Whenever the phrase “Japanese super-hero” is mentioned, Ultraman is usually the first thought that comes to mind. And for good reason: he’s arguably the most recognizable pop culture icon from the land of the rising sun that wasn’t originally an manga character, since his legacy spans half a century at the time of this writing.
Realistically speaking, it’s not feasible to publish a full account of Ultraman’s history in an online article such as this. This kind of topic deserves a coffee table book at the very least to do it justice. (Are you listening, Insight Editions?) So consider this my attempt at chronicling the major details from each installment in the Ultraman TV and film franchise until something more comprehensive comes along.
The creation of the Ultraman television series was overseen by former head of Toho Studio’s Visual Effects department, Eiji Tsuburaya, who reshaped the landscape of special effects-heavy cinema. His work has influenced everything from disaster flicks to B-movies to hand-drawn animation to popcorn blockbusters to Saturday morning TV shows. As a child, his life was changed by seeing King Kong on the big screen. He dedicated the rest of his life to inspiring that same sense of wonder in others, which lead to the creation of Godzilla, Mothra, and an entire film genre.
Ultra Q (TV Series, 1966)
The first official installment in the Ultra series doesn’t even have Ultraman in it. Intended to emulate Western paranormal TV shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, Ultra Q ended up being a late night drive-in precursor to The X-Files instead.
Originally titled Unbalanced, the show was renamed Ultra Q partly due to a parallel bar technique called Ultra C that won gymnast Yukio Endo three gold medals (plus a silver one too) at the 1964 Summer Olympics. Bunya Suzuki, a sports announcer for NHK, would shout “Ultra!” each time Endo scored high marks, and thus the word became an ear meme. The Q suffix was Tsuburaya’s idea to designate “question” and “quest”, but this was most likely influenced by the suits at TBS, since Ultra Q’s lead-in was the immensely popular anime Obake no Q-tarō, affectionately known as Obake Q at the time.
Ultra Q turned out to be the most expensive television series ever produced for its time. Toho was cranking out the equivalent of one short special-effects heavy blockbuster a week, something practically unheard of during the black and white era. The storyline of the series followed the weird adventures of renowned pilot and author Jun Manjoume, his apprentice Ippei Togawa and journalist Yuriko Edogawa.
Over the course of 28 episodes, the trio investigated blood-sucking flowers, giant spiders carrying the reincarnated spirits of little girls, and meteorites that gave birth to adorably disgusting baby monsters. Tetsuo Kinjo, acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, helped Eiji develop these strange new visions into the living rooms of unsuspecting families in Japan.
If some of these kaiju look familiar, it’s because Toho gave Eiji Tsyburaya free reign over their props department to help create his own studio’s first episodic monster series. Remember that giant octopus from King Kong vs. Godzilla? He goes by Sudar now. Okay, what about King Kong and Godzilla from King Kong vs. Godzilla? Just making sure! Well, now they go by Goro and Gomess, respectively. Oh, and don’t mistake Litra and the accompanying Larugeus for tiny Rodans; you might offend someone. Repurposing these familiar creatures taken from previous installments in Tsuburaya’s ouevre was a fortunate sign of things to come, if not a symbolic way to pass the tradition from the silver screen to the small one.
As Ultra Q is technically a horror anthology series that doesn’t contribute anything meaningful to Ultraman’s already overcrowded continuity, I recommend that any completists out there watch it as a companion series only. Yes, there are meta-references to Ultra Q sprinkled throughout future Ultra series, like the reappearance of certain notable kaiju in Heisei era pay-per-view seasons which we’ll get to later on.
But recognizing these easter eggs aren’t essential to understanding the overarching narrative of the franchise, if one actually exists. Ultra Q should be viewed on its own merits, as a far-out love letter to matinee monster mayhem from one of its progenitors, and a groundbreaking piece of crossover entertainment that was ahead of its time. Even if it stars no giant alien hero, Ultra Q has its own legacy that still lasts to this day.
Tsuburaya Productions would go on to realize the original vision its founder had for Ultra Q when Horror Theater Unbalance aired on Fuji TV in 1973.
Ultraman (TV Series, 1966–1967)
The idea for Ultraman came about when three different concept pitches that Tsuburaya and Kinjo were working on for TBS fused together into one iconic symbol of intergalactic protection. The first, known as WoO, was a Doctor Who like series about the adventures of a young girl and a funny looking monster with big eyes. This would later be reimagined as Bio Planet Woo in 2006, which had a distinctly Ultraman-ish flavor to it.
The second was Scientific Special Search Party: Bemular. It followed the adventures of a group called the Science Patrol who disguised themselves an art/photography team by day and tracked monsters and aliens by night. One of its members obtains the power to transform into Bemular, a giant winged monster who can fight other giant winged monsters, and keeps it a secret from the rest of his friends. Bemular’s appearance in early concept art is noteable for being similar in design to the eponymous creature from 1967’s Gappa, the Triphibian Monster.
