Saturday, June 4, 2011


(this article originally appeared on the website Anime Jump in 2004.)

Nostalgia used to be classified as a mental illness. The wiser heads of the Victorian age rightly determined that any personality so warped as to obsess itself with the past was one seriously in need of the finest counselling that the pre-psychoanalytical age could provide.

Knowing all this makes it all the more difficult to appreciate, much less write about, a show like ULTRAMAN. Is your love of the show truly motivated by the actual quality of the show itself? Or are you using the show as an excuse to wallow in a more innocent age, spent wearing footy pajamas, on one of America's more garish sofas, eyes glued to the Superstation Channel 17 as the weird multicolored swirl of what appeared to be latex house paint formed itself into the show's title, to the accompaniment of a discordant jangle of tortured electric guitar strings? Is ULTRAMAN your gateway drug into nostalgia addiction? Or are we, as I suspect, dealing with the effects of sleep-deprivation on young viewers combined with a unique and frequently bizarre television show?

ULTRAMAN first premiered in 1966 on TBS, the Tokyo Broadcasting System. The brainchild of producer Eiji Tsubaraya, ULTRAMAN was a sequel of sorts to a show called ULTRA Q, a monster-laden suspense show along the lines of our OUTER LIMITS. What set ULTRAMAN apart from ULTRA Q was, naturally, the eponymous Ultraman, a giant silvery spaceman visiting Earth to protect us from monsters. In a nation already dutifully trooping to the theater every year for another GODZILLA film, a television show featuring pretty much the same sort of thrill was a natural success. 
 ULTRA SEVEN followed ULTRAMAN, which was in turn followed by RETURN OF ULTRAMAN, ULTRAMAN ACE, ULTRAMAN LEO, ULTRAMAN TARO, ULTRAMAN 80, and after a hiatus of nearly 20 years new ULTRA series like DYNA and TIGA have returned to Japanese (and American) television. Even though ULTRAMAN was a Tsubaraya production, I have only Peter Fernandez to thank for it; without his work dubbing the series into English, for me and most Americans it would only be a curiosity alongside FIREMAN, MIRRORMAN, ZONE FIGHTER, RED BARON, etc.
I'm not going to bore you with descriptions of Ultraman or the Science Patrol or of their guns and spaceships and uniforms and what-not. All that stuff is pure window dressing -merely the sugar coating the pill of delicious horror that the UHF antenna brought into your home. Who knew what that Saturday's episode was going to bring? A quivering, gelatinous thing, with antennae bristling from its rubbery orfices, menacing Earth simply by daring to exist? The corpse of a monkey-faced mummy, reanimated by ten million volts, vaporizing Tokyo police? Zebra-striped, fetish-masked aliens who walk through walls and collect shrunken scientists in test tubes? The tortured cry of a gigantic, mutated astronaut echoing through the forest? Or, best of all, the echoing laugh of the silver-hued, lobster-clawed Baltan, whose rotating eye-stalks foretold the doom of the human race?

Like the British baby-boomer children who fearfully watched Dr. Who’s Daleks from behind the safety of solid middle-class British furniture, American children found that Ultraman’s monsters were not only best viewed from behind the couch, but that most could be dispatched with a quick burst of Spacium energy from Ultraman’s crossed forearms. In fact, ULTRAMAN inspired my first effort at media journalism; a one-page report delivered to my first grade class on blue-lined notebook paper (though the subtextual subtleties of the show escaped my 6-year old view). The calming presence of that giant, bulb-eyed spaceman assured us all that while monsters may howl and cardboard city blocks might be demolished, safety and order would ultimately triumph.

No, the fact of the matter is that ULTRAMAN is frequently dismissed as a monster-of-the-week show, a GODZILLA imitator starring Clark Kent as a giant silvery wrestling champion defending miniature office buildings. And these dismissals are entirely fair. ULTRAMAN actually is a simplistic, frequently silly show entirely too dependent upon underpaid actors in uncomfortable rubber monster suits. And yet…

And yet, I can’t forget the chill that literally tingles my spine when I recall some of the show’s more effective monsters. The bottom line of this show is – maybe it’s a show intended to frighten (and therefore entertain) children – but if that’s the show’s purpose, than it is a resounding success. 

Because this is a show that scares children. The constant use of location shooting (this takes place in the real world, not some set) –the parade of incidental characters attacked, possessed, murdered, or otherwise affected by the monsters –the New Wave cinema verite camera techniques –all these add to ULTRAMAN’s fear factor. Produced by a society consumed with a love of the bizarre, ULTRAMAN could hardly expect to be anything else – bizarre is the only word for a show utterly consumed by monsters. Monsters big and small – from gigantic horned beasts that shoot fire and emit blinding flashes, to a subterranean race of what would be ordinary looking people, except they have NO EYES. Or the shiny silver alien who creates his own evil Ultraman. Or another alien who tempts a human boy to betray his planet, like Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness.

