Culture | CULTURE SMASH

New 'Ultraman' anime is a family affair

by Roland Kelts

I first met anime director and mechanical designer Shinji Aramaki in Tokyo 12 years ago. He had just completed “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” the second in a trio of epic CG-animated films based on Masamune Shirow’s four-volume 1985 manga.

“Ex Machina” was a global collaboration: co-produced by Hong Kong/Hollywood director John Woo, costumed by Italy’s Miuccia Prada and scored by Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono.

Since then, Aramaki has become anime’s go-to guy for Japanese franchise reboots and sequels targeting international markets. As the nation’s domestic audience ages and its youth population shrinks, producers are scrambling to dust off older titles that might resonate both at home and abroad. That has them going to Aramaki a lot.

Now 58 and the father of two adult daughters, he is currently working alongside screenwriter/director Kenji Kamiyama on anime adaptations of 1989’s “Ghost in the Shell” for Netflix and 1982’s “Blade Runner” for Cartoon Network and Crunchyroll.

Last month, Netflix released the duo’s anime version of “Ultraman,” based on a 2011 manga that was a continuation of the classic long-running tokusatsu (special effects) TV series, which debuted in 1966. Ultraman and his brethren (the Ultra Brothers) are alien beings that descend to earth and merge with a human to help the Japanese branch of the Science Patrol battle exotic monsters bent on destruction.

An original 1966 illustration of Ultraman
An original 1966 illustration of Ultraman | COURTESY OF NETFLIX, KYODO

The legendary Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-70) of “Godzilla” fame created the original live-action TV show, the first in Japan to be exported. Over the past five decades the Ultraman brothers became ubiquitous in Japan and other parts of Asia through posters, costumes, T-shirts, toys and adverts for products ranging from Honda vehicles to Hawaiian vacations. Ultraman merchandise alone generates over $50 million (¥5.5billion) a year in Japan.

The 13 CG-animated episodes released on Netflix are loaded with fights, replacing the TV series’ “suitmation” (actors wrestling in rubber suits) with digital motion-capture footage. But the focus is on the heroes’ inter-generational dynamics — more psychodrama than monster-of-the-week.

Shin Hayata, the original Ultraman mortal, shows up in his 60s, white-haired and semi-retired, while three younger Ultraman characters, including Hayata’s tentative and often tongue-tied son, Shinjiro, struggle unsteadily to take up the mantle. The youngest of the bunch, Seiji Hokuto, an effeminate high school freshman, mocks and eventually challenges Shinjiro, and it takes a female pop idol named Rena Sayama to fortify his self-esteem and remind him of his powers and responsibilities.

At Sola Digital Arts Inc. studio in suburban west Tokyo, the trim, bespectacled Aramaki tells me that he and Kamiyama, also a father, wanted to explore the Ultraman story from the perspective of parents, given the stark generation gap in contemporary Japan.

“Young Japanese men today lack confidence and self-awareness, and I don’t know why,” he says, shrugging. “Maybe they’re over-earnest. They seem to set the bar too high for themselves, so it’s hard for them to see that they’re actually doing okay. They worry about everything.”

Anime director Shinji Aramaki
Anime director Shinji Aramaki | ROLAND KELTS

Aramaki was raised in rural Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, on “Ultra Q,” the first of the “Ultra” series from which “Ultraman” evolved. It was his favorite show, and the network that carried it had a strong broadcasting signal (unlike the signal for Osamu Tezuka’s “Mighty Atom” he adds, which was impossible to watch). In the TV version, Ultraman swells to massive proportions, fights equally gigantic opponents MMA-style, and never utters a word: The strong, silent archetype, mysterious and godlike. (My personal favorite was Ultraman Taro, whose adventures I relished as a 6-year-old at my grandparents’ house in Morioka, northern Japan.)

But Netflix’s “Ultraman” characters bear closer resemblance to Marvel’s Hollywood Iron Man, as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.: handsome but slightly befuddled, trapped in high-tech helmets and suits.

That’s no accident. According to Aramaki, in recent years, the Americans and their heroes have become more doubtful, too, about their role and purpose in the world. He cites the evolving insecurities of Spider-Man, saying, “I think the Americans have learned how to worry.” The growing foreign fan base for anime, he says, is a sign that others are embracing uncertainty: “When anime fans outside Japan see shows like ‘Gundam’ and ‘Evangelion,’ they see heroes who are also troubled, and that makes them feel comforted, like they might be okay.”

Tsuburaya Productions Co. Ltd., founded by Eiji Tsuburaya in 1963, has been notoriously conservative in its approach to the Ultraman brand, and not without reason. Last spring, a California court finally returned the property’s overseas rights to the company (plus $4.5 million in damages) from a Thai businessman, who had claimed ownership since 1976 through a forged document. Now Tsuburaya is suing a Chinese studio that has released two unauthorized Ultraman movies since 2017, the latest in January.

A new generation of Ultramen face their enemies in Netflix
A new generation of Ultramen face their enemies in Netflix’s ‘Ultraman.’ | COURTESY OF NETFLIX, KYODO

The California decision liberated Ultraman for Western productions, and Tsuburaya wasted little time finding a partner. Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based transmedia company that produces popular titles across multiple platforms (SVOD, TV, film and more), plans to revive the Ultraman universe for digital-age generations. A new live-action streaming TV series is reportedly in the works.

Although the Netflix series was produced by two anime studios, Production I.G Inc. and Sola Digital Arts Inc., licensor Tsuburaya kept Aramaki and Kamiyama on a tight leash. A proposal to have one of the three young Ultraman characters be a woman was flatly rejected.

“We thought it would be in keeping with the times,” says Aramaki, “but they said, ‘no way.'”

Shinjiro Hayata, the son of the original Ultraman, struggles to take on his father
Shinjiro Hayata, the son of the original Ultraman, struggles to take on his father’s mantle in Netflix’s ‘Ultraman’ | COURTESY OF NETFLIX, KYODO

While Netflix remains mum on a second season for its anime “Ultraman,” the final episode leaves several storylines ripe for more — including a budding romance between pop singer Rena and Hayata’s son Shinjiro. But Aramaki and Kamiyama are already immersed in their next project.

After our conversation, Aramaki escorts me across the hall and into a vast studio. Thirty cameras loom overhead as five actors in motion-capture suits strike poses on the props below, exchanging snippets of dialogue. I am seated behind a bank of computer monitors displaying the action when Motoko Kusanagi, the heroine of “Ghost in the Shell,” suddenly materializes onscreen. Played by a female actor transformed digitally into character, Kusanagi looks every bit as sleek, strong and sexy as she did 30 years ago.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.

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