Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Robert Hood
You haven’t experienced the world of monsters until you’ve watched at least one Ultraman series.
Ultraman is a Japanese-produced SF/monster franchise that is only marginally known in the West (in particular to otaku — as obsessive fans are called in Japan — and others interested in tokusatsu, or Japanese special effects television programs and movies), but which rivals Godzilla in terms of consistent, ongoing production, high ratings and home-grown box-office success.
So Who Is Ultraman?
Ultraman (aka Urutoraman) is a superhero/giant monster (kaiju) hybrid that began life as a TV series in 1967 and has been revisited more-or-less without pause ever since — as a string of successful TV shows and related cinema-release films, and in the form of live stage events. The latest manifestation is a movie celebrating the 45th anniversary of Ultraman: Urutoraman Zero The Movie Chou Kessen! Beriaru Ginga Teikoku [lit. Ultraman Zero The Movie: Super Decisive Battle! Belial’s Galactic Empire] (2010; dir. Yuichi Abe) — showing that the Japanese never stint on descriptive titles!
The first Ultraman TV series — 39 episodes that aired between 17 July 1966 and 9 April 1967 — was dubbed and aired in the US and elsewhere, as were one or two other series and films (such as 1996/97’s Ultraman Tiga and the movie Ultraman: The Next from 2004). Mostly though, neither the shows nor movies make it to the West, even via DVD. One, Ultraman: Towards the Future (aka Ultraman Great) was made in Australia with a mixed Japanese/Australian crew, and starred Aussie actors such as Gus Mercurio and Gia Carides — yet it was never shown here, though overseas DVD versions now exist.
Created by special-effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya (who was the man behind all the early Godzilla/Gojira SFX work and most of Toho’s live-action SF and monster movies) and the company he set up for the purpose, Ultraman is a 40-metre tall (or more) humanoid giant from “The Land of Light” in the distant Nebula M78, who manifests through a human “host” and displays a wide range of powers, including flight, a multitude of ray weapons, telekinetic abilities and energy/matter manipulation skills.
Each new series sees the introduction of a new Ultraman (such as Ultra Seven, Ultraman Zoffy, Ultraman Jack, Ultraman Tiga, Ultraman Cosmos, Ultraman Mebius etc.), for Ultraman comes from a large altruistic “family” willing to defend people against monsters anywhere in the universe (though particularly focusing on Earth). Classed as “children’s” or at least “family-oriented” entertainment, each new series varies the basic tropes slightly and often changes the tone of the franchise. One of the Ultramen, Zearth, starred in two short films during the mid-1990s that were comedic in nature, even slapstick, and 2004’s Ultraman Nexus was part of a re-conceptualising of the franchise that resulted in a series that was dark, adult and complex — SF-monster-noir, as it were. This one thrilled and excited otaku like me but rated badly on Saturday morning children’s television in Japan (where network programmers failed to notice that the show wasn’t suited to that particular demographic). Subsequent Ultraman TV shows pulled back into the colourful, “family viewing” sphere and took a somewhat retro, if utterly self-aware, stance. Recent cinema releases, however, have become action-packed, violent and surreal, appealing to teen and young-adult audiences as well as older fans. They are set largely in the depths of space and on alien planets — and garnish their traditional suitmation SFX techniques with heavy doses of CGI.
Sometimes the Ultramen come together to fight armies of Evil Beings, as in Daikessen! Cho Urutora Hachi Urutora Kyodai [lit. Decisive Battle! The Eight Super Ultra Brothers] (2008; dir. Takeshi Yagi). There are recurrent baddies — both sentient aliens and rampant monsters. Yet, in Ultraman Cosmos from 2001/2002 Tsuburaya Productions decided to take a different tack — this Ultraman was a kinder, gentler Ultraman, forcing in some sense a re-defining of the idea of strength. Cosmos and his human host (Musashi, played by Takayasu Sugiura) took the view that the monsters occupy a legitimate place in the scheme of things. The world is theirs as much as humanity’s, and the struggle for the humans therefore becomes one of finding a way of avoiding the inevitable destruction the kaiju cause without actually killing or badly injuring them. This creates internal conflict and puts the Earth Defense Force at odds with members of the country’s more traditional military units. There are inevitable and tragic failures. In the course of its lengthy run, the show managed to examine the many implications of this theme, including the ethical dilemma inherent in self-defense, that is, how do you resist violence without resorting to violence, and in what circumstances is it simply unavoidable?
Over the years, in fact, the mythology behind Ultraman and his family has become increasingly complex. I won’t even attempt to list all the Ultramen or their variations, or to catalogue the monsters — that would require an encyclopedic effort that isn’t appropriate here. Check out a lot of them in the painting by Toshio Okazaki below — click on it to enlarge.
