Ultraman . . . forever

Zap! Pow! Suwatch! After 40 years and 16 series, the Ultra Warriors are still saving the Earth and entertaining kids of all ages everywhere

by Mark Schilling

The “Ultraman” live-action science-fiction series has been a rite of passage for Japanese boys (and a few girls) and their families for four decades now, since the first show was aired in 1966.

For many, one day you are the parent of a preschooler whose idea of fun television is “Sesame Street” or “Ponkikki,” the next you are living with a junior superhero who makes strange cries and arm movements in addition to more familiar karatelike kicks and chops. Your child is, you notice, not merely knocking imaginary space monsters into the next galaxy, but vaporizing them with his “specium beam” fired from forearms crossed in an “L” position, with the upright arm doing the zapping.

He has also developed an insatiable craving for red-and-silver plastic figures — members of the “Ultraman” extended alien family with Viking horns and grasshopper eyes thrown into the DNA mix, as well as the monsters they battle.

The fast-filling toy box, you will soon discover, is only the beginning: Tsuburaya Productions, the Tokyo-based company that makes the “Ultraman” shows, licenses more than 5,000 “Ultraman” products, from “tightie-whities” for tots to lighters for dads. There are also the inevitable movies, animations, DVDs and even an “Ultraman” channel on cable TV. In other words, “Ultraman” is still an ultraprolific, ultraprofitable franchise — with no end in sight.

Should this be a cause for alarm? Should parents protest against the insidious influence of ultraviolence on the tender minds of their offspring? Few Japanese think so: By now, two generations of parents here have been “Ultraman” fans, and the series is as much a part of the national fabric as furikake (rice topping) and chopsticks — both of which are available bearing the “Ultraman” logo. It would be like Americans rallying against Superman.

“Ultraman” was created by Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-70), the father of the tokusatsu (special effects) genre in Japan, who also worked for the Toho studio on many monsters pics, beginning with “Godzilla” in 1954. “Ultraman,” however, was not the first special-effects TV show made by the company he founded in 1963. That honor goes to “Ultra Q,” a 28-episode black-and-white series modeled on “The Twilight Zone.” Broadcast from January to July 1966 on the TBS network, ” Ultra Q” featured a human team that investigated extra- terrestrial phenomena and fought Tsuburaya’s signature Toho monsters under new names. (Godzilla became the odd-sounding “Gomess.”)

Nonetheless, for Tsuburaya and his company, “Ultraman” represented a big, ambitious step forward. The show was filmed in color, with a budget then considered huge for Japanese TV.

“It was in the red from the beginning,” says Tsuburaya Managing Director Ken Fukui, who joined the company 20 years ago and is now its “Ultraman” historian. “Mr. Tsuburaya made the show the way he made movies for Toho — the emphasis was on quality.”

Also, notes Fukui, “the original target was adults.” Back then, TV was a medium for the entire family, which watched the tube together, so shows had to appeal to dads as well as kiddies. “In time, the target shifted to children — but that wasn’t always the case,” he adds.

From the beginning, the “Ultraman” show stood out from the competition — especially thanks to its title character. An alien from an exploded planet in Nebula M78, Ultraman helped humans battle kaiju (monsters) that threatened the existence of civilization, using a dazzling array of beams and other superpowers. Other superheroes had similar attributes — Superman was also an alien from a distant, destroyed planet, who could, like Ultraman, fly without any visible means of propulsion.

Ultraman, though, differed from the rest in not only size — he towered over 40 meters tall — but in his very being. Zipping about the stratosphere in his TravelSphere after his planet had gone pop, Ultraman collided with an Earth-based spacecraft of the Science Patrol (also known as the Scientific Investigation Agency), a team of humans charged with protecting Earth from alien incursions. The crash killed the pilot, Shin Hayata, but Ultraman, sharing his own life force, revived him. Hayata thus had Ultraman’s spirit inside him and, by pressing a button on a special Beta Capsule device, he could become Ultraman.

In other words, Ultraman merged with a human, but without giving up his alien identity. Meanwhile, Hayata retained his own personality and will. Sounds a little deep for a 4-year-old, doesn’t it?

But as complex as the show’s origin story and cosmology may have been, the basic narrative was easy to follow. Hayata and other members of the Science Patrol, including a token woman and a boy (the former a radio operator; the latter her trouble-prone kid brother), encountered the space monster of the week and, when the going got tough, Hayata transformed into Ultraman (played by a guy in a rubber suit, starting with one Bin Furuya). The ensuing battle royale between Ultraman and the monster (originally played by rubber-suited stunt actor Haruo Nakajima) was the high point of the show.

But Ultraman was, and is, not without weaknesses. The most glaring of these is his inability to stay in the Earth’s atmosphere for more than 3 minutes. When his time is about to expire, usually in the middle of a ferocious fight, a warning light on his chest blinks. This lends a certain intensity to the action — though Ultraman has been known to wangle extensions.