Because the prospect of one good monster fighting an evil monster was deemed too confusing from a visual storytelling perspective, a third concept was then developed: Redman. The show would feature a superhero more akin to Devilman than Superman – a horned giant who would hunt down and kill the evil aliens who destroyed his distant home planet here on ours. Although this concept morphed into what we now all know and love, the idea of Redman would later be recycled as a notorious short-form toku series consisting of nothing but ridiculously sloggy kaiju wrestling footage.
When a fourth pitch was in order, artist Toru Narita took his concept art of Redman and came up with a new hero that was never seen before – one that looked new and unusual yet marketable enough to western audiences according to input received from the TBS execs. Coming up with a look that balanced friendly and weird proved to be a massive undertaking for Narita, as he himself described in his journals.
Being a passionate sculptor, Narita dropped the pen and paper after a while and switched to sculpting Ultraman’s face with both hands. Because of this, there is no final concept sketch of it anywhere. The design process for Ultraman was so trial and error, in fact, that the iconic Color Timer was added on at the last minute, clashing with Narita’s intent to keep the costume simple – which is why he hated it.
Ultraman debuted on July 17, 1996 to starstruck families across Japan. It introduced us to Hayata Shin, a member of the Scientific Special Search Party (SSSP), who was sent to investigate a mysterious blue sphere that landed at Lake Ryomagori. But when an equally mysterious red sphere flies onto the scene and strikes his aircraft, Hayata is left close to death in the accident. Ultraman, who emerges from the red sphere, feels such a great deal of remorse about this accident that he bonds their lives together to in order to save Hayata, sensing his pure heart. Thus the original Ultraman is born, and ready to throw down with Bemlar, the pilot of the blue sphere: an alien monster loosely based on Narita’s concept artwork for the original pitch of the series, except more reptilian.
Eiji Tsuburaya still had access to Toho’s effects department, so he’d bring over props whenever he needed to on a case-by-case basis during Ultraman’s legendary run. The most notorious of these instances is from Episode 10: “The Mysterious Dinosaur Base!”, where Ultraman fights a giant lizard named Jirass, a kaiju that was kitbashed from the Godzilla suit featured in Mothra vs. Godzilla (MosuGoji) and the head of another version of the suit used in 1965’s Invasion of the Astro Monster (DaisensoGoji). This was a creative solution to a budgetary constraint when his original design was deemed too expensive.
It’s obvious Tsuburaya was also taking this opportunity to pay homage to his own canon with tongue firmly planted in cheek. That Jirass is intended to be a sendup of Gojira is not downplayed whatsoever, despite the frilly collar that was glued on around his neck (which quickly gets ripped off in one of the most memorable moments from the show).
In the series finale, “Farewell, Ultraman” (Ep. 39), an evil alien race known as the Zettons begin their invasion of planet Earth. Their monster, also called Zetton, duels it out with Ultraman and damages his Color Timer in the process, putting his life in jeopardy. After the Science Patrol destroys the kaiju themselves in a heroic act of unassisted bravery, another Ultraman suddenly appears from the sky in another “travel sphere”. It’s Zoffy, an Ultra of higher rank – and someone you should get used to seeing around.
In the original Japanense version of this episode, Zoffy asks Ultraman to reconsider staying fused with Hayata’s life, warning that it endangers his own. He then separates their life forces, takes Ultraman back to Nebula M78, and leaves Hayata with no recollection of what happened.
The English dub, however, portrays these events just a little differently. Instead of warning him, Zoffy scolds the other Ultra for losing against the monster, almost like a superior officer from the military would. Then he separates the two, taking Ultraman back to their home galaxy for repairs, but Ultraman insists that he return to Hayata one day. Hayata retains his memory of what happened in this version and joins his friends in saying goodbye to his giant spirit protector.
To this day, Ultraman is as fun to watch as it is timeless. The effects might look dated, but they still induce a sense of wonder that many of today’s elaborate CGI sequences don’t. Mostly though, each episode establishes the tropes that the rest of the Ultra Series will rely on. For example, the SSSP is the first of countless support teams that both investigate and assist Ultraman, who’s usually hiding in their midst.
Ultraseven (TV Series, 1967–1968)
Tsubaraya didn’t take following up to his (latest) overnight pop culture sensation lightly. In fact, it motivated him and writer Kinjo to create what was intended to be the final entry in the Ultra series: Ultraseven, a figure more recognizable than Ultraman himself depending on where you’re at in the world.
This time around, Toru Narita based Ultraseven’s character design on the armor of medieval knights. This is most apparent when looking at his head and crest. Other early concept art reveals that Seven could have been less of an alien and more of an astronaut. He also could have been the first blue colored Ultra, thirty years ahead of Agul from 1998’s Ultraman Gaia.
Despite the instant classic appeal that its predecessor had, Ultraseven is considered one of the most groundbreaking science fiction television shows in Japan. And no wonder; it’s a sophisticated experiment in genre-bending television that also happens to feature giant kaiju smackdowns shoehorned into the last few minutes.
