The History of Tokusatsu Part 3: Ultraman Part 1
Welcome back to the History of Tokusatsu, today we’ll dive in and cover the first part of the Ultra Series.
Today’s installment covers the Ultra Series from Tsuburaya Productions. Now, you may be wondering why it’s not called the Ultraman Series, and there’s a very simple answer to this question: Ultraman was not the first entry in the franchise. A fact not a lot of newer fans know is that the iconic Ultraman, one of Japan’s greatest tokusatsu heroes, was actually from the second TV series within the franchise. The originator of the Ultra Series was the 1966 show, Ultra Q.
Ultra Q was Tsuburaya Productions’ first full length TV series, it premiered in January of 1966, which would turn out to be a historic year for the company as it launched three full shows that year – Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Booska. Tsuburaya Productions by this point had done contributing work on various TV series but, having been created in 1963, were relatively new to the world of making full length TV series themselves. You would never know this given how they hit the ground running in 1966.
Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultra Seven are known for their historically high tokusatsu ratings, with Ultraman having one of the most viewed tokusatsu episodes ever, and this is in part due to the show airing during the Takeda Hour. The Takeda Hour was an hour of TV sponsored by Takeda Pharmaceuticals and home to some of the most viewed programs at the time, including the very first scripted Japanese TV show – Moonlight Mask. Although there is no solid reason given, it’s been widely assumed that there was no direct follow up to Ultra Seven because the show featured an almost 10% drop in ratings from Ultraman, which itself saw an increase from Ultra Q.
When Ultra Q began, it was a show quite unlike anything else that had ever been on Japanese TVs at the time. The draw of TV back then was it being able to provide an experience the entire family could get behind. The potential of an entire family viewing meant something with cinimatic values could garner the most viewers. Ultra Q, unlike Ultraman, did not feature a hero fighting against monster and instead each episode featured its own unique monster and the characters they impacted. This format gave viewers at the time the experience of having a kaijuu movie in their homes week after week with cutting edge special effects and production values. Ultra Q is actually one of the reasons the Ultra Series is known just as much for its transforming heroes as it is for its uniquely designed monsters – often times just as iconic as the heroes themselves.
Ultraman hit the airwaves in July 1966, one week after a preview special known as The Birth of Ultraman, which introduced viewers to the core cast, Ultraman, and an early monster via a stage show. Ultraman was an immediate ratings success, quickly improving on the impressive ratings seen by Ultra Q. Unlike many of today’s tokusatsu shows that feature action-heavy scenarios, Ultraman dealt with sci-fi and special effects first and foremost. Tsuburaya’s intent in making Ultraman was to have each episode provide a cinematic quality not unlike that of a movie, leading to a not uncommon at the time episodic series.
Ultraman introduced most of the traits still heavily associated with most Ultra shows – a “science patrol team” investigating monster occurrences, typically having a member that becomes the titular Ultra character in each series where one is present. One of the show’s most iconic traits saw the alien Ultraman fuse with a human to use as a host, something that would be the norm in all but a handful of shows.
After Ultraman finished the third series, Ultra Seven, began. Ultra Seven was originally not a sequel to Ultraman and only became considered such years later. The original intent with Ultra Seven was to create an alternate take of the formula created by Ultraman. The series featured a much heavier sci-fi theme involving mysteries and more mature stories than seen in the previous series. Also introduced was a hero who, rather than taking a host, was the Ultraman character himself in human guise.
By the time the 1971 Return of Ultraman began, Tsuburaya Productions founder Eiji Tsuburaya had passed away, leaving the company and the series in the care of his eldest son. The series saw the creation of a unified world, featuring appearances from both Ultraman and Ultra Seven. The Ultraman seen in the show greatly resembled the original Ultraman and was initially just called Ultraman. Later additions to the franchise would give the hero the name of Ultraman Jack.
The Return of Ultraman saw the beginning of the longest consecutive run of shows in the franchise, beginning with The Return of Ultraman and continuing with Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro, and finally, Ultraman Leo.
