Ultraman: Introduction

In 1966, after the success of the Weird Science Fiction TV series Ultra Q, Tsuburaya Productions was tasked with creating a follow-up show, one that would be focused even more on the most popular feature of Ultra Q: giant monsters. They developed the premise of a alien space warrior whose life becomes merged with a human host, granting the human the power to briefly transform into the titanic superhero Ultraman. The concept worked. The 32nd Ultraman series, Ultraman Z is schedule to air in June 2020. The monsters from the series, and from Ultra Q, remain so popular they’ve had their own cartoon series.

Ultraman is in a category referred to as “tokusatsu” or special effects shows and movies. Tokusatsu also includes Godzilla movies, Super Sentai (aka, Power Rangers) shows, the Kamen Rider series, and their endless variations and imitations. Aside from Godzilla, the style didn’t take off in the United States until Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and its popularity is still a shadow of what it is in Japan. An English dub was produced of the first Ultraman series, so it has been around, but as a campy cult program, rather than the phenomenon it became in Japan and elsewhere in the world. I managed to see some of it on cable the 1980’s. I enjoyed it, but even as I learned more about Japanese pop culture, Ultraman remained something I only knew about, without much chance to ever really see it, especially in its original form and language.

Only in 2019 has a high quality, subtitled blu-ray edition of Ultraman been released in the United States, from Mill Creek Entertainment. And not just the original series, but the entire run of the franchise is planned. Ultra Q was the first to come out, followed by Ultraman, then Ultraman 7, and so on in chronological order, along with another line of releases of the more recent Ultraman series, starting with 2015’s Ultraman X.

Much of the core premise of Ultraman, the visual motifs, the plot structure, the gadgets, and sci-fi premises are established in the very first episode, and have gone on to endured for decades. To start with, there is the origin Ultraman himself: a Space Warrior, pursuing a literally monstrous criminal, crashes his UFO into a human jet. The crash has left the jet’s pilot, Shin Hayata, dead or dying. To make up for the accident, the Warrior merges his life with Hayata’s, granting him both new life and the ability to transform into a super being. We immediately have several important existential questions: is Hayata Ultraman, or is he replaced by the original alien at the moment of transformation? As someone who grew up reading American superhero comics and science fiction, those are important questions (is Superman the alien Kal-el pretending to be Clark Kent, or is Clark Kent, an extraterrestrial adoptee brought up as a human, taking on the costumed identity of Superman?). Given that we see nothing of Hayata’s personal life, or how this incident has affected him, do we have any reason to think this still is Hayata, or is it some new entity, pretending to be a human? Seems like there are a lot of questions on the table here from the get go.

Hayata did not get involved in all this merely by chance. He is a member of what is described as “The Japanese Branch of the Paris-based International Science Police Organization.” Specifically, they are the Science Special Search Party. That’s quite a concept. International Science Police that utilize advanced high-tech weaponry and aircraft, and appear answerable to no other authority, and have full sanction to act as they wish, whenever they wish, wherever they wish. One must assume that there are an awful lot of political treaty negotiations, maneuvering, deals, and furious arguments over sovereignty and sanction going on in the background, somewhere, that allow the Science Police to exist. The world certainly appears to need them, with alien intrusions being common place, weird phenomena abounding, and of course the 50 meter tall monsters roaming everywhere.

According to an Ultraman video game (the 1992 Ultra Strategy, Mobilization of the Science Patrol!) the Japanese branch was found by none other than Dr. Ichinotani, the gray-haired scientist who advised and supported the investigating characters of Ultra Q. So if one considers that game “canon,” Ultraman is set some years after Ultra Q. A “Science Patrol” or anti-monster defense force of some kind is a reoccurring element in most, if not all, incarnations of Ultraman shows.

The exact year this show is set in is not immediately clear. For the most part it seems modern day (1966 Japan) but the SSSP have access to advanced technology. These are not things in everyday use, though the military can call out giant projected energy weapons and extrapowerful explosives. It is not unreasonable that such things would advance quickly with the frequent need to battle monsters.

The SSSP commonly get around in their jet-powered Vertical Take Off and Landing craft, launched from the roof of their futuristic HQ complex (where, one guesses, there must be fairly extensive support team, as well as office workers handling all the legal and international issues the existence of the SSSP must constantly engender). I am struck by a thought that came up several times in Ultra Q: the extraordinary similarity between the vehicle and model work Eiji Tsuburaya was doing with that being done far away in Great Britain, by Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation programs, such as Thunderbirds. They were on TV at pretty much the same time in the 1960’s. I know Thunderbirds was very popular in Japan. There must be some interesting connections between the two men and their work.

At any sign of menace, the SSSP draw their Super Guns, multi-purpose energy weapons. They can be surprisingly effective. From most Godzilla movies, we are used to all human efforts being futile against monster enemies. Another piece of the team’s equipment are lapel pin sized radio communicators, which in 1966 might have seemed as futuristic as ray guns. In 2020 it can take a moment to recalibrate what is or is not super science in a show this old. The original Star Trek series, which has both those kinds of gadgets, would be debuting in the United States just a month or so later.

The SSSP, their investigations into mysteries and colossal threats, their weapons, their puzzling political and military status, immediately become secondary when Ultraman ultimately is needed at the climax of each episode. Next time I will look in detail at the very first episode, “Ultra Operation No. 1.” I have a lot to say about it in particular, but when we get up and running, I’ll propably just have a few observations about each episode, much as I did when watching through Ultra Q.

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