Seeing as it’s the final installment in the Ultraman series from the 1960s, Ultraseven is quite literally a trip. The special effects, writing and production value even feel higher than even some of the entries that came after it.
The story centers on another Ultra being named Ultraseven (or Seven) who stumbles upon Earth while working on an assignment to map out the Milky Way. Pulling a Kal-El, he disguises himself as a human named Dan Moroboshi and signs up with the Ultra Garrison, an Earth defense force that was commissioned three years after the Zetton invasion at the end of Ultraman.
Ironically enough, Dan’s designation is “Ultra Six”. The rest of the team gave the unofficial title of “Ultra Seven” to Ultraseven, his alter ego. Makes sense, right?
At various points in the series, Dan called upon three different Capsule Monsters that he “tamed” when he needed extra help: Windom, a Mechagodzilla type helper; Miclas, a Buffalo themed creature; and Agira, a very stoned looking triceratops with only one horn. (Does that make it a unieratops?) They come in handy when he’s incognito, because, for the most part, Seven has it covered during battle. He wasn’t burdened with the same time constraint rule that some of his peers are, granting him a greater sense of agency on our planet overall. The Color Timer on his head was just a gauge for how much damage he had taken instead and acted much like a health bar would. This would go on to inspire a trend that Ultramen from the Heisei Era would later adopt.
By the way, Seven happens to be one of the only Ultras who’s displayed a ton of different techniques (or attacks) during battle as well, making him one of the most skilled fighters in the Ultra family. For instance, he has many different ray beams to blow shit up, psychokinetic abilities that put kaiju under psychic thrall, and various other random tricks Dan could pull out of nowhere, even in all of the appearances he still makes to this day because he’s that fucking cool.
Whereas Ultraman was full of notorious monsters that are still being referenced in contempoary series, Ultraseven’s rogue gallery wasn’t nearly as distinctive. This was further indication that the show was meant to push the envelope in a different way, allocating more budget to other parts of the production.
But wait! What am I thinking!? This is the show that gave us Dinosaur Tank, the mobile assault vehicle that’s also a dinosaur. Convenience at last.
There is one other infamous kaiju from Ultraseven – but not infamous in a good way. Episode 12: “From a Planet With Love” features a monster known as Alien Spell, whos designed to resemble hibakusha (survivors of the atom bomb), which was obviously considered to be in very poor taste. Hence why this episode was banned from Japan forever. Seriously. You can’t find it anywhere, especially on any home video release. And yet it did air twice in the USA when Cinar’s cheesy yet loveable dub called Ultra 7 ran on the TNT network during the mid-1990s.
This series ends with another mass scale invasion of Earth, this time from a race called Ghos. Seven’s Superior (who looks exactly like him) appears to Dan and tells him that must stop transforming because of all the damage his Ultra body has accrued from the battles he’s fought. Dan ignores his Superior’s advice multiple times in order to help defend the Earth, further eroding his condition in the process.
After the day is saved, Garrison member and love-interest Anne reveals to the rest of the team what Ultraseven told her before he left for the Land of Light in M78: that he was actually Dan.
(Ultraseven’s Superior was never seen or heard from again, btw.)
Because of its high reputation and insanely devoted following, Ultraseven (the show) has more sequel series than any other show in the Ultra canon to date. (Believe me, that’s saying a whole hell of a lot.) You can check out all episodes of Ultraseven streaming on ShoutFactoryTV. I highly suggest you do, even if you’re on the fence about his character design. It’s a wild ride.
The Return of Ultraman (TV Series, 1971–1972)
After Eiji Tsuburaya passed away in 1970, his son Hajime continued the legacy his father built by proposing a new series that would bring the magic back. Enter Return of Ultraman, a show that distinguishes itself from Ultraseven by amping up the action elements rather than the paranoid schizophrenia.
Hideki Go, a young race car driver, dies while saving a young boy and a dog from falling rubble during a fight between two kaiju (Takkong and Zazahn) in Tokyo. Everyone considers him a hero, including the Monster Attack Team (MAT). But so does a new mysterious Ultra being who watches him from afar. Like the rest of his family, this Ultra chooses to bond his life forces together an altruistic male mortal to save his life. MAT is so astonished at his revival, they ask him to join their ranks.
Unlike his predecessors, Go doesn’t need a henshin device to transform into Ultraman. Rather, this Ultraman calls the shots, deciding when to henshin and when not to. If you’re confused on what to call this Ultraman, don’t worry. He’s going to get his own name sometime in the ‘80s because of real-life licensing issues. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
Return of Ultraman nodded to its past by establishing a loosely shared continuity with Ultraman and Ultraseven by having Ultra heroes from both shows make appearances to help out when Go needed it. For example, Seven made a glorified cameo in Episode 18: “Ultraseven Arrives!” just to give “New Ultraman” the Ultra Bracelet so he could chop up Bemstar like a wheel of gouda. This was a neat little sequence that has most definitely been used as a template for toku crossovers for many years to come.
