The Challenge of Bringing Ultraman to America
Ultraman is big in Japan but has had a tough time finding success in America. Jeff Gomez is working to change that.
The Ultraman franchise is a cultural juggernaut in Japan. Beginning in the 1960s, the giant hero has spawned tons of TV series, movies, action figures, a theme park, and much much more. The Ultraman characters stand toe to toe with other big superhero franchises there like Sentai (which became Power Rangers in America) and Kamen Rider.
In the west however Ultraman never quite took off in the same way. It still enjoys some cultural cache, since the original series was aired across American TV stations in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s still fondly remembered and the character was even featured in a couch gag on the Simpsons. Still, it hasn’t been able to reach the level of popularity it enjoys in Japan. Some of that has to do with court cases tying up the legal rights to the character and some of it is just poor execution. One of the series in the franchise, Ultraman Tiga, did receive an English dub for the FoxBox lineup in early 2000’s but it could never decide if it wanted to be a faithful translation of more of a gag dub.
Recently though Ultraman has been poised to gain traction in the west once more. The recent manga, simpy titled Ultraman, has released multiple volumes and an animated adaption of it is set to premiere on Netflix in April.
Still, Ultraman has a lot of ground to cover to increase its profile in the west. One person helping it along is Jeff Gomez and his company, Starlight Runner Entertainment. They’re helping Tsuburaya, the owners of Ultraman, to build out the mythology of the franchise and work with it across multiple platforms.
We recently sat down with Jeff Gomez for Den of Geek’s The Fourth Wall podcast to discuss his work with the Ultraman franchise and how he plans to help the franchise overcome some of the difficulties it’s faced in the west.
I want to know about your history with Ultraman because from what I’ve learned, you’ve been a fan for a very long time.
Oh man, what a dream come true for you to have your childhood hero be the thing that you get to work on is just awesome. For me, growing up in New York City in the late 1960s, and early 70s, I was a little different from all the other guys. I was always dreaming, I was always looking for stories that I could immerse myself in and escape into for long periods of time. A little Bugs Bunny cartoon was not going to do it for me.
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So one day along comes this show, Ultraman, and here it is, on television, every week and there’s a giant monster and then there’s this kind of incredible, silvery angelic kind of being who has all these powers and who’s protecting humanity and clashing with the monster on these miniature sets which I didn’t, I just believed in them, I believed in everything, I just loved it, man. It was awesome and it was on my TV, in my living room, every week and what could be better than that?
Tell me a little bit about the story about how your company formed this new partnership with Tsuburaya.
I happened to make a friend with the people who run The Licensing Group, it’s a company in Los Angeles run by Danny Simon, and a destiny conversation, ’cause I love licensing. Licensing is, to me, a way to help tell stories on different media platforms, and if you have the right kind of licensing, you can grow a franchise and get something going like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, licensing is my friend.
And here was Danny Simon saying, “Oh yeah, by the way, I’m talking to Tsuburaya Productions about Ultraman and maybe re-introducing the character to the United States, ’cause he hasn’t been around for a while.” And I said, “Danny, if that’s the case, you have to take me with you! At least let me sit in the room with you while you negotiate this deal, because you know, I love Ultraman.”
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Believe it or not, somehow he was able to enable the meeting, and I went with him, and instead of just being a fan, I really did my homework and prepared a presentation about how we worked and how we would work with Ultraman, and kind of galvanized a mythology of Ultraman to make the franchise clear to Americans and the international market because it’s kind of complicated. There’s like 800 episodes of Ultraman, and it kind of rebooted itself over and over and over again, so it can be quite confusing. The characters, if you’re not used to them, they look very much the same, they look quite similar to each other, so distinguishing them and distinguishing that mythology I felt was really important to a successful licensing and merchandising program so that we can relaunch Ultraman all over the world.
And we got it! The Japanese at Tsuburaya Productions just said you know what, you’re right. What’s it like to work with you guys? And we laid it out, and we made the deal, it’s one of the best deals we’ve ever made.
Can you give me a little bit of insight into the things that you talked with Tsuburaya in that initial meeting? The kind of ways that you talked about of expanding Ultraman out and getting Americans to understand the franchise?
