a third one hiding. I was hoping that someone would notice the third personality. Not only did Takeru Satoh read everything out accurately, he also enjoyed acting it out.
If an actor has fun, then we have fun watching them act. It says a lot for an actor when we say we enjoy watching them act and want to see them perform all the time.
Kamen Rider Zi-O was your first return to producer in a long time. What was it like working with So Okuno?
So Okuno is quite talented and his acting abilities hit the passing mark. There aren’t many people like that, so we went with him. He’s the type to score a 70 and then proactively figure out on his own that he should work to achieve the remaining 30 points.
It’s amazing that he’s proactive about climbing higher instead of being told to.
In acting, you can steal skills and techniques from others, or you can be taught them. But those are general skills, Okuno’s acting ability is different, I’m sure. People have to find their own performance. It really takes a lot of effort and is a job in itself. Okuno took on the challenge and climbed those stairs. He’s really hard working. I can’t stop praising him (laughs).
Such high praise.
He’s young and handsome. Handsome guys get compliments and make themselves look cool. They’re more concerned with how they look good, and always worrying about their bangs. But for Okuno, he thinks about how he can improve on filming.
People often toss the words “discover” or “nurture” when it comes to new actors but I disagree with them. It’s up to the actor to decide whether they want to grow or not. There are people who don’t learn from the same experiences.
How do you go about those who care about their bangs?
The directors will take care of that for me (laughs).
I heard that there are times when the script is sometimes altered to match the actors.
There are. For example, just when you think you’re done, more lines are added. Then when it’s time, you decrease the number of lines. It’s possible to communicate things through facial expressions than using spoken dialogue.
Sounds like it helps get over hurdles.
Right. There are some rules already written in stone when it comes to hero stuff. A typical example would be with transformations. The transformations are what people wait for in every episode, but if it’s done the same way all the time, it gets boring. If we don’t get creative, the audience will get bored and the actors won’t be able to learn.
So you try to make sure that you make a learning experience for actors.
Young actors have high adaptive abilities. If we get too relaxed, everything will become a typical hero show. We’ll lose the human aspects of the program.
I think I get it.
It’s fine and all if they continue to deliver quality acting, but that’s not what young people should be doing. It’s important for them to change their act and expand their own range, even if they make mistakes. The audience will never get bored watching you if they see new sides to you.
I have a feeling Kamen Rider actors will probably be like “Ryoma Takeuchi’s series!” when someone says they were into Kamen Rider Drive, and they’ll feel some kind of responsibility to also work hard and become famous.
(laughs) I guess it depends on the person, but everyone is shouldering some kind of responsibility. Fumiya Takahashi (Hiden Aruto, Kamen Rider Zero-One) is still very young, and when I was his age, I had nothing to shoulder and spent my days wiping my nose with my sleeves. It made me realize how amazing young people are.
Does the way shows are made change with the era?
They do change with times. Originally, hero programs were concluded within stories within an episode. But the Heisei Rider Series were designed to be a long-running drama. The monsters appearing and the fighting would still be recycled every episode, but we wanted to create a story that runs throughout the year of its run. However, that would not be adaptable to the current times. With Kamen Rider Zero-One, however, we had to wrap stories up within an episode.
Are you saying that you’ve gone back to completing one story per episode to keep up with the times?
It’s important to know that there are children who follow the shows weekly in front of a television. We’d lose them as an audience if they can’t follow a story that wraps up within an episode.
The way things are presented change with the times.
We do have one restriction: the monsters have to be defeated each episode. Super Sentai has a bigger budget for production, so it’s possible for a monster to be defeated every episode. Kamen Rider has less of that, so it’s not possible (laughs).
I did not know that behind-the-scenes detail!
So it’s not like we have a Kaijin Protection Program, but I do want them to live longer (laughs). That’s why I always try to create a “just when you thought they were defeated” kind of highlight every episode.
Zero-One‘s theme is “growth” and I think you are one of those who have “grown up”. Is there anything that you are glad to have fostered while you were young?
Working with the old.
What do you mean?
It’s because I happened to be in a special industry, but on set, I’d work in groups with people ranging from month-old babies to 90-year-old veteran staff. So from the time I was a young person just joining the company, I was sometimes assigned to people who were 20 or 30 years older than me. That’s something you can only do when you’re young.
Do you mean because you’re slowly retiring?
No, it’s because when you get older, you can choose who you want to work with, and you don’t really choose superiors or seniors. However, if you choose your partners based on your own comfort level, the scope of your work becomes narrower.
Thanks to working with my seniors when I was young, I feel that I have learned how to work with all kinds of people. Also, when I was young, I thought I could do anything, so it was good to be reminded that there are people in the world who are better than me.
So you feel like it was a good experience, even though you lose your sense of being able to do everything.
Self-fulfillment is often one’s goal when you’re young. Like making a name for yourself or wanting to get ahead in life. However, as you get older, you’ll come to care less about them. You’ll find more value in making the most out of your own work and how much you can improve on it. People should get out and experience many things or to keep their egos in check by people more capable than them. Take from that experience, and grow as a person.
NOTE: This interview was originally published on December 23, 2019.