Ultraman. The word immediately conjures up images of some kind of great hero akin to what we’ve come to expect from Marvel Comics and DC Comics over the past decade. In truth, there have been several characters to bear the name Ultraman, particularly in DC Comics. Sadly, almost always, that character has been an evil version of Superman, with all of his powers but not quite as moral. In the late 1980s, actor Jerry O’Connell, fresh off co-starring in Stand By Me, was in a Canadian show aired on Philippine television called My Secret Identity. In it, O’Connell played a teenager who accidentally got superpowers and adopts the name “Ultraman.”
Yet for most Filipino children born from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the name Ultraman will always be associated with an alien hero with silver and red features and bright-bug like eyes. This April, a new Ultraman is coming to Netflix in anime form (with English subtitles and a Japanese audio track), and the nostalgia factor is expected to be strong thanks to the character’s connection to the original.
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Created by Eiji Tsuburaya back in 1966 to capitalize on the fame of kaiju or “giant monster” movies like 1954’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The original Ultraman had a simple enough concept: with the Earth constantly under attack by kaiju and alien invaders, Hayata of the Science Patrol transformed into the giant alien known as Ultraman through the Beta Capsule. Though powerful, there was a limit to his use of these powers and after three minutes, his powers would cease. It was wish fulfillment in its most basic form: fight the bad guys by turning into a superhero with fantastic abilities. And another thing that made it stand out in those days is something we take for granted now: it was presented in full color and with movie quality special effects on a weekly basis.
To be honest, I barely remember the original Ultraman. As a child, my father gave me a toy of the hero that followed with his own series in 1967, Ultra Seven. Their concepts were basically the same, with Ultra Seven just having more red in his costume and changes in their headgear, but the human Dan Moroboshi still battled alien threats after transforming into Ultra Seven. An animated motion picture was also produced further expanding the story of these “Ultra” characters in the 1980s, establishing them as a race of alien heroes protecting the Earth.
Swept by superheroes
Ultraman is one of the earliest examples of Japanese tokusatsu heroes, or essentially, a film or show that uses many special effects. The genre eventually spawned several familiar names on Philippine television over the past 40 years including Himitsu Sentai Goranger (or Star Rangers), the first Super Sentai team which had five rangers transforming into a colorful strikeforce); Kamen Rider (or Masked Rider), a hero who was experimented on and transforms into a cyborg riding a souped up motorcycle; Uchuu Keiji Shaider (the third in a series of metal-clad “Space Sheriffs” and the most popular in the Philippines), Chodenshi Bioman; Hikari Sentai Maskman; Chojin Sentai Jetman; and the subsequent Power Rangers shows that Saban Productions adapted for American audiences.
During the initial run of Ultraman, grade schoolers clamored for merchandise of the characters from the show, something that Star Wars and George Lucas would take to the next level almost a decade later. Book publishers created guidebooks for vehicles and characters that appeared on the program while Tsuburaya himself would fan the flames further by putting on events that showed Ultraman beating up his enemies in front of a live audience. These days, most tokusatsu shows have institutionalized this practice and generations of Japanese children have grown up seeing their characters at live events and played with show-related merchandise on top of anticipating a new episode every week.
In fact, Ultraman has been such a popular series and character in Japan that there have been several subsequent shows in the “Ultra Series” that have been airing weekly every year since the 1960s. The original Ultraman remains a symbol of heroism in Japan, and his likeness can be seen in various forms including toys, stamps, lunchboxes, etc.
Despite this, Ultraman hasn’t been as much of a hit in America as Power Rangers or even the Masked Rider franchise. It has been suggested that one of the reasons for this is US broadcast regulations at the time prohibited advertising on related products in the same time frame that a show aired. Hence, it was extremely difficult for merchandise from the show to be sold and none of the associated merchandise was imported to the US in quantities of note.
Perhaps another reason was the militaristic nature of the series. After all, Ultraman and the Science Patrol served the Japanese government and was basically an extension of their military. Add to that the sometimes gory fights that Ultraman engaged in when battling kaiju and one can see why it was a uphill battle for the character to break through in America.
With the Philippines long being fascinated with Japanese television and movies, it is no surprise at all that Ultraman and his ilk still resonate with many of us. Though not quite as resonant as Voltes V, Mazinger Z, or the other giant robots of the day, enough episodes and merchandise made it from our Asian neighbor to our shores that they trigger good memories for kids of that era. Reruns and Tagalized dubs subsequently aired in the following decades to add to that wave even more.
This coming animated series on Netflix is intriguing not only because it is in cartoon form, but from the looks of the trailer, it will serve as a direct sequel to the series from 1966. Consider us excited for the battles, the transformation sequences, and the stories that we’ve come to expect from this franchise.
Ultraman will be streamed on Netflix starting April.