Ultraman: Ultracool at 50

Ultraman has been defending humanity against monsters and aliens for half a century. We examine the superhero's enduring legacy

by

Special To The Japan Times

The first episode of “Ultraman” debuted on television at 7 p.m. on July 17, 1966, exactly 50 years ago today. When the dust cleared at 7:30 p.m., Japanese entertainment would never be the same.

As the show opens, audiences are treated to the spectacle of a high-speed alien chase that results in the inadvertent death of ace “Science Patrol” pilot Shin Hayata, his resurrection at the hands of a mysterious being and the sudden appearance of a gargantuan, laser-breathing sea creature.

All this in just the first 10 minutes. Then things really ramp up.

Lakes boil! Forests burn! Death rays sizzle! Submarines submerge! Fighter jets attack! Missiles launch! Buildings crumble!

Finally, just when things seem hopeless for the outmatched Science Patrol, Hayata transforms into a titan clad in space-age silver and red: Ultraman! — human enough to fight on our side, huge enough to give rampaging monsters a taste of their own medicine. What’s more, he can fly and shoot death rays from his forearms. Only for three minutes, however, until the solar energy powering his chest-mounted “color timer” runs out. This was hands down the coolest thing a kid had ever seen in 1966. It’s still pretty cool even now in 2016.

Ultraman was a hero for a new generation who were raised on monster movies and eager to see an avatar of themselves right there in the action, dishing out martial-arts moves.

Over the past 50 years, the “Ultra” series, as his titular works came to be known, grew to encompass some 29 television shows, the latest incarnation of which, “Ultraman Orb,” began airing in July. That’s not to mention dozens of films, stage shows, video games, and countless toys of the heroes and monsters. What makes the “Ultra” series so enduringly popular? We spoke to both insiders and fans in an attempt to find out.

Ultra origins

In the mid-1960s, Japan was enjoying a boom for giant monsters, fueled by the success of films such as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” (1954), “Rodan the Flying Monster” (1956) and “Mothra” (1961).

The television network TBS wanted to capture some of this mindshare. The obvious choice for the task was Eiji Tsuburaya, the very same film industry veteran who had had orchestrated the effects for “Godzilla” and many other films as the head of Toho’s Visual Effects Department. As luck would have it, he had just gone independent.

In 1963, Tsuburaya founded his own studio, Tsuburaya Productions. Tsuburaya continued to produce special effects for Toho films, but his main focus would remain television.

“Our founder was fascinated by the potential that the medium of television had to offer,” says Shin-ichi Ooka, the current president of Tsuburaya Productions. “Unlike movies, it was free and people could watch it in the comfort of their living rooms.”

Tsuburaya’s first TV show was “Ultra Q,” a black-and-white supernatural drama patterned on the success of shows such as “The Twilight Zone.” It focused on the strange adventures of a young journalist and her pilot friend. The show did well, but the fans clamored for more giant monsters. Tsuburaya was happy to oblige. “Ultra Q” went into hiatus and, just two weeks later, the first episode of “Ultraman” debuted.

The series didn’t emerge in a vacuum. Many of its key elements had been introduced by earlier shows and movies. The concept of a high-tech rescue team echoed the 1964 British marionette series “Thunderbirds,” and giant-sized heroes such as Iron Man No. 28 (aired abroad as Gigantor) and Ambassador Magma (aired abroad as Space Giants) represented staples of juvenile fiction from the ’50s and early ’60s. So, too, the idea of giant monsters menacing Japan; that, of course, originated with “Godzilla,” which had already enjoyed five sequels by the time “Ultraman” aired.

“Ultraman” brought full-color, movie-grade special effects to television on a weekly basis. Unlike monster movies, however, the protagonists wouldn’t be limited to dodging giant footsteps. Ultraman grew in size to wrestle the various invading space aliens, sea monsters and the occasional mutant human on their own terms.

“It was an explosive hit,” recalls Ooka, who joined the company in 1969 as an assistant cameraman straight out of college.

Monster media mash

“Ultraman” proved especially popular among elementary schoolers, who clamored for merchandise of the characters from the show. Publishers produced gloriously illustrated guidebooks to vehicles and characters that appeared in the program, while a toy company produced vinyl figures of the hero and monsters. Tsuburaya fanned the flames by putting on events featuring Ultraman trouncing his enemies onstage for a live audience.

Children across the country couldn’t get enough.

“I was completely stunned and excited by the colors and designs of the toys,” recalls Mark Nagata, a lifelong collector of Ultraman merchandise who now runs Max Toy Co. “Nothing made in America at the time compared to these bizarre figures.”

In fact, the monsters — called kaijū in Japanese — proved even more popular than the portrayals of the heroes. Thus was born what Japanese fans call “the first kaijū boom,” a fad for everything giant monster.