It had to do with making sure that they understood that we understood Ultraman, and a lot of that had to do with the understanding that over the years, the franchise has skewed younger and younger, right?
So the original Ultraman was more kind of dark. They were reflective of Japan’s political situation, they still were recovering from the war, giant monsters represented these massive kind of anxieties that the country was suffering and here was Ultraman, kind of the uber Japanese, this kind of futuristic symbol that descended from the skies and made everything right.
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In fact, if you watch closely, Ultraman tries not to harm the monster, at least at the start, and only destroys the monster or vanquishes the beast as a last resort. And that speaks to this notion of the positivity of technology, the aspiration to courage and hope and kindness, to be able to kind of share those insights with Tsuburaya Productions allowed for them to realize that we were sensitive to not just Ultraman as a kind of superhero, but Ultraman as a symbol that was still relevant and ought to be communicated to the rest of the world to this day. And I think that’s what they responded to, to the pitch.
In doing research for that pitch, was it a matter of just you watching a bunch of episodes and picking up on themes or did you do research with interviews with creative staff from the show in previous years? What was the whole research process for that like?
The first meetings were really truly the benefit of being a highly experienced nerd. I was an informed geek, and so those were my observations. You know, I’m a storyteller, and I understand the building blocks of story, and I understand epic storytelling. So if you look at Ultraman as a single epic, a 50 year story, that’s awesome. When you have something that lasts that long, it becomes representative of the people who cherish and celebrate that story, you know? So I was able to make those observations with the understanding that all epics from all over the world and throughout history are symbols of the nations that create those epics, and they got it, they understood that.
The trick to convince them to work with Starlight Runner was to say you know what, that story, which is emblematic of the Japanese people, can be also emblematic of the world. We all need that story, we all need to embrace courage, hope and kindness, which was kind of the grand efforts of Tsuburaya Productions.
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And we need to think about new ways to deal with the kaiju of the world, these awful, tyrannical intrusions, you know, global warming, the dis-balance in the world. And if you get that about Ultraman, you can understand how to make Ultraman accessible and marketable to everyone in the world. After that, then yes, we go into Tsuburaya Productions, which is the super fun part, and spend many days with all the people who make the show currently, and get to understand the challenges they face and the aspirations they have for the franchise.
What are some of the biggest challenges in bringing Ultraman to America?
The challenges are really interesting and it’s funny because some people I talked to were hesitant, they were like, well you know, Ultraman, there’s Pacific Rim which has giant robots and kaiju and that’s done okay but it’s not a smash hit. Aren’t you afraid of it being confused with Power Rangers and that recent movie didn’t quite become a blockbuster either. Don’t we have to be careful about Japanese properties being launched in the United States, the live action movies like Ghost in the Shell didn’t really do good, there’s this notion of whitewashing that you have to be careful about.
And look, those are all caveats and precautions that are well considered, you know. Those are things we have to think about. But the fun of working with Ultraman is okay, how do we get around that? How do we tackle those challenges and still make something that’s really fun and compelling and engaging, and the bottom line is that that’s what we do for a living. We take apart those challenges and look into what was awesome, specifically, about Ultraman and make sure that that is what infuses the new storytelling, okay.
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So what are the incredible things about Ultraman, well you get to, a human being gets to use some kind of device and suddenly becomes possessed with this being from another world and grows to like a hundred feet tall. So the notion of becoming a giant is an awesome notion, it’s not the most common of these kinds of superhero characters. There’s the notion of how the world today would realistically contend with these kinds of situations. Pacific Rim was kind of more fanciful and took place in a distant future. What would it be like now, today? What kind of balances would have to occur? How would the world community respond to these kinds of situations? Well to me that’s really intriguing. What do they symbolize, what aspect of ourselves exists in both the kaiju and these Ultraman heroes? Those other properties are not really dealing with that and that’s something that I think is super intriguing for Ultraman.
Do you ever worry that some people are just not going to take it seriously? Or is that part of the challenge for you?
What is the secret to geek love? What is the secret to us becoming truly fans with a story world that we stumble upon? It has to do with our empathy, with our ability to look at the inner lives of these characters and see ourselves in them, and it also has to do with, in this day and age with being invited, you know? And that’s something that Starlight Runner really specializes in. We’re building the story world but we’re not gonna do it without you.
