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An Overview of Ultraman

Updated on May 17, 2016
The original Ultraman
The original Ultraman | Source

In 1954 Godzilla splashed into Japanese theaters completely changing the playing field for monster movies in not just Japanese cinema but for global cinema as well. The special effects utilized in the film were regarded as revolutionary and the man who brought Godzilla to life was special effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya. In 1963, Tsuburaya left Toho to form his own special effects company called Tsuburaya Special Effects Productions, later to be named simply as Tsuburaya Productions. Within just a few years, Tsuburaya had again revolutionized the way special effects and science fiction was portrayed on TV with what would become the studio’s most famous product: the Ultra series.

Eiji Tsuburaya: co-creator of Godzilla and creator of Ultraman
Eiji Tsuburaya: co-creator of Godzilla and creator of Ultraman | Source

Ultra Q

Tsuburaya Productions’ first major TV series was a black and white sci-fi/horror show called Ultra Q, airing on the Tokyo Broadcasting System in 1966. During development, the series was titled UNBALANCE but had its name changed to Ultra Q as an homage to the then-popular manga/anime Obake no Q-Taro by Fujiko Fujio as well as the “Ultra C” maneuver seen during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in woman’s gymnastics. Tsuburaya initially wanted to make Ultra Q into essentially the Japanese version of The Twilight Zone. However, TBS convinced him to add more monsters into the series—after all they had the co-creator of Godzilla on board. The end result was a show that was more like the Japanese version of The Outer Limits rather than The Twilight Zone. In more modern terms, Ultra Q is essentially an old Japanese version of The X-Files.

At the time it was produced Ultra Q was the most expensive TV show in Japan. To save on the budget, Tsuburaya would often negotiate with Toho for various props from the Godzilla series that could be used in Ultra Q. This is the main reason why so many Ultra-Q monsters are similar to Godzilla ones—often times they were the exact same costumes cosmetic alterations made to them. Some examples are Gomess which was an altered Godzilla costume, Goroh from a King Kong costume, and Litra which was a redone Rodan prop. Ultra-Q produced 28 episodes and proved to be a hit, but even before the first episode had aired, Tsuburaya Productions had already begun production on a follow up series.

Ultra Q is available at Amazon

From WoO to Bemular to Redman to…

The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were the two western TV series that had the biggest influence on Ultra Q. They would continue to be big influences on the direction of the follow up series but in this case there would also be another more recent western TV show that would also prove to be a large influence: Doctor Who. You can see this in the initial production title of the follow up series: WoO. Much like Doctor Who, WoO was set to feature a friendly alien who battled threatening aliens and supernatural enemies; except where the Doctor would generally use his wits and intelligence to fight his enemies this alien would be a lot more physical.

Unfinished Ultraman costume.  Note the lack of a Color Timer.
Unfinished Ultraman costume. Note the lack of a Color Timer. | Source

Originally the idea behind WoO would be that the titular alien be a comical creature on the run from the Self-Defense Force. This concept was then heavily reworked and then newly titled Scientific Special Search Party: Bemular. This time the main characters were humans who were part of an international defense force called the Science Special Search Party (科学特捜隊 Kagaku Tokusō Tai) or more commonly as the “Science Patrol”. Unknown to everyone else including the other members however is that one of the Science Patrol’s members had gained the ability to transform into a giant, avian-humanoid monster called Bemular who would fight to defend the Earth from other monsters, aliens, and all sorts of other threats. Ultimately it was decided that Bemular, who was designed by one Toru Narita, looked too threatening and difficult to distinguish from the monsters he fought. As such Bemular was scrapped in favor of Redman and Narita designed an alien that was a lot more humanoid though with demon like horns. The lore behind Redman would be that he was a survivor of the destroyed Planet X. Ultimately, it was decided that the design for Redman was still a little too threatening so Narita redesigned the character by adding a lot more silver and reworking a face that was inspired by the “Roswell aliens”. At the eleventh hour a “Color Timer” was added to the chest. This new design was rechristened as “Ultraman”.

Planet Ultra, the Land of Light in the M78 Nebula
Planet Ultra, the Land of Light in the M78 Nebula | Source

Lore

The actual lore of the Ultra series developed in subsequent TV shows featuring the Ultras rather than the first Ultraman series itself. Regardless, knowing the lore that developed from the series places the original Ultraman within an interesting framework. Within the series the Ultras hail from a world within the M78 Nebula, the Planet Ultra which consists of a single nation: The Land of Light. About two hundred and seventy thousand years ago, this planet was populated by a benevolent alien race very similar to humans within a technological utopia. That all ended abruptly one day when the star that Planet Ultra orbited suddenly went supernova. Using their advanced technology to survive the destruction of their sun, the planet spent an indefinite amount of time in darkness as their greatest scientific minds pooled their resources together to create an artificial sun called the Plasma Spark.

When the Plasma Spark was activated not only did it give the Planet Ultra a new source of light but it also had an unforeseen consequence: when bathed by the light of the Plasma Spark, the formerly human-like residents of Planet Ultra were transformed into powerful giant beings composed of light encased in a silvery suit-like skin. Mind you although they were now beings of light, Ultras still have internal organs and skeletons. However, these Ultras had gained tremendous powers as a result of the Plasma Spark such as the ability to fly and traverse space, the ability to change their sizes between their new giant forms and their former human forms, and their signature ability to convert their inner light into powerful energy beams that could be fired from their bodies. In light of their change into these giants of light via the power of the Plasma Spark, the Ultras began calling their home world the “Land of Light” (光の国 Hikari no Kuni).