The synergy among the TV show’s producers, publishers and the toy company that produced the merchandise provided the template for what is now known in Japan as the “media mix” — a strategy that required a show’s characters to be leveraged across various types of media and products. The success of the “Ultra” series on this front laid the groundwork for countless successors and imitators, paving the way for international success of Japanese content around the globe.

“There was so much out there beyond the television series,” recalls Nobuhiro Arai, a domestic toy industry veteran who now works as a teacher. He saw a later entry in the series, “The Return of Ultraman,” in elementary school and quickly became a fan. “There were comic book adaptations, kaijū figures and erasers, stamp books and pop-up books. That effectively allowed children to immerse themselves in the world for long periods of time” — beyond the actual 30 minutes of the show itself.

Ultraman got his green card for American broadcast in 1967.

“The show was syndicated on TV around the U.S. from the ’60s throughout the ’80s,” recalls Patrick Macias, author of “Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion,” who first saw Ultraman on a UHF channel in Sacramento as a child. Today, Macias works as the editor in chief of Crunchyroll’s News division. “For me it was like a Godzilla movie every day. I literally did run home from school to turn on the TV. It was clever, it was funny, it was memorable. But, unfortunately, we never got the sequels. So that immediately forced fans to start digging if they wanted more.”

One major hurdle in the U.S. was broadcast regulations. The Federal Communications Commission strictly regulated children’s entertainment in an attempt to stem what it called “program-length commercials.” There was a prohibition on advertising or related products in the same time-frame that a show aired, and even on featuring the likeness of anything that can be sold as a product in a show itself. This made it extremely hard to merchandise characters from TV shows. Perhaps because of these restrictions, which remained in effect until the early ’80s, none of the associated merchandise was imported into the U.S. in any appreciable quantities.

“Unless you had a Japantown nearby, you probably didn’t get anything related to ‘Ultraman,'” laments Nagata, who obtained his toys via relatives in Japan. And so Americans were exposed to the show, but missed out on the multimedia synergy that made it such a hit in its home country. Only the very first of the nearly 30 “Ultra” series aired in the United States, though in later years a handful of others were released direct to video.

Today, many of the “Ultra” series shows are available to North Americans via the Crunchyroll streaming service. And even though only one series ever aired in the U.S., “new generations of people continue to discover it,” Macias says. “Even kids have picked up on it now. The monsters and characters are so ridiculous and iconic that the series remains attractive even after all these years.”

It’s all about the kaijū

“One of the secrets to the popularity of the “Ultra” series is that the kaijū and aliens, who you’d think would be the enemies, are actually the stars,” Ooka says. “Developing the stories of the kaijū and aliens actually serves to make the hero look better. If they weren’t (developed), it wouldn’t matter how strong the hero was — there wouldn’t be any catharsis to the battles.”

The English word “monster” is, almost by definition, an epithet. Not so “kaijū,” which is written with the characters for “strange” and “beast,” making it a far broader term.

“They certainly aren’t all ‘bad,'” Ooka says.

“Some of them are actually quite tragic, such as Jamila,” he adds, referring to a fan-favorite episode involving a kaijū born from a brave astronaut mutated by extraterrestrial contact. After Ultraman defeats the rampaging creature, the Science Patrol begs Jamila’s forgiveness, solemnly unveiling a plaque in the astronaut’s memory.

“Children often don’t notice the subtext when they first watch the shows,” Ooka says. “But then as they get older, and see them again as high school students or even as parents watching alongside their own children, they pick up on the messages we put in. And it rekindles their love for the series, which they can then watch in its latest incarnation with their kids.”

Macias agrees.

“Godzilla was something you only got once in a while — it was a big event,” he says. “But Ultraman was more like your daily bread: If you were lucky enough, you could see it every day, get your fix of that giant monster movie energy. What made it so great wasn’t just the guy in silver tights beating up monsters. The cast had a good chemistry, and there was a culture to the way they portrayed the monsters. They weren’t just big dumb dinosaurs. They all had their own personalities, their own stories, their own character arcs. I think every single one of those monsters has something to offer somebody.”

An ultra-sized legacy

“Ultraman is definitely in that small group of characters, including Godzilla, Astro Boy and Gundam, that are known around the world as icons of Japanese pop culture,” Macias says.

However, things haven’t always gone smoothly for the titanic hero. After budgets spiraled out of control in the late ’60s, Tsuburaya Productions was forced to restructure and put the series on hiatus for several years. During this time, they suffered another blow — the sudden passing of founder Eiji Tsuburaya at the age of 68 from a heart attack in 1970.