As the years went on, Ultraman saw its popularity diminish somewhat, with Taro being the first show to see ratings dip into the single digits. A world wide oil crisis heavily impacted the series with Ultraman Leo. The approach in Ultraman Leo saw a hero who favored hand to hand combat as opposed to the wild energy beams of past heroes. Ultraman Leo’s dark approach was initially popular with fans but soon the series saw viewership taper off, leading to a change in formula. The second half of the show saw many characters written off and themes changed as well as as Leo himself now sporting a variety of beam attacks.
The series went into a slumber after Leo, only to return with 1979’s The Ultraman, an anime series. The anime series was launched in the same year as Mobile Suit Gundam and was produced by the same studio, Sunrise. The series was followed by Ultraman 80, a show featuring a teacher as the lead character. After the end of Ultraman 80, there would not be a wholly original Japanese TV series in the franchise for another 15 years. In the interim there were various movies made as well as two foreign series based on the Ultraman concept.
A 1990 series produced in Australia, titled Ultraman Towards the Future and Ultraman Great in Japan featured a hero who met Ultraman on mars before bonding with the giant of light to protect the earth from monsters. The series was notable for featuring, as of now, the only instance the spandex traditionally associated with Super Sentai suits was used as the basis of an Ultraman suit. The second foreign series produced was the American Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero, known in Japan as Ultraman Powered. The series featured Kane Kosugi, who appeared in Ninja Sentai Kakuranger as Jiraiya, who transformed into Ninja Black. Despite being produced in America the show never actually aired in the USA.
After two comedic outings in Ultraman Zearth and Ultraman Zearth 2, Ultraman finally returned to the airwaves in Japan with Ultraman Tiga, which would later be shown in the United States via a comedic dub that changed nearly all of the show’s content but served as an introduction to tokusatsu for many viewers. The series introduced the first Ultraman that was capable of changing forms and was the first instance an Ultraman TV series featured CGI graphics, often seen in Ultraman Tiga flying away. Tiga was also noted for its star, Hirashi Nagano, who took the lead role in the show while his band, V6, was at the height of their popularity. V6 contributed to the show by performing the opening theme song, Take Me Higher.
Tiga was followed up by a sequel, Ultraman Dyna, taking place over a decade after Tiga as humans have begun to venture out towards other planets. The series began with an irreverent tone and comedic hero before turning to heavily dramatic plots and an ambiguous ending that made viewers question the fate of the show’s hero.
An epilogue movie, Ultraman Tiga: The Final Odyssey, was released in 2000 and saw the conclusion to the story that began in Ultraman Tiga. Dyna star Tsuruno Takeshi was featured in the movie as a guest star.
1998 saw the premiere of Ultraman Gaia, a rather ambitious series not only for Ultraman but for tokusatsu as a whole. Gaia was one of the earliest series to feature a heavily serealized story that involved regular writers and guest writers needing to be present at staff meetings to iron out details and know where the series was headed. Ultraman Gaia was written by Chiaki Konaka, a legendary anime writer who would go on to writer Serial Experiments Lain and Digimon Tamers, another show that took a traditionally light show in a more dramatic direction.
There would not be a series after Gaia until 2001’s Ultraman Cosmos. Ultraman Cosmos took a unique approach and began its story with a movie, Ultraman Cosmos: The First Contact, beginning 10 years before the TV series itself. The TV series would begin a month later and featured a hero who rather than outright defeat most of his adversaries would attempt to heal them. The series featured a storyline revolving around monsters being turned evil, necessitating Ultraman’s help in healing them.
Towards the end of its run, Ultraman Cosmos was taken off the air when its star was accused of attacking his girlfriend. While the series was off the air the miniseries Ultraman Neos aired its first two episodes. The series quickly returned after all charges were dropped against the Ultraman Cosmos star. Ultraman Cosmos gained an extended run when it returning, leading to a series that ran for 65 episodes, which to this day remains the longest running original Ultraman series. I say “original Ultraman series” because things get confusing when you consider Ultraman Retsuden, but we’ll look at that in another installment.
The series went back into hibernation after Cosmos before returning in 2004 with a new take on the first series Ultra show, Ultra Q. Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy aired late at night and featured many of the mysterious and horror themed stories seen in the original series.
Shortly after Dark Fantasy, Tsuburaya launched one of its most ambitions project, the Ultra N Project. The project was intended to take Ultraman towards a more mature avenue featuring darker plots and serialized stories once again. The Ultra N Project was divided into three “chapters” called Noa: Nostalgia, Next: Evolution, Nexus: Trinity.
