Ultraman turns 50 today, and I’m going to celebrate by telling you what makes the original show so special.
It’s no secret that the Ultra Series is considered the “third wheel” of the big tokusatsu franchises, or at least it seems that way in Western fandom. I used to think that way when I first got into tokusatsu. Kamen Rider and Super Sentai were the Big Two, and Ultraman existed somewhere on the periphery next to stuff like GARO and Tomica Hero.
It wasn’t until after I joined TokuNet that I became the huge Ultra-fan a few people know me as today. Two years later, and I’ve seen almost every Ultra show available in English. I count most of them among my favorite TV shows, but today I’m here to talk about 1966’s Ultraman, a sci-fi classic nearly on the level of Star Trek (also celebrating its 50th this year).
For a quick history lesson, check out fellow Team TokuNet member Jorge Salas’ “History of Tokusatsu” entries, Ultraman Part 1 and Part 2. I’ll be including links to certain episodes on ShoutFactoryTV as I mention them.
Ultraman begins as a story of sacrifice. Ultraman accidentally kills Scientific Special Search Party pilot Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe) when they collide in pursuit of an alien kaiju. As penance, Ultraman resurrects and bonds with him, choosing to stay and defend the Earth to atone. (Ultra Operation No. 1)
From jump, this establishes some interesting things about Ultraman’s character. We know that he’s a noble hero who will go out of his way to do the right thing, and during his time on Earth he begins to fall in love with the insignificant blue marble and the people on it. This self-sacrifice immediately brings religious overtones to mind, and that layer is one of the things that attracts me to Ultraman.
Eiji Tsuburaya converted to Roman Catholocism, and that is reflected in some of the imagery that pervades the Ultra Series. The most obvious sign of this is the pose in the image at the top of the page, where Ultraman forms a cross with his arms before firing his signature Specium Ray. Ultras also have a curious habit of being crucified, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Ultraman, being the brainchild of a special effects wizard like Tsuburaya, has a bevy of imaginative aliens and kaiju in its rogues gallery. The monsters aren’t just creative design-wise, each one also has its own inherent personality often communicated through non-verbal cues. Red King is a great example of this, as he is frequently depicted as a giant bully who is often seen terrorizing the diminutive Pigmon. (The Lawless Monster Zone)
A highlight of Ultraman is its diverse range of kaiju designs. They can go from giant dinosaurs like Gomora and Telesdon, to alien saboteurs modeled after avant-garde art movements. Then you have Gango…(The Ruffian from Outer Space)
The kaiju aren’t always “monsters,” sometimes they are sympathetic characters with horrifying backgrounds. You have creatures like Jamila, a human astronaut forever altered by an unknown substance he encountered in space that turned him into a grotesque monster. The viewer isn’t excited to watch Ultraman take down Jamila, they are saddened by the circumstances that made Jamila’s death necessary. (My Home is Earth)
What I appreciate most about Ultraman is how it takes the time to really explore its premise. There are many things that people would consider deconstructive if they showed up in a later work, but cannot be viewed as such because they are addressed in the Ultra Series’ early years. That is, unless it’s possible for a work to deconstruct itself, but that’s an idea for smarter people than myself.
One of the moral questions raised during the series concerns whether or not Ultraman and the SSSP are genuinely doing the right thing. It’s made clear that the Earth-born kaiju like Gomora have been around for a long time and are a part of the planet’s natural ecosystem, but their sheer size poses a threat to modern human life. Are the deaths of these animals worth it? The discovery of the Monster Graveyard puts our heroes face to face with all the life they’ve taking during the past year. This is just one of the instances from the final batch of episodes that features reflections on the show’s own tropes. (The Monster Graveyard)
Ultra Q was the first Ultra show, but Ultraman set the tone for the rest of the franchise. Adding a giant superhero to Q‘s formula proved to be a stroke of genius. I’d like to think people like screenwriter Tetsuo Kinjo, director Akio Jissoji, Tsuburaya himself and the myriad others who put it together knew they’d struck gold with Ultraman.
Fifty years later and we’ve got countless sequels and spin-offs of varying quality, but none of them can touch the original. Ultraman is a bonafide classic, and I hope this piece has convinced you, dear reader, to check it out if you haven’t or give it a second look if you have. Happy 50th, Ultraman!
Images via ultra.wikia.com