Ultraman himself, a monster. Gigantic, unspeaking, with destructive and vaguely defined powers, looking gnarled and lumpy in the close-up shots. Sure, as the franchise continued we’d get a parade of Ultraman and Ultrawomen and Ultrakids, along with backstory about their home galaxy, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseaum. Thank God that stuff never made it to the States, at least not while I was a kid. I prefer the original- unencumbered by dogma, paint peeling from his shopworn Ultra suit, dedicated to kicking monster ass, occasionally cutting loose with a few meaningless grunts. The silly or contrived moments of his TV show being counterbalanced by the creepy, the bizarre, the monstrous.

America has produced no children’s television quite so menacingly offbeat; the closest one might come is the Sid & Marty Kroftt production LAND OF THE LOST, or the pre-hero monster comics Marvel produced in the early ‘60s. Horror in America is strictly for adults, or for kids smart enough to dodge parents or babysitters.

This nostalgia jag was sparked by a fat volume of Sun Special ULTRAMAN manga from the 60s. I wasn’t expecting too much; so much ULTRAMAN stuff is out there, and very little of it really has much to do with the show I enjoyed as a child. In fact I’d had a volume of SHONEN MAGAZINE’s Ultraman comics by Kazumine Daiji for years –simplistic Mitsuteru Yokoyama-style clean-line SF comics without any distinguishing characteristics. Well, this manga –by horror comics auteur Kazuo "Cat Eyed Boy" Umezu, fer Chrissakes - begins with a story where a crazed scientist takes a big swallow from a gasoline pump, and then his skin peels away and he turns into a Baltan. A disgusting, veiny, chitinous Baltan, who lets Ultraman rip one of his claws off, just so he can set fire to the gasoline draining from the wound and fly off, laughing.

THEN things get REALLY weird.

The stories in this volume have a passing resemblance to the television scripts, but only faintly. Umezu's draftsmanship keeps the characters cartoony and simple, except where monsters are concerned. Monsters, the true stars, are delineated with a loving and detailed hand aimed directly at the primary goal; frightening children.

The boys who read this would grow up to read even more outlandish and violent mens’ comics; the girls would have a whole sub-genre of girls’ horror comics, jam-packed with beheadings, defenestrations, and entrails, some drawn by Umezu, for their entertainment.

The question is, do Japanese kids hide behind the sofa when the Baltans appear on the screen? Do they get the same kind of horror-excitement charge that American children got? Or are they culturally so inured to the bizarre nature of their popular entertainment that such things are seen as a matter of course? If so, that’s a shame. Perhaps you have to be raised in the more restrictive atmosphere (at least as far as television is concerned) of mid-70s America to truly appreciate the creepy vibe of ULTRAMAN.

The other question is, what happened to ULTRAMAN? From genuinely disturbing to shiny and genial in one – okay, two seasons? By the time the 70s rolled around, Ultraman was safe and non-threatening; he might as well have worn glasses and worked at the Daily Planet. It’s probably yet another symptom of Nostalgia As Psychological Disturbance for one to prefer that Tsubaraya keep his show scary and threatening rather than safe and comforting; probably more advertising money with the safe angle, I should imagine.


Perhaps you can’t return to the pre-teen days of being scared out of your wits by a laughing Baltan. Sometimes, however, nostalgia can be induced merely by a few panels of a out-of-print comic serial, and it all comes rushing back. Minus the footy pajamas, of course.

 -Dave Merrill

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Pigumon said...

Wow, it's interesting to meet someone from an alternate dimension. In my dimension, Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, Ultraman was shown in America in 1979, and us 9 year olds would run home after school to watch it every weekday on our local cable channel, along with Space Giants, Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets, etc.Ultraman was not monster, he was clearly a monster killing hero who came to earth chasing a serial killer named Bemlar, His unfortunate acne face cleared up after about 13 episodes and he was shiny and new. Another ten episodes and he had clearly grown some muscles from all that monster fighting. we were less afraid of the monster than intrigued by their bizarreness, but we always knew Ultraman would fight them to protect us. The only that that frightened us was the blinking of his timer, every episode, we cheered "hurry Ultraman!!" until the end, when he would fly off into the sunset, leaving us in peace again.

Because of that, I feel the manga doesn't quite have the spirit of the show. But as both an Ultraman fan and a horror fan I take it for what it is, super bizarre and enjoyable.

I didn't know about any other Ultraman stuff either until the early ’90s when Ultraman Toward the Future was released, and then reruns of Ultra Seven. By the way, do you know there are official beta capsule, and super-gun sets coming out at the end of the year?

Ultraman is one serious nostalgia illness, and it's one I am so happy there is no cure for.

The Artis Magistra said...