During Episodes 37 & 38 of the series, “Returning Ultraman” faced his greatest challenge when Alien Nackle, Black King and two resurrected monsters plotted his execution. The original Ultraman and Seven both come to his aid in a classic two-parter that’s still being discussed to this day. Both of the actors who portrayed Dan and Hayata, made appearances, servicing the fans both new and old appropriately.
Return of Ultraman is perhaps the most straightforward effort from the Showa era. It’s an adventure show without much of the nuance, mystery, or menace found lurking in the original attempts that Eiji Tsuburaya helmed. Yet the show still carries the spirit of Ultraman with pride, and it’s not afraid to let it shine.
Yes, Return is more episodic than its elders, with little to no serialization. But the series did accomplish a milestone far more important in the long run – establishing a (mostly solid) shared continuity, even if it retconned a few things here and there to make it work.
The series finale, Episode 51: “The 5 Ultra Pledges”, brings everything full circle when Go faces one of Ultraman’s most deadliest threats – the Zetton race. After a fateful battle in which Go is presumed dead, both he and “Returning Ultraman” (I promise we’ll get to his official name soon) fly off to M78…for now.
Ultraman Ace (TV Series, 1972–1973)
I think it’s about time for a huge tonal shift in this franchise, don’t you? Ace is precisely that, as it marks a turning point in which the Ultra franchise chooses to fully embrace its true nature as a children’s superhero adventure program, leaving behind the weird science motif it clung onto since before it began. Ace is also the point where Ultraman became more akin to Kamen Rider, as that’s who its main competitor was at the time.
Although there’s more action and suspense than ever, the special effects are not what they used to be. In short: Ultraman Ace is slightly more campy and over-the-top than everything that came before it. And, oddly enough, it’s kinda more enjoyable because of that.
Ace is the first Ultra hero made up of two humans instead of one (much like Kamen Rider W would be decades later): Seiji Hokuto and Yuko Minami. This also makes Ace the first Ultra hero have a female host as well, which is quite the historical landmark. The show will later back out of this for – you guessed it – blatantly sexist reasons. The dynamic duo was injured while saving the lives of helpless children during an attack from Yapool, the series’ big bad who will go on to become a recurring villain in the franchise.
The Ultra Brothers – Ultraman, Zoffy, Seven, “New/Returning Ultraman” (to be renamed soon) and Ace (but not Seven’s Superior) – revive the two because of their brave and selfless deeds, as is customary with Ultra folk. Ace volunteers to be the catalyst for this, bonding his lifeforce to theirs this time around. Thus, Hokuto and Minami can henshin into Ace by doing flying somersaults in the air together. I’m sure they rehearsed this for a few hours every night on a very large trampoline in somebody’s backyard. I mean, they just had to. It’s distinctly…“ULTRA!” (Get it?)
Ace picked up the house of continutity that Jack built and put on an extra wing or two, just for fun. Ultramen of the past were seen and heard from much more frequently than ever, as did characters from their respective series. Episode 10: “Decisive Battle! Ace vs Hideki Goh!” saw the return of, you guessed it, Hedeki Go – or an alien imposter version of him, anyway. The Ace duo is on the case, and so is MAT who must stop this doppelganger from harming the world.
“Execution! The Five Ultra Brothers” (Episode 13) finds the Ultra Brothers in a messianic death trap designed by Yapool to crucify them all on Planet Golgota. Ace breaks free to save the day. In the second half of this saga, “The Five Stars that Scatter Throughout the Galaxy” (Episode 14), Yapool creates Ace Killer, a vessel for the powers and abilities he stole from the rest of the Brothers that Ace must defeat on his own in one of the most iconic sequences from the classic era.
In Episodes 26 and 27, all five Brothers are turned into jade statues by Hipporito. After the MAT ran around trying to defend themsevles without any Ultra assistance, Ultra Father comes down to earth, making his first appearance! Sadly, his debut is cut short when his Color Timer runs out of juice during the battle, since he used up most of it just getting to Earth. Oops. In a heart-wrenching moment, Ultra Father dies while saving his sons, who fly his body back to M78 after their bittersweet victory.
Immediately after this, Ultraman Ace writes out one of its main characters. Yuko Minami is revealed to be a lunar princess in Episode 28: “Farewell Yuko, Sister of the Moon“, and is quickly sent flying back to it. She reveals her backstory to Seiji before they defeat Lunatyx, a monster that had destroyed her ancient city, together as Ace once last time. The episode itself is highly ethereal, even if mostly bullshit to appease the sexist audience members who reportedly wrote in complaining about her existence on the show.
Zoffy, everyone’s favorite Ultra sibling, would also make cameos here and there, like the time when MAT tried to take on Yapool in its own dimension (Episode 23: “Comeback! Zoffy Now Arrives“) or whenever Ace needed new weapons (Episodes 6 & 35).