Noa: Nostalgia revolved around an angelic Ultraman named Noa, featured primarily in stage shows. Next: Evolution revolved around the 2004 movie, Ultraman The Next, the first big budget film in the series. Nexus: Trinity was the final installment and revolved around the 2004-2005 series Ultraman Nexus.
Ultraman Nexus presents itself as an interesting entity within the franchise and as a point where one might see Ultraman’s popularity begin to wane. The show was originally intended to air in a prime time slot, one which it was bumped for by what is heavily believed to be Gundam SEED Destiny, the sequel to Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. Ultraman Nexus was relegated to an early morning airing and despite this dramatically different time slot, the staff behind the show did not compromise their vision and continued with the dark and dramatic series they had always envisioned. Ultraman Nexus aired early in the morning, around 7:30 AM, and drove children away, leading to lower viewership numbers than had been seen before in the franchise. Toy sales were also slow, leading to an early cancellation of the series and an untimely end to the Ultra N Project.
Ultraman Max hit the airwaves after Ultraman Nexus and was supposed to be the first show since Ultraman 80 to take place in the original universe but Ultraman Mebius would quickly render this false. Max was a unique series in that it saw a number of well known and popular movie directors such as Takeshi Miike come aboard to direct and write various episodes. The star of the original Ultraman even played a regular character within the show.
The following year saw the premiere of Ultraman Mebius, the 40th anniversary series. The series featured a rookie Ultraman come to earth and take the form of a human as he endeavored to protect the earth and understand humans. Many actors from the original shows returned to guest stars and within the series itself Mebius was the first Ultraman seen on earth since Ultraman 80 left. Ultraman Mebius continued to mark troublesome times for Tsuburaya Productions, who had to borrow heavily from Fields, a pachinko company, to actually be able to produce the series. Fields would later come to own Tsuburaya Productions for a time.
After Ultraman Mebius came to an end, Tsuburaya experimented with various short form 13 episode shows, Ultra Seven X, a dark series intended for adult viewers, Ultra Galaxy and Ultra Galaxy NEO, series only aired on cable that featured monsters in favor of any original Ultraman characters, though various Ultraman would appear towards the climax of each series.
Ultraman survived through film from 2008 to 2012 with The Super Ultra 8 Brothers, featuring the return of the stars from Ultraman Tiga, Dyna, and Gaia.
A movie entitled Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legends would come a few years after Ultra Galaxy and featured the cast of Ultra Galaxy, the star of Ultraman Mebius, and a new Ultraman, Zero, who would go on to become the face of the franchise for the next four years despite never starring in a proper TV series himself. Ultra Galaxy was the third time Ultraman Mebius star Igarashi Shunji returned to Ultraman, including a two episode direct follow up to Ultraman Mebius that featured the return of its entire cast, before he retired from acting.
2013 saw the first somewhat traditional Ultraman series since 2006’s Ultraman Mebius. Ultraman Ginga was a 13 episode series aired over the course of six months and featured a hero who was also able to transform into monsters. The series was popular enough to garner a sequel series the following year, Ultraman Ginga S, a 16 episode series that introduced the brooding Ultraman Victory. The Ultraman Ginga saga came to an end with a movie that featured every Ultraman hero from Tiga through Ultraman Ginga S teaming up.
2015 saw the third consecutive year of new Ultraman shows with the premiere of Ultraman X. X features a hero who uses various armors based on the monsters he battles as well as guest appearances from former stars and Ultraman heroes. The 22 episode series would be the longest since Ultraman Mebius’ 50 episode run almost a decade before.
At the time of this writing, the 50th anniversary series, Ultraman Orb, has been announced and is just two months off from its grand premiere.
Although we’ve come to the present day, there are still many more productions to cover. Ultraman has survived not only through its movies and TV series but also through unique productions that set it apart from other tokusatsu franchises and appeal to viewers of older shows and adult themes. All this and more will be covered in The History of Tokusatsu: Ultraman Part 2.
Sources: Sunday Mainichi, 100 Million People Were Impressed At That Time – 50 Year TV Ratings Record, Cinema Today, Ultra Warrior Ultra Complete Book, Variety, Ultraman Is Crying