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And fortunately with regard to Ultraman, I’m already a member of all the Ultraman fan pages. So I’m one of them and I hear what they’re saying, I hear what they’re concerns are, I hear what it is that they love to see and that influences what it is that we’re doing. And creating a story world that invites your creativity, invites your participation, is something where we’re basically building a home for you to come and live in, and that to me is the secret to creating something that’s different from what a lot of the kind of corporate approaches to movie making and franchise building have been about. There is no Ultraman without his fans and that to me is the secret to making this super cool.
And then, so speaking of fans. Fans often have particular ideas about how things should be. For example, there are some Ultraman fans who think there should be 500 Ultramen in any live-action movie. What’s the balance between giving fans what they want, but also making it accessible to a more general audience who is not invested in say, 50 years of a franchise?
A lot of it has to do with some forethought. You’ll see some content that’s out there that would attract fans, kind of burn out because there was kind of a short term thinking to it.
So, especially on television, you’ll see characters making the same mistakes over and over again, year on year, you know, certain superhero characters. You’ll see repetitive kinds of villains and so forth, because those show runners have not thought about what the epic aspect of the narrative is all about, what is the long term vision and process of actualization for this hero over the course of years.
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I found that with franchises like Harry Potter, with franchises like Marvel Cinematic Universe as it’s unfolded over the past decade or so. There have been these kind of big, long term epically structured narratives that don’t get too repetitive, that take into account fan concerns and fan questions and when you infuse that into something that’s being innovated for the modern era like Ultraman, people will stay with you.
Where are you and your company at now with the franchise? Are you still doing these deep dives and coming up with mythology documents for Tsuburaya?
That’s exactly where we’re at. We’re in the process of generating the mythology documents. These are our unique tools because we’re going to need to show our prospective partners what it is that they’re licensing and they need to understand clearly who these characters are and what they’re about and so forth and how they relate to one another, and this is a huge complex universe, so we’re as geek as they get. We are looking at every single episode and we are documenting the monster, the equipment being used, the spaceships, the laser guns, the supporting characters, what happens in the show and doing that for close to 800 episodes as well as like a dozen or so feature films that have been made in the interim.
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And then what we’re gonna do in this particular case is create kind of sub booklets that are devoted to individual TV series. So if you like Ultraman Taro vs. Ultraman Leo, you’ll be able to take the Taro booklet out of our mythology and study who Taro is and license him as opposed to Leo. And so forth. So it’s actually quite complex, it involves about a dozen people here at Starlight Runner, we’re using excellent freelance writers who are assisting us with it and one or two super fan experts to make sure that we’ve got our nomenclature right, our taxonomies need to be correct. Our cosmology, how the universe works has to be spot on. And so, we’re pulling from everywhere to make sure that that works out.
And it is a matter of, especially with something like this, is it that you have a general overview of what Ultraman as a brand is and then you go very specifically into each and every season of the series?
That’s it exactly, and you know sometimes, it’s not easy and in this particular case there is a language barrier, so we need to work with translators, not everybody at Tsuburaya speaks English. Some of the television shows have not been translated into English in quite a long time, so they, we’re looking at some of them without any subtitles, so we’re bringing in Japanese speaking people to help us here in New York to document these shows.
With the mythology document, is it trying to place all of these series within the same continuity or is it just a matter of explaining what each one is?
The beauty of Japanese storytelling is that there is a cosmology to almost every kind of narrative that they’ve come up with, and so, in the Ultraman universe, even though there’ve been multiple iterations and reboots, there is this mythos that we, if you dig deep enough you can find it, where the home world of the Ultraman aliens, because that’s what they really are, they’re not robots, they’re people. And they live in this M-78 nebula and their home world somehow has access to various dimensions, various realities.
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And so, it is possible for these characters to jump from their home dimension to the dimension of another Ultraman, who’s been living his life and doing his heroic deeds in a completely different reality, a completely different universe. And that allows them to team up from time to time. Similar I guess to what happens with the Power Ranger characters. And once we find the exact mechanism, the kind of quantum mechanics of how that works, it becomes the explanation. So here’s how it works.