Ultraman Taro (TV Series, 1973–1974)
The next chapter in Ultraman’s legacy was one of its most divisive. It further infantilized a program that used to be just as much about nuanced sci-fi/horror as it was about colossal kaiju mayhem. The older fans who were turned off by Ace’s campy tone were up in arms over Taro’s even campier nature, as the show took Ultraman to a more family-friendlier place than was expected.
Ultraman Taro was named Taro for two reasons. One, because it was the most common boy’s name in Japan at the time. Two, because it’s also happens to be the most common name for young male characters in otogi-banashis (Japanese fairy tales), which was intended to reflect the childlike nature of the series. This alienated many longtime fans who remembered what Ultraman used to be: a dramatic action thriller written for all ages, not a live action cartoon that talked down to its core fanbase like Taro did.
Taro‘s tall tale begins when Higashi Kotaro, aspiring championship boxer, plants a strange seed in the ground that rapidly blossoms into Astromons – a creature so terrible it swallows Yapool’s final lingering kaiju (Oil Drinker) whole through the gaping slimy mouth that’s right in the middle of its chest. With the help of ZAT (Zariba of All Territory), he helps vanquish his accidental creation and (of course) gets wounded in the process.
Guess which Ultra revives the endangered altruistic mortal this time around? No, not Ultraman Taro. That would be too easy. It’s the best mommy ever: Ultra Mother (or Mother of Ultra, as she likes to be called).
Ultra Mother sends her five sons to scoop up the dying Kotaro from the wreckage and take him to M78 which is blanketed with aurora borealis this time. There she has the Brothers combine their Ultra powers and channel them into Kotaro. Thus Ultraman Taro is born. He’s here to do whatever all his other sibilings did, but in a slightly alterered costume. Hell yeah!
Speaking of costumes, ZAT’s are ridiculous. Take the helmets for example. Are those recycled containers of Cheer? I’m being way too kind here. Truth is, they ugly. They real ugly. Uglier than Hedorah’s momma ugly.
Look, I can see why this was frowned upon at the time it aired, but going on full-on fantasy gave the Ultra series the space it needed to finally explore a realm that was only a figment of everyone’s imagnation thus far: Nebula M78.
During episodes 24-25 of the series, Ultraman Taro whisks the audience away to the Land of Light, where we’re treated to a truncated history lesson of Nebula M78 from Zoffy, complete with cute little illustrations to boot. According to him, the sun of their galaxy had exploded 30,000 years ago which left most of the population dead. Thus an artificial sun was built by the scientists of Nebula M78, which restored light and peace to their home planet. But soon after that, Alien Empera invaded their world with his monster troops, starting a war.
While defending their world from the space kaiju, he met Ultra Mother after being injured. They formed a union and set up the Ultra Guard together. A giant landmark known as the Ultra Tower was built to commemorate the brave Ultra warriors who fought to save Nebula M78. A giant fire blazes on top around the Ultra Bell, a silver bell that protects the peace of the universe.
The Six Ultra Brothers agree to take the Ultra Bell to earth to save the humans from evil space alien Murora and the dark cloud it brought with it. The preceding five merge into Taro’s body to withstand the protective fire and flies it down to the third rock from the sun. The Ultra dudes hold the bell like it’s a power cannon and peal the shit out of it, saving the day and ringing in some Christmas cheer early.
The brothers reunite in Episodes 33 & 34 to stop Alien Temperor (who was originally supposed to be Alien Empera) from – what else – destroying Earth. This time, the five elders inhabit the bodies of five ZAT members who are assumed to be dead. (They also start wearing these weird leather outfits.) In Episode 39, both Yuko, princess of the moon, and Ultra Father come down to help Taro make giant mochi to stop a giant mochi-monster. (It’s surprisingly more emotional than it sounds.)
Taro ends on a quiet note, with Kotaro relenquishing his henshin badge back to Ultra Mother so he could prove to his young friend Kenichi that humans can take down giant aliens without super powers. After he saves the world in an over-the-top sequence, Kotaro wanders off into Tokyo, looking for his next adventure.
Ultraman Leo (TV Series, 1974–1975)
Fresh off the heels of the Showa era’s most fantastical series comes Leo, the darkest and most unrelenting of the bunch. Tsuburaya created Leo in hopes to win back the adult audience who was disgusted by Taro’s childish tone. What happened instead? The Ultra series suffered the lowest ratings it had ever gotten. The series was so dark that the target audience of young children were too traumatized by a weekly dose of horror movie level violence and gratuitous and excruciating training sequences.
Leo is one of the heaviest Tokus I’ve ever sat through, and that’s coming from someone who’s seen Liveman, Agito, Metalder, and (some of) Garo. I can’t imagine how 8 year-old Japanese kids must have felt. But its grindhouse brutality, a time capsule of ‘70s explotation cinema, is precisely what makes it such an entertaining watch for folks like you and I in the here and now.
