Iconic Japanese superhero attracts next generation of fans around the world

Ultraman: 50 years battling monsters



Young boys and girls jumped up in excitement shouting, “Ultraman!” when three characters from the iconic series appeared on stage during an event in Kuala Lumpur in November.

The Japanese superhero, who premiered in 1966 in the live-action special effects (tokusatsu) television series bearing his name, has been defending mankind against monsters (kaiju) and aliens for half a century and remains hugely popular not only in Japan, but in other countries such as China and Thailand.

In Malaysia, where the television series has been broadcast for many years, Ultraman is a household name. “He’s the hero who protects Earth, so now that I’ve become a parent I let my children watch the series, too,” a father in the audience at the November event said, holding his son.

In fact, Ultraman Ribut, one of the three characters performing at the event, is a new superhero inspired by a popular cartoon in Malaysia. He uses the region’s indigenous silat martial arts moves to fight monsters and aliens.

“Ultraman is a devoted hero who would sacrifice himself for others,” one of the event’s directors said in explaining why he finds the series fascinating.

The scene in which the original Ultraman, after colliding with a plane when flying to Earth from space and accidentally killing the protagonist Shin Hayata, merges his essence with Hayata to save his life out of remorse left a particularly strong impression, the director said.

The science fiction series created by Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970), a pioneer of live-action special effects, including those in the movie Godzilla, and revered in Japan as the “God of Tokusatsu,” has generated great enthusiasm among children over the decades.

The Ultraman series has been certified by Guinness World Records as having the most spinoffs in the world and, as new productions continue, the record-setting feat is ongoing.

Old scripts and other documents such as filming proposals shed light on the origin of the Ultraman production. Among items kept by tokusatsu collector Yuji Nishimura, 60, in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, is a document titled “Science Special Search Party — Redman” that was compiled during the Ultraman project planning process.

“Redman” even appeared on the cover of the Ultraman script in an attempt to prevent its contents from being leaked before the program was broadcast, according to people involved in the program.

According to the document, Redman is “an alien who works for the sake of peace for mankind, using the body of a Science Special Search Party member as its human host.” As for the reason for fighting to defend human beings, it states that this is because Redman caused the member’s death in a collision and therefore he has the “obligation to atone for his sin.”

As such, the series developed over the years to include the sin-bearing Ultraman’s agony at times and how he even considered coexistence with the kaiju.

Toshihiro Iijima, 83, a scriptwriter and producer involved in the early years of the Ultraman series, described what the superhero intends to convey to the audience, saying, “It’s all about friendship, dreams and peace.”

Generations of Japanese grew up watching Ultraman and many adults remain avid fans. Daikichi Hakata, 44, of the comedy duo Hakata Hanamaru-Daikichi, is one of them.

“Ultraman, the first program I remember liking, is an unforgettable memory from childhood,” he said. “Now as an adult, one realizes its incredibleness and that it was created by a bunch of geniuses.”

Despite the series having been around for 50 years, it never feels old or outdated, Hakata said. For example, “In the past, I just felt that Dada was disgusting,” he said, referring to one of the most well-known monsters in the series. “But it is also interesting as I keep wondering who on earth would have approved its appearance in the production?”

“If I were in charge I would never have given the green light, but now Dada is simply adorable,” he quipped.

For those who wonder how many Ultraman superhero characters there actually are in total, the answer is 41, according to Tsuburaya Productions Co., the series’ producer.

If all the Ultraman characters from over the decades were to stand in line, it would be like the popular girls’ idol group AKB48, Hakata said jokingly. “I like them all, but when you look at every single one of them individually they each have their own characteristics and charming points.”

“Ultraman should be included in the ranks of samurai, geisha and Mount Fuji as Japanese symbols and displayed at our international airports,” he added.

With the advances in filming technologies, tokusatsu techniques, which combine live action and special effects, have also evolved over the years.

For example, scenes of combat aircraft in flight used to be shot using suspended miniature models, but can now be created using computer graphics.

But Kiyotaka Taguchi, the 35-year-old director of “Ultraman X The Movie: Here Comes! Our Ultraman” slated to premiere in Japan on March 12, said, “Be it miniature or computer graphics, it all comes down to how interestingly one can film it on a limited budget under time constraints.”

Taguchi’s movie is still shot with miniature model settings in principle, but some scenes were created by computer graphics “to appear as if they were shot with miniatures,” he said.

Attention is given to minute details in creating the miniatures — even the dirt on building windows — to ensure realistic effects, and Taguchi’s rigorous demands have often reduced his young staff to tears.

To capture the intensity of the battles, he films with a fish-eye lens from below, near the monster’s feet, and creates a swirling cloud of dust to reflect the elegance of Ultraman’s landings.

“With creativity, maybe we can match Eiji Tsuburaya himself,” Taguchi said.

  • rjyale

    As a youngster growing up in Montreal, Quebec in the late 60s I just loved watching Ultraman, on local TV. During the 1970s….in London, Ontario the main American station channel 7 ABC WXYZ TV Detroit had a movie on everyday at 4 pm….called the four o’clock movie. Go figure. LOL. I always looked forward to their “Monster Week” after school when five giant monsters movies from Japan would stomp across our little B&W TV screen. Priceless.