In the pantheon of Japan’s fictional action heroes, it would be hard to find one better known or loved than Ultraman.
Now showing on a small screen near you in “Ultraman Cosmos,” the 12th series since he first strode onto the scene in 1966, this 40-meter extraterrestrial is still wowing new generations with what he does best: battling ghastly monsters wreaking havoc on Earth.
Ultraman has had vast appeal ever since he first arrived from Nebula M-78, courtesy of Tsuburaya Productions Co. Ltd. Even by the 37th episode, aired March 26, 1967, the show was already registering an astonishing 42.8 percent audience rating.
Like his American cousin Superman, Ultraman spends his “off-duty” time as an ordinary human being. When monsters, towering as high as 50 meters, suddenly materialize, he metaphoses into a colossus with yellow eyes and a skintight silver-and-red suit.
But there’s a catch: On Earth, our hero cannot live in this alien form for more than three minutes. It is precisely this defect that guarantees suspense each episode. As the warning light on Ultraman’s chest blinks ominously, our pulse races faster. But of course, he never fails to vanquish his opponents in the nick of time and return to M-78 to recharge his power.
Though the scenario might sound like just another battle between good and evil, there’s much more to it, insist legions of Ultraman’s fans, as well as many published critics. Far from being simple entertainment for children, fans point to an underlying and profound social message.
This point can especially be seen in the monsters. Though their wrath is terrifying, these creatures — say Ultraman experts — have often been driven to destruction by humans’ behavior. As a result, though Ultraman may seem formulaic, the shows — especially in the 1960s and ’70s — were in fact often reflecting various social ills.
In his book “Terebi Hero no Sozo (Creations of TV Heroes),” published in 1993, Naofumi Higuchi writes that the Ultraman series often dealt with social problems that were byproducts of Japan’s rapid rate of economic growth — such as the destruction of nature, traffic accidents and overworked salarymen. As such, he suggests, the monsters are not just evil baddies, but often symbols or victims of human folly.
In an episode of “Ultra Seven” (1967), for instance, undersea monsters blame their violence on the human invaders who exploit and pollute the oceans.
“The tendency of self-criticism may have reflected the anti-authority spirit of the student movement of the day,” says Higuchi. “But as the movement declined in the ’70s, such societal criticism disappeared from TV hero shows.”
The makers, however, had no intention of producing socially conscious dramas, says Kazuho Mitsuta, executive managing director of Tsuburaya Productions.
“Many people want to interpret the stories in various ways,” insists Mitsuta, who has directed many Ultraman episodes. “We just wanted to make high-quality entertainment shows that could be enjoyed by not only children but also adults. If we have a message to the viewers, it would be the importance of courage or the meaning of love.”
Whatever the message, Ultraman’s appeal has extended far from these shores to viewers in countries as diverse as the United States, Spain, France, Thailand and China.
Another legendary TV icon, destined to win the hearts of millions, emerged not long after Ultraman. However, Kamen Rider, a half-human, half-grasshopper hero who debuted in Japan in 1971 and was later exported as Masked Rider, was more of a mutant a la Spiderman or the X-Men’s Wolverine.
Kamen Rider’s perpetual opponent is Shocker, a terrorist syndicate forever scheming to take over the world. To do this Shocker creates “human weapons” by transplanting animal or plant genes in young humans — and Kamen Rider himself was meant to have been one of these weapons. Born a normal human, he fell into Shocker’s clutches as a college student and was set to be transformed into a “grasshopper monster.” However, he was rescued in mid-operation just before his brain was altered, and so retains his human soul and feelings.
Like Ultraman, Kamen Rider has had a long run on the small screen — so far clocking up 12 series — but at first glance the two appear to have little else in common. While Ultraman is a gigantic hero, Kamen Rider is merely life-sized; while in Ultraman the monsters may have some convincing reasons to disturb humans’ lives, Shocker is just a cruel terrorist outfit that goes around killing without mercy.
There is a common thread, however, says Kensho Ikeda, author of “Ultraman vs. Kamen Rider.” Both heroes are equally convincing and dramatic, Ikeda says, because they have physical or psychological vulnerabilities.
Unlike former TV heroes, who were always strong, righteous and positive, both Ultraman and Kamen Rider are imperfect, Ikeda says. For instance, there’s Ultraman’s time limit, and the fact he sometimes doubts what he’s fighting for. Kamen Rider is often distressed that he can never regain his human body and is destined to fight alone.
Whatever the reasons, there’s no doubt such heroes struck a major chord in the land of their birth and beyond. As lifelong fan Hitoshi Nagano, a 33-year-old acupuncture practitioner in Kobe, puts it: “Those TV heroes taught me the meaning of justice and the importance of perseverance. When my parents tried to teach me how to behave, they often sounded pushy to me, but I was able to accept the heroes’ messages very naturally through the stories.”
Since the birth of Ultraman and Kamen Rider, more than 200 action heroes or heroines have been created for Japanese TV. And to this day, many continue to reflect the seminal spirit and style that Ultraman and Kamen Rider first brought to the screen nearly 40 years ago.