Well, I had written a lot and it refreshed automatically for some reason or re-loaded and deleted it all. I enjoyed the article and the comment. I find the villains and their plots in the series Ultraman and Ultra Seven to be genuinely terrifying and menacing even if they appear somewhat goofy characters, their goofiness is often frightening as well, and I think this would register for children as it does for adults now, even though the designs of the monsters are all of great interest too and what they are capable of or particularly into as unique factions or races. Even a hero becoming gigantic can be quite frightening, and originally Bemular was what was going to be the hero of the series, which would have been very scary, so they changed it very near the scheduled airing time supposedly and threw in the timer at the last moment as well, making Bemular the first villain of Ultraman. Paranoia, threats, menacing dark realities was a major part of Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultra Seven which were created during the lifetime of and with the supervision of the original creator. He then died and not long after it was given to his son who then died as well. The creator of the show had become a Roman Catholic from being raised a Nichiren Buddhist. The show often seems heavily influenced by both Japanese Buddhism like Pure Land Buddhism and Roman Catholicism and Christian popular folklore and demonology, as are many things produced in Japan up until today. In the new Netflix series Ultraman, there seems to be a theme about immigration laws and the strictness of Japan regarding foreigners and foreign influence and interference, a longstanding Japanese theme and issue for many hundreds of years. There are dimensions of international politics in the Ultraman and Ultra Seven series as well. There is a whole lot going on, and much more than what people might intend for children initially. As the franchise continued, it became much more pandering to marketing for toys and led to being a billion dollar industry, the third biggest character franchise in the world. Yet, if anyone reviews the old episodes of the original Ultra Q, Ultraman, Ultra Seven, and thinks about what is actually going on and being said and depicted, its definitely full of horror, suspense, paranoia, and terror and is genuinely terrifying and full of stress and gravity and high risks and stakes involved. All the stories I've seen from it are largely variations of the same thing, some terrible thing is happening and killing or hurting people, measures have to be taken to figure it out and resolve it, things reach a critical point of maximum danger or risk, and then it gets resolved and the menace is thwarted, but not before its done some major damage usually or horrible things which often aren't reversed. The aliens are frequently not only hideous, but also inconsiderate, dishonest, unfair, having all sorts of the worst traits, and not caring at all about their inhuman mania for destruction and mayhem in their maniacal plots to mass murder and invade or conquer or devour and steal the planet and its resources. The aliens really rarely have any redeeming qualities, so ending their terror is often satisfying and without much to regret or reflect on. The Narrator often chimes in at the end to emphasize the paranoia and terror and suspicion of wrongdoing lurking around every corner. I think the show had to be scary for people, even though it was enjoyed and people liked it, there is no way it wasn't acknowledged as having threatening elements in it and being pretty terrifying and stressful. One could even say Ultraman is sort of a ghost or zombie since Hayata was killed, his ressurection having at least a tinge of weird spookiness to it as involving an alien and binding together with a spirit or entity which can transform and faces demons and goblins basically.

The Artis Magistra said...

Part 2:
Even if its more like Super Sentai (Power Rangers) these days and really focused on kids, I think it was definitely something of a horror show while the original creator was around and in charge. In that sense, I don't think the manga seemed too far off, and the tv maybe couldn't even go places it wanted to because of censorship and obstructions and demands from various investors and directives. I think if it was really let loose, the show is like a dead or dying person's nightmarish fever dream that unlocks the world of the bizarre and paranoid and evil behind everything, and a world full of monsters, demons, pain, and death that is just waiting to be unleashed under the surface and behind every corner. People you think you know and can trust can suddenly start choking you because they are aliens in disguise or under the influence of some alien mechanism, you can just be walking around doing your usual activities and suddenly shot down by an alien or turned into a creature. Everything I saw of the original 3 series (Ultra Q, Ultraman, Ultra Seven) was terrifying as an adult, so I'm not sure that the heightened atmosphere of fear the show was trying to create was lost on the Japanese and Japanese children. Now maybe, since the show isn't quite like the original, but I saw a much later series episode with an alien called Sran or something, and he was pretty terrifying too and freely going about murdering, so maybe its still rather scary, but seemed a lot scarier in the original series under the original creator. The Netflix series based on the Manga from 2011 or something is also full of dark and scary elements which resemble and are made in reference to the original. The original creator said that the Ultraman suit was meant to represent rocket ships and Mars and Martian looking designs, and I think that is pretty clear to see once its explained. The giant size of Ultraman is almost as if a Martian ship or rocket has turned into a humanoid form to do battle with much more organic looking things, almost like Science vs Nature or taming and conquering nature and history since the monsters often look like dinosaurs too or mythical things from the past, maybe even superstitions and fears beaten back by futurism. I think all that was initially accidental though or unintended since the elements were so rushed and the main hero was going to be a demonic looking dinosaur lizard Bemular.