The Monsters of the Ultraverse
Weird to begin with, the monsters of the Ultraverse have become some of the most bizarre you can imagine. One by one (or even in groups) they stomp into view: gigantic mutant reptiles of all kinds (the most common), sky-filling venomous blobs, huge deformed snails that shoot laser beams from their eye-stalks, multi-headed insectivorous freaks, gargantuan bovine thingamajigs, vast eye-monsters on thin wobbly legs (with cat-tails and a malicious meow, would you believe?), elephantine chimaeras, malformed mega-scorpions with death rays in their stingers — the parade of monstrous absurdities is endless.
But why — and why has the franchise survived for so long while being so essentially formulaic?
Episode 29 of the 2005 Ultraman Max series asks this very question in this form: “Why Do Monsters Keep Appearing?”
Over the total span of the Ultra series and movies, various approaches to answering it have been offered. Some are much what we’d expect, harkening back to themes common from other daikaiju eiga, plot elements such as nuclear mutation, environmental pollution and alien invasion. After reaching an advanced level of development (so one argument goes), humanity must face trial by monsters, where the monsters are metaphors for the problems caused by technology and an expanding population. Other answers are much more self-referential and even more metaphysical. In the course of the above mentioned Ultraman Max episode we are offered the following:
- A metaphorical view: kaiju and their destructive nature are a function of Japan’s unique geographical instability. They represent the fear of earthquakes.
- An existentialist view: the monsters simply exist and that’s all there is to it. There’s no use questioning their existence. They are a fact of nature.
- A sociological view: kaiju have been imagined since ancient times and have become a core component of the Japanese psyche.
- A metaphysical view: kaiju are an image of great power and have fired the imaginations of so many people since childhood (a time in which personal power is at a low point) that monsters have been manifested via the gestalt human psyche into (the show’s) reality.
- In short, the show says, there may not be one answer.
Yet the narrative structure of Ultraman Max episode 29 itself offers its own answer by referencing early Ultraman shows via cameo appearances by the original cast members and the use of monsters from those early shows. The monsters keep appearing, it suggests, because that’s what Ultraman is about: a big costumed hero from space, in league with a bunch of human defenders, fighting big multi-formed monsters from under the Earth, from outer space, from other dimensions — or at any rate from somewhere. This show is a variant of the daikaiju eiga, or giant monster film, sub-genre of Japanese fantasy cinema, and without the monsters (or, more correctly, kaiju) there is no Ultraman. So of course the monsters must appear. They don’t have a choice.
But more than that the monsters are what viewers want, and they’ve wanted them with undying (if occasionally fluctuating) enthusiasm for 45 years. They are colourful and they are fun to watch and to imagine. We love Ultraman’s monsters. Keep giving them to us! they cry.
There is one other aspect to mention: A ritualistic view, as it were, the ritual of the monster appearing week after week, of Ultraman fighting it and of all the details and variants of plot in-between. It’s not just repetition, you see. Repetition merely recreates the same structures through lack of imagination on the part of creators, with little essential variation and no real commitment. Ritual follows archetypal base patterns in order to express meaning — and to encourage meditation on that meaning — through the performance of certain symbolic actions. It embraces the audience, makes them feel comfortable, while offering a foundation upon which the creative imagination of its creators can build a rich, entertaining structure of variations on the theme. That’s a major purpose that Ultraman’s Monsters serve.
Of course, all this self-referential rationalistion suggests a sort of adult sensibility at odds with the show’s main demographic — children. But that’s one of the appeals of Ultraman. As with shows such as the long-running British SF/fantasy series Dr Who, Ultraman appeals to children on a base level while maintaining enough story appeal and variable sophistication of concept to keep adults interested as well. As a generalisation, it seems to me that the Japanese are rather good at this; they’ve certainly mastered it in their anime. They expertly tap the child in the adult and are able to exploit that inner child’s hunger for the incredible. This means the show rarely plumbs the very darkest depths of human nature (though it touches on it at times) and through most of its history has moderated violence with cartoon-like absurdity. By in fact reveling in absurdity, it succeeds in creating a metaphorical structure that is unique, energetic and thoroughly entertaining for all ages.
- August Ragone, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, Chronicle Books, 2007. An excellent book on the man who invented it all.
- Ultrafanz.blogspot: Heaps of information and you can even view whole episodes here.
- Wikipedia entry: Check under the specific names of Ultra characters as well.
- Searching on ScifiJapan will also give you some excellent information.
- The large painting by Toshio Okazaki was published in Shōgakukan’s 1979 edition of Ultra Kaiju (Shōgakukan Nyūmon Hyakka Series #97).