The success of the original 39-part “Ultraman” series that followed the 28 “Ultra Q” shows in 1966 generated a slew of series headlined by other members of the “Ultraman family” — all played by actors wearing skintight, multi-toned outfits, all with a formidable array of superpowers — and some of whom occasionally did their derring-do alongside the original Ultraman.

The list of spinoffs includes “Ultra Seven” (1967; 48 programs), another hero from Nebula M78; “Return of Ultraman” (1971; 51), featuring a young racing car driver who becomes Ultraman Jack; “Ultraman Ace” (1972; 52), which sees a man and woman merge to form superhero Ultraman Ace ; “Ultraman Taro” (1973; 53), which features Ultra Mother and the boy hero of its title, along with family members the Ultra Warriors ; “Ultraman Leo,” (1974; 51), in which Ultraman Leo beams in from another galaxy; and “Ultraman 80″ (1980; 50), in which a young teacher transforms into Ultraman 80.

There was then a 16-year gap until the next locally made 52-part series, “Ultraman Tiga,” in 1996, though in the interim Tsuburaya created two 13-part series filmed in English for the international market — “Ultraman: Towards the Future” (1989) and “Ultraman the Ultimate Hero” (aka “Ultraman in America”; 1993).

“Then tokusatsu series like ‘Ultraman’ became too expensive to make — Japanese networks couldn’t afford them,” Fukui explains, referring to the cost of the cinematic-quality special effects that had to be created virtually every week. “Even today, we can’t earn a profit from the series alone,” he adds. “We make our real money from our licensing business.”

Still, in the past decade, Tsuburaya has made seven new 51- or 52-part “Ultraman” series for the TBS network, with the latest, “Ultraman Mebius,” debuting in April with, as its central character, a rookie Ultra Warrior sent by Ultra Father to protect Earth.

Altogether, in the franchise’s 40-year history, there have been a total of 16 official live-action TV series (not counting “Ultra Q”) and 19 movies — including “Ultraman Mebius & the Ultra Brothers,” which hit local theaters in September.

“We’re the first tokusatsu series and we’re one of only three that’s still on the air today,” says Fukui. “It’s difficult to do this sort of show properly, but over the years we’ve developed the knowhow.”

What’s the secret of Tsuburaya’s ultrasuccess? First and foremost are the monsters. In 40 years, there have been nearly 1,000 and, says Fukui, “they are all original creations, with their own individuality. Boys find them fascinating.” The bulging toy box agrees.

Also driving the show’s popularity, claims Fukui, are the miniature cityscapes that are destroyed in the course of many a battle.

“Their realism adds appeal to the show,” he explains. Tsuburaya now uses CG effects to enhance that realism, but “CG alone isn’t enough,” he says. “A mix of CG and miniatures creates a more believable world, with more impact.” The most important factor, however, “is the drama itself, that’s what really makes the show interesting to viewers.”

As simple and formulaic as those dramas may seem, Tsuburaya International Sales Manager Atsushi Saito explains that they are “about more than just defeating monsters.”

“The shows deal not just with the threat of monster invasions to world peace, but with pollution, bullying and other social issues. Kids learn something by watching them,” Saito says.

The shows are also surprisingly pacifist. Ultra warriors never draw blood. In the past their vanquished foes would disappear in puffs of smoke; now they dissolve into pixels.

“Sometimes they will even change a bad monster into a good one and send it back to its home in space,” Saito says. “This is a very Japanese way of looking at things — to blur the line between good and evil — but it’s central to the show’s philosophy.”

In others words, typical Japanese humanism, even though many of the characters are not, strictly speaking, human.

Despite the show’s Japanese view of the world, Tsuburaya has been successfully selling it internationally for decades, in particular 1989′s “Ultraman: Towards the Future,” which was produced in Australia with the South Australian Film Corporation, and 1993′s “Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero,” which was shot in the United States by Major Havoc Entertainment.

“We’re very conscious of the international market and have been for a long time,” says Saito. In line with that outlook, even programs set in Japan always had an intentionally international look and feel, from the interior shots — yes to Western-style rooms; no to tatami — to the “universal” messages of world peace and brotherly love.

The fruits of that approach are demonstrated by the worldwide reach of “Ultraman.” To date, “Ultraman” series have been sold to more than 50 countries, translated into around 10 languages — while there are currently merchandise licenses in more than 100 countries.

What is ironic, however, is that the monster-butt-kicking violence that is a strong draw for young male audiences worldwide has been a barrier to “Ultraman” sales in one most unlikely country. Australian authorities considered “Ultraman: Towards the Future” too strong for the sensibilities of its kiddies and barred its broadcast — ultimately only allowing 11 episodes to air. And that despite it having been made in Australia.

What about the future of “Ultraman”? Tsuburaya, says Fukui, will keep updating the look of the show, such as adding more CG shots to the effects mix.

“But,” he insists, “we will never change the basics — ‘Ultraman’ is good for another 50 or 100 years.”

Assuming, of course, they don’t run out of monsters.

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