The company rallied, however, and a series of hugely popular “Ultra” sequels sparked a second and then a third “kaijū boom,” as new generations tuned in over the course of the ’70s. In recent years, a long-simmering international licensing dispute with the Thai distributor of the “Ultra” series, Chaiyo Productions, boiled over in a messy eight-year court battle over a disputed contract. It ended in 2009, with a Tokyo district court awarding the Thai company international usage rights to the first six series.

Still, there’s no question that Tsuburaya’s legacy resonates to this day, not only in his own company’s many “Ultra” sequels but in many other shows and films. Domestically, the popular “Evangelion” anime series is a love letter to the “Ultra” series. (Series creator Hideaki Anno is also co-directing the upcoming reboot “Shin Godzilla.”) Abroad, the most famous carrier of the torch is undoubtedly director Guillermo Del Toro, whose 2013 film “Pacific Rim” brought the concept of giant heroes pummeling titanic monsters to Hollywood. The love affair seems to be mutual; Tsuburaya Productions named one of the destinations in the 2015 “Ultraman X” series “Planet Guillermo.”

“It isn’t easy making shows such as ‘Ultraman,'” Ooka says. “First of all, it’s television, so you need to deliver one show a week. Making any kind of TV show is hard, but on top of that every episode has heroes, kaijū, fights and explosions. It’s a whole lot of work. … That we are still in the business of making these shows 50 years later is a testament to the quality of the work we have produced, working hard through trial and error on very limited schedules.”

Is there a future for handmade suits and special effects in this modern era of computer graphics? Ooka thinks so, even admitting that “CG (computer-generated) special effects are the best special effects.”

“They’re the mainstream,” he says, “but there are still times when CG runs into the limits of what it can express. And I think that having an actual space, with an actual camera and an Ultraman and kaijū, is a necessity. I don’t know if Ultraman will be portrayed with costumes forever, but they are necessary now. We do a lot of shows at amusement parks. Children really cheer on Ultraman at the live shows. It’s like Santa Claus — at a certain age, kids truly believe he exists and I don’t want to crush that dream.”

To call these effects “campy,” as critics often do, misses the point, argue fans such as Macias. “Even movies made 10 years ago look cheesy now,” Macias says. “To me, it’s not the quality of the effects, or how realistic they are. Do they help to create memorable characters and images that can stand the test of time?”

If 50 years of sequels is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.

The latest incarnation, “Ultraman Orb,” debuted in Japan on July 9, 2016. In keeping with the times, this version of the iconic hero transforms using cards, echoing the widespread popularity among its young audience of card-based games such as Pokemon.

In the end, Ooka says, “the No. 1 reason we’ve made it 50 years is because of the support of the fans.”


10 things all die-hard Ultraman fans know about their gargantuan superhero

CHINATSU YAJIMA
STAFF WRITER

Ultraman is not your typical superhero
Ultraman is 40 meters tall and weighs 35,000 tons.

Ultraman’s parents have common names
Ultraman’s father’s name is Ken; his mother’s name is Marie.

Ultra heroes don’t need food
Ultra heroes have silver solar panel-like boards on their body, and acquire energy via the absorption of light and heat from the sun.

Ultraman’s time on Earth is restricted to three minutes at a time
The creators of Ultraman thought that tension would be created if the superhero had to defeat the Earth’s enemies within a limited time. They thought the number “three” would resonate with audiences because of its ties to daily life: a cup of instant noodles takes three minutes to prepare, baseball star Shigeo Nagashima’s uniform number was No. 3, a round of boxing lasts for three minutes, and so on.

The youngest Ultraman is 59,000 years old
Ultraman Zero is the equivalent of 18-20 human years old. The oldest superhero is Ultraman King, who is more than 350,000 years old — the equivalent of 90 human years.

The Ultra brothers aren’t actually brothers
The only Ultra heroes related by blood are Ultraman Leo and Ultraman Astra. The remaining nine are only brother-in-laws but are said to be as close as real brothers as a result of a shared willingness to save the Earth.

Nothing is stronger than a Super Ultraman
A Super Ultraman is created when five special Ultra heroes combine all their powers together.

Ultra Seven doesn’t possess a ‘color timer’
Ultraman possesses a “color timer” in his chest that functions as a warning light that changes color when he loses power in his battle to save the Earth. However, Ultra Seven was not supposed to come to Earth to fight the planet’s foes and so does not have a timer.

The waterfall that the Hawk 3 spaceship passes through after launching is not only made from water
Ultra heroes’ spaceship, Hawk 3, typically appears from a launching pad that is located behind a waterfall. Production staff, however, thought the model was too unstable when pushed through water and so decided to use a mixture of water and crushed sandstone instead.

Ultraman has a linguistic connection to ‘Speed Racer’
Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr, who provided the voices for the English-language version of Ultraman, were among the same team that also did the voice-overs for “Speed Racer” (1967).