Alien Empera invades the Land of Light
Alien Empera invades the Land of Light | Source

Being a race naturally inclined toward righteousness and justice, the Ultras decided to use their new powers to bring peace and justice to the universe. As such, they began patrolling the space and regularly came into direct combat with various hostile aliens and monsters who sought to invade other worlds. Naturally, the Ultras ended up garnering the resentment and hatred of many, many aliens and monsters and eventually they struck back. Thirty thousand years ago, an intergalactic conqueror known as Alien Empera (エンペラ星人 Enpera Seijin) gathered an army of monsters and aliens and launched a full-scale invasion of the Land of Light. Empera’s forces for a time even conquered the Land of Light, but the Ultras fought back. Empera was finally defeated in a one-on-one battle with a hero known as Ultraman Ken bringing an end to the conflict that would come to be known as the Great Ultra War (ウルトラ大戦争 Ultra-dai-sesnsou).

The Space Garrison, with the Father of Ultra in the forefront (and the Mother of Ultra right behind him).  Ultraman himself is in the top row, third from the right.
The Space Garrison, with the Father of Ultra in the forefront (and the Mother of Ultra right behind him). Ultraman himself is in the top row, third from the right. | Source

Following the aftermath of the Great Ultra War Ultraman Ken, now known as “The Father of Ultra” founded and became the Supreme Commander of an organization called the Space Garrison (宇宙警備隊 Uchū Keibitai), an intergalactic security force that sought universal peace and justice. As I noted above, the Ultras had been doing this before the Great Ultra War but now it was officially formalized.

With all of that out of the way, none of this lore is actually present in the original Ultraman TV show. All of this lore is stuff that developed out of the subsequent series, in particular 1973’s Ultraman Taro and 2006’s Ultraman Mebius. The only thing you really need to know for the first Ultraman is that Ultraman is a member of the Space Garrison.

Ultraman's first appearance on screen.
Ultraman's first appearance on screen. | Source

Plot

The series opens on Earth sometime in the near future (from 1966); it is a time period when the Earth is in constant threat from invasions from sinister aliens and rampaging monsters. To combat these threats an international defense force called the Science Special Search Party (科学特捜隊 Kagaku Tokusō Tai) or more commonly as the “Science Patrol” is formed. The focus of the series is the Science Patrol’s Japanese branch led by Captain “Cap” Toshio Muramatsu (played by Akiji Kobayashi). One day while on a routine patrol, the Science Patrol’s second-in-command Shin Hayata (played by Susumu Kurobe)’s plane the Mini-VTOL crashes into a giant red sphere of light. It turns out that this sphere is the transport of a giant red-and-silver being who refers to himself as “Ultraman”, a member of the Space Garrison whom had been chasing a fugitive monster called Bemular escaping the Monster Graveyard to Earth. Feeling remorseful for having killed the human, Ultraman restores Hayata to life by merging his life essence with him. In return, Hayata would serve as Ultraman’s human host on Earth—due to the sunlight being filtered by the Earth’s atmosphere, Ultraman can only operate in his natural form for about three minutes at a time (the complete opposite of Superman whose powers come straight from Earth’s sun). Thus he requires a human host for his extended stay while on the earth.

Specium Ray: Ultraman's signature attack.
Specium Ray: Ultraman's signature attack. | Source
Ultra Slash: another iconic attack.
Ultra Slash: another iconic attack. | Source

Thereafter Hayata continued on as a member of the Science Patrol, investigating many incidents surrounding monsters and aliens and battling them as a member of the SSSP. However, when the threat becomes perhaps a little too much to handle, Hayata pulls out a device called the Beta Capsule and with a press of a button and a flash of light Hayata transforms into the powerful Ultraman. To fight monsters and aliens, Ultraman has a wide array of powerful techniques. His signature move is the Specium Ray, a powerful beam powered by an element called “Specium” which he fires when crossing his arms like a plus (+) sign, with his right arm vertical and his left arm horizontal. Other attacks include the Ultra-Attack Ray, an attack more powerful than the Specium Ray where Ultraman’s body energy spirals around his right arm in the form of green energy rings, and the Ultra-Slash where Ultraman forms Specium energy into a buzzsaw-like energy disc which he tosses at his foes. Other powers include the Slash Ray, Ultra Air Catch, Ultra Rings, Flouroscope Ray, Ultra Shower, Teleporation, etc.

Ultraman can only fight for about three minutes at a time due to rapid energy depletion in Earth’s atmosphere. He keeps track of how much energy he has left via the Color Timer on his chest. When he first transforms from Hayata, the Color Timer is blue. As his energy begins depleting the Color Timer begins flashing red and beeping. As more and more of Ultraman’s energy is depleted his Color Timer’s flashing and beeping will get faster and faster. Eventually, the Color Timer would go completely blank, showing complete energy depletion. When that happens, there is a very strong possibility that the Ultra will die.

Red King vs. Ultraman: Red King was originally the final enemy.
Red King vs. Ultraman: Red King was originally the final enemy. | Source
Alien Baltan: arguably the most iconic of the Ultra monsters.
Alien Baltan: arguably the most iconic of the Ultra monsters. | Source
Gomora: the first monster to win against Ultraman.
Gomora: the first monster to win against Ultraman. | Source
Alien Mephilas: often viewed as Ultraman's arch-rival.
Alien Mephilas: often viewed as Ultraman's arch-rival. | Source

During his time on Earth Ultraman fought many, many monsters and aliens that have become icons all of their own. Arguably, the most well-known and most popular of these monsters are Red King (レッドキング Reddo Kingu), Alien Baltan (バルタン星人 Barutan