But it wasn’t easy to find. It’s something that’s mentioned in an episode somewhere in the middle of this 50 year continuity. But it’s cool, instead of us just making up something, we look for it and somebody somewhere thought of it, and that’s what it is. And that allows us to proudly wave our geek flag.
So especially with franchises like this, especially in Ultraman that is created more or less piecemeal, you’re basically welding on a bunch of different things on top of each other. You’re basically digging deep to be able to find some kind of method to the madness in all of it?
Yes. The answer’s yes. You know, there were some series in the Ultraman continuity where the show runner, because you know, there’s a producer responsible for getting the job done for some years at a time, and there have been producers who were really interested in that kind of continuity. And so they would reference past series and other Ultraman and explain a few things.
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And wow, that’s like a goldmine for us, we were able to take a lot of the answers from that aspect of the show. But yep, yeah. That’s exactly what we do. We look around, because when you find it within the intellectual property, what could be better? It makes the creator happy, because they say oh, it was there all along and we didn’t see it. Sure. Go ahead, use that.
Once you put together the whole mythology document, do you then include what you had talked about with some of these other things like ideas of where to go with the franchise based on everything that you learned assembling it?
We call those distant mountains, and we do that for every single project that we work on and that is tremendous fun. It’s the thing off in the distance that’s intriguing or the thing that you just kind of pass by in the story that makes you excited and goes, what’s that over there?
Tolkien coined that term, to distant mountains, because his editors would complain, they’d go, Mr. Tolkien, your characters are walking across this giant land and they’re playing out things left and right that have nothing to do with the battle. Aren’t you diminishing the suspense by taking so much time and pointing all these things out about the history of the land and so forth, of Middle Earth? And Tolkien’s response was, listen, if I don’t tell you who is on that distant mountain and what their lives are like, or on the mountain behind that distant mountain and what those people are like and what they aspire to, and hope and dream about, then how is Middle Earth worth fighting for? We need to believe that this world is real and filled with people who are like ourselves, who hope and dream and bicker and are just trying to kinda get by in life so that we realize that this world is worth saving.
And so we take those distant mountains in something like Ultraman, Ultraman has hundreds of them, and it’s strange because you have 50 years of stories and yet, where are these monsters coming from? What do they want? Where do they go when they’re destroyed by Ultraman? It seems like they don’t just, their carcasses are not lying around, there’d be too many to deal with, so what’s happening with all of that? Well those are distant mountains that are worthy of exploration.
And that’s what makes the upcoming negotiation with the comic book people or the video game people or the app people, that’s what makes it fun, because we cannot just invite them to repeat the same formula that we see in these Ultraman shows. We could say hey, how about exploring these aspects of the universe that are really kind of intriguing and that the hardcore fan base really would love to know about, and yet would still make a compelling story to someone new coming in, and that makes the potential partners for this upcoming Ultraman licensing program, that’s what makes them really excited.
In the creation of this document, obviously it’s being made for Tsuburaya, but can it also work for someone who has absolutely no idea about Ultraman besides, oh he’s got that thing on his chest and he fights giant rubber monsters?
It’s not that easy, but these documents have to serve both purposes, and it’s why we’re kind of making them modular, so if you were to line up the pages from beginning to end, this could be like 500 or 600 pages. But through the magic of the PDF, we’re going to be able to mix and match this information to assist all kinds of different people who have a stake in the future of Ultraman.
Finishing this off, what do you want say to all the Ultraman fans listening out there, especially American fans who haven’t had much access to Ultraman?
I would say, get ready, because Ultraman’s coming back, and that the people how are involved both on the Japanese side and the American side, they love this character. We love this character, and want what’s best for him and understand the concerns that you have about the portrayal of Ultraman in a more Western kind of media.
If you found this Q/A fascinating, be sure to listen to our full interview with Jeff Gomez on The Fourth Wall podcast. There he delves deeper into similar work on other franchises and talks more about his personal history with Ultraman. Subscribe to the podcast or simply listen below!
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Shamus Kelley is a pop culture/television writer and official Power Rangers expert. Follow him on Twitter! Read more articles by him here!