Ultraman Leo starts off with a desperate three-way battle in the ocean between Ultraseven, Alien Magma, and the Giras Brothers. Ultraseven loses the fight, gets his leg broken in the process. Out of nowhere, a new Ultraman shows up to save him – it’s Leo, a being from Nebula L77 in the Leo Constellation. Thus a new alliance is formed between Seven’s alter ego, Dan Moroboshi, and Leo’s, Gen Ohtori, who works for the Sports Club.
Because of Dan’s injury, he can no longer transform into Ultraseven. So he insists that Gen join the MAC (Monster Attacking Crew), the latest in a long line of brightly colored fictional defense forces of questionable effectiveness, to take his place as the secret Ultra defender of the group. Gen agrees, and so begins an abusive mentorship that is arguably Leo’s most stressful ingredient, despite the graphic violence and mass destruction we are subjected to every five minutes.
If you liked Dan in Ultraseven and thought he was a nice stand up guy that was somewhat relatable and didn’t have any power issues, get ready to meet the older, stuffier, dickier Dan from Leo. I want to use the term character assassination here, but I feel like Dan would hunt me down with a tire iron if I did. Yes, I realize that he’s a fictional character, but Leo’s iteration of Dan is just that much of an asshole.
As a mentor, Dan is hard on Gen, and I mean hard. What happens when Gen fails? Dan berates him, wails on him with his cane, then sends him off to the mountains to punch sharp wooden spikes for two weeks. What happens when Gen succeeds? Dan berates him, wails on him with his cane, then sends him to the mountains to punch sharp wooden spikes for two weeks. Yeah, not much love, is there?
If you think that’s bad, wait ‘til you see the episode where Dan runs Gen over with his car as a “training exercise.” It would make one hell of a Geico ad.
I get why Dan is being such a hard-ass. The fate of the world is at stake, as are innocent people’s lives (specifically those of enthusiastic Japanese children wearing brightly colored sweaters). But why wasn’t he this way with the other Ultramen before Leo? Why didn’t he soar down and give Taro a whoopin’ when he messed up?
Also, since we’re on the topic, why can’t Ultraseven’s Superior fly down and carry him back to the Land of Light to heal the condition that’s preventing him from transforming back into his original form? Is he still pissed that he disobeyed his orders? Did Ultra Mom ground him or something?
(Hold on, am I actually over-thinking a tokusatsu program right now? In public? What am I doing with my life?)
Enough about Dan. I mentioned there’d be violence earlier, didn’t I? Ultraman Leo has the most fucked up toku death I’ve ever seen. In Episode 3, a monster named Alien Tsuruk stalks one of the MAC members when he heads home with his kids one night. Tsuruk leaps out and slices the man’s fucking torso off in front of his children! Then he runs off.
What happens afterward? A sadistically lingering shot in which the boy stares at his father’s mutilated corpse in shock. Yeah, this ain’t Astroboy. This is Ultraman Leo, bitch. Nobody’s safe. Not even the main characters.
If this sounds too disturbing for you, Leo’s probably not going to be high on your watch list. It’s hands down the grittiest, most extreme incarnation of Ultraman, perhaps out of any era. Gone is the surreal, artsy window dressings that used to be the franchise’s bread and butter. In its place is the gritty nihilism of 1970s exploitation cinema.
If I were to sum up this season in one word, it would be “overkill.“ Leo goes overboard when he disposes of most of the kaiju this season, sometimes needlessly destroying large buildings full of civilians in the process. He’s the kind of Ultraman who will rip off a monster’s horns, ram them in its eye sockets, and split it in half afterward. You heard it here first, ladies: Leo’s a freak.
Leo also stands out amongst other Showa era series because its narrative is broken up into loose mini-arcs that take up several episodes at a time. Most of these a new way to tie together standalone monster-of-the-week plots together in a neat thematic package.
For example, the first time this happened was during Episodes 17-21, collectively referred to as “Behold! The Ultra Series.” This featured stories about vampire ladies, fish men, and sexist werewolves that turn into giant pinwheels. I don’t know what inspired Tsuburaya/TBS to bunch these together, but the stunt came across as just another way to tell those kids the show once targeted to get off their damn lawn.
So what does this series contribute to the Ultra cannon? First of all, since Leo isn’t from the M-78 Nebula, he’s not considered an Ultra Brother…at first. In fact, he has his own younger brother, Astra, who also hails from Nebula L77. Leo was surprised when Astra showed up in Episode 22 “The Leo Brothers Vs. The Monster Brothers” since he was under the impression his sibling had died when Magma destroyed their homeworld. He’s relieved, especially after he sees that his pet Ron survived too. Like past Ultra family members before him, Astra would swoop down at any time to lend Leo a helping hand whenever the going got tough. They even had a team attack called the Ultra Double Finisher that worked wonders on overgrown rubber demons.
Leo also introduces us to Ultraman King, the oldest and most powerful Ultra in the entire Showa universe. He is so legendary, in fact, that tales of his greatness are told in Leo’s neighboring galaxy. You can consider him the ultimate helper of all Ultra helpers – the big kahuna, less of a monarch as his titles suggests and more of a cross between god and Santa Claus than anything else.
He makes his first appearance in Episode 26 “Ultraman King Vs. The Magician”, coming down to Earth to help Leo out in his battle with Alien Pressure and giving him a new power-up, much like Zoffy used to. King had watched Leo’s progress as Earth’s sole alien defender from afar and was so impressed with his struggles that he bestowed onto him a power-up to keep him going.
In Episodes 38-39, everyone was shocked when Astra stormed the Ultra Tower to put out the Ultra Flame and steal the Ultra Key, a powerful relic that keeps the Land of Light orbiting around Nebula M78. The Ultra Brothers (sans Taro) tried to stop him from taking the Key, getting into a huge brawl that they continue down on Earth in the process. When Leo rushes to Astra’s defense, the Ultra Brothers don’t give a shit and tell him that they’re going to kill him anyway because their home planet is going to collide with earth since that’s where the Key is.
But then Ultraman King flies down and reveals that this mad thieving Astra is really Alien Babalou in disguise. The real Astra is frozen within a block of ice somewhere in space. After everything wrong is made right, the Leo Brothers are officially adopted into the Ultra family. Aww. Ultra group hug, everyone!
The final eleven episodes of Ultraman Leo form another mini-arc event, perhaps the the most eventful run of episodes the show had up until that point. “Terror of the Saucer Races” sees major (and majorly weird) shake-ups in the Ultraverse. A new villian is introduced, Black Directive aka Commander Black. He’s all about shiny glass balls and being a creeper. He’s my favorite villain from the Showa Era because he’s one of those artsy tokusatsu bad guys that looks silly in photographs but dazzling in action. Main characters are killed off, including Dan! Oh shucks.
Things get more violent and over-the-top than ever in the single most terrifying Ultraman episode ever made – Episode 47 “The Girl Who Collects the Stardust of Demons” – which is about evil sea shells that burrow themselves into the eyesockets of unsuspecting adults. You can watch it on Crunchyroll if you dare, but before you do, know that it’s not for the faint of heart. Mind the italicization! It’s there for a reason.
After a brutal uphill struggle that lasted for what feels like eternity, Leo comes to its triumphantly bitter conclusion when a group of kids team up to stop Commander Black and Leo puts and end to, well, the Black Star’s madness once and for all. Dan is revealed to be alive after all in his original form of Ultraseven, who comes back to take Leo back to the Land of Light so he can hopefully take an Ultra Nap.
When it comes down to it, there’s a lot to admire about Ultraman Leo. It’s an ambitious television series for 1974, mostly well-executed and impactful. But it’s a hard watch. It’s like if a Grave of the Fireflies had a drawn out animated series adaptation. It would be a masterpiece, for sure, but who would want to sit through all of that pain? Ultraman Leo would, I guess, and he’d be proud to do it. That’s what makes him a hero.
The Ultraman (Anime Series, 1979-1980)
If you’re dying to see Ultraman in a flash of anime glory, this one’s all yours. His name is Ultraman Joneus (or Jonias), and unlike the rest of his real life Ultra cousins, he visits us from Planet U40. (Not to be confused with Planet UB40, the home galaxy of red, red wine.) There, he is part of the Great Eight and is known as being its strongest member. When he merges with a human named Hikari Choichiro, a member of the Scientific Guard, he protects the Earth from the Hellar Fleet and other monsters for about 60 episoses or so, then heads back home like the others.
Joneus had a sister named Amia that the show introduced in Episode 20 who helped Hikari and her brother recover on U40 after a battle. There, she revealed all of the mysteries of their home planet and their conflict with the monsters, but since this show takes place in an alternate continuity and doesn’t affect the rest of the series, it really doesn’t matter, does it? Move along, people.
Oh, an interesting historical side note before we continue along – In 1978, screenwriter Jeff Segal wrote a screenplay for an American Ultraman movie in the wake of Superman: The Movie‘s success. This project was known as Ultraman: The Jupiter Effect, and it focused on the zeitgeist of the early ‘80s planetary alignment paranoia. An evil villain named Drax sends his giant monsters to attack Earth during said astrological event, and a new Ultraman is hosted by an altruistic NASA astronaut to stop him.
Although this was never produced, Segal would later go on to rework the final story arc of Joneus for its English dubbed release as a spliced up direct-to-video feature known as The Adventures of Ultraman.
Ultraman 80 (TV Series, 1981–1982)
The Ultraman cartoon was fun, but as a new decade began, so did a new chapter in Ultra history. Enter Ultraman 80, a series that more or less captured the charm of the original 1966 version. By paying tribute to past rather than breaking ground for the future, it was a pleasant back-to-basics affair that played it safe for the most part (i.e. Not much happened in it). Having said that, Ultraman 80 does have a milestone for the franchise: it introduces Yullian, princess of the Land of Light and the second female Ultra to also have a human form. She would assist 80 during his tougher battles during the latter half of the season.
Ultraman 80 began as a show about a junior high school science teacher named Takeshi Yamato who moonlighted as a member of the UGM (Utility Government Members, another bizarre and generic name), while also leading a double life as Ultraman 80, his true identity. As the show went on, it refocused itself on the UGM crew’s adventures and thus realigned itself with that classic trademark Ultra spirit.
The been-there-done-that nature of Ultraman 80 plus the fact that the anime genre was more popular than tokusatsu at the time make this Ultra entry one of the least talked about in the show’s legacy. It ends quietly, with Yullian and Ultraman 80 leaving back home for M78, confident that the humans can protect their own goddamn planet for once.
In 1983, another screenplay was developed for a US feature film, this time by author Don Glut. It was called Ultraman: Hero from the Stars. In it, the dinosaurs are revealed to still be alive and dormant beneath the earth, and have since become evolved and more dangerous over time. A new Ultraman takes the form of an Earth Defense soldier who is quickly assisted by the rest of the Ultra Family, including Ultra Seven who was intended to die in the final act.
Apparently, this script had Superman references up the ying-yang to make it more appealing to a Western audience. Huh. I wonder why it didn’t get made.
Ultraman Zoffy: Ultra Warriors Vs. The Giant Monster Army (Theatrical Film, 1984)
Finally, Zoffy gets his time in the spotlight for once. In his own movie too! Too bad it’s a clip show that’s one big “previously on…” bit to showcase monster battles. What’s of historical note here is this is the first time Returning Ultraman (or New Ultraman) from Return of Ultraman is given his own unique name: Ultraman Jack. The president of Tsuburaya at the time, Satsuki Tsuburaya, designated him as Jack after a contest sponsored by Ban Dai was held. Fans were pissed by the rename, but now it’s gospel.
Ultraman Story (Theatrical Film, 1984)
The Showa Ultra films are nothing more than greatest hits complilations of monster battles spliced up and reassembled without much effort involved. Ultraman Story is no exception, but it does provide an overarching story about Ultraman Taro (who was the kiddie friendly face of the Ultras) and his lessons training with Ultra Father and Ultra Mother as a child in the Land of Light.
As the eensy widdle Taro learns the proper way of how mutilate giant lizards from clips of events that techically should have occured after he was a grown ass man, Juda, former immaterial entity born of spacial distortion and self-proclaimed Spawn of Evil starts stirring shit up with the spirits of past monsters and his new creation, Grand King. With the help of his family, Taro transforms into Super Ultra to put an end to the madness.
Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (Animated Film, 1987)
There’s nothing more American than Ultraman…or so this cartoon wants us to think. In the first of many attempts to market Ultraman in the US during the 1980s and ‘90s, Tsubaraya approached Hanna-Barbera to co-produce an animated series that would help them crossover. The American animation powerhouse that forced years of Wacky Races on us wouldn’t commit to a series, but did agree to invest a one-off pilot movie instead. And thus we have what might be the most patronizing whitewashed Ultraman adaptation of them all – which is really saying something.
The Adventure Begins sticks to the classic formula that any self-respecting Ultra series should. But instead of having one hero, there’s three – Scott, Chuck, and Beth, otherwise known as the Flying Angels. They’re a team of pilots who kill at air stunt shows. When they get caught in a weird accident, they are saved by Ultra beings from M78 and become the Ultra Force (not to be confused with Ultraforce, an entirely different cartoon). Their mentor: an old dude who runs a golf course and is secretly an agent of intergalactic peace. And guess what? They have three robot assistants of various cuteness to help them out. Meet Samson, the strong blue one; Andy, the adorable tiny one; and Ulysses, the skinny gay one. Aw.
Together, the Ultra Force all reside in their secret lair in Mount fucking Rushmore. You can’t get any more American than that, folks.
The voice cast for Ultraman USA (as it was affectionately re-titled in Japan) was actually pretty decent. Since Batman: The Animated Series’ voice casting director Andrea Romano was also in charge of choosing the voices to bring this pilot to life, it’s no wonder. We have Adrienne Barbeau, otherwise known as the lovely Selena Kyle, who voices Lt. Beth O’Brien, the Ultrawoman of the group; small screen veteran Michael Lembeck as Scott Masterson (the leader); Mr. Slick himself, Chad Everett as Chuck Gavin; and legendary character actor Stacy Keach as Walter. That’s quite an impressive talent roster for a one-shot animated movie that immediately tripped and fell into obscurity.
The Adventure Begins isn’t bad at all. There are several gorgeously animated bits that make you forget you’re watching a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and the story itself improves and expands upon the typical Ultraman formula. Sadly, it didn’t gain enough interest in the states to warrant a full series order, so it stands alone as a curious artifact of cross-culture entertainment that is only the first of many, as we’ll soon find out in the Heisei Era.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Ultraman’s complete history later this month. Until then, follow Stephen Harber on Instagram and Twitter @onlywriterever. And put some pants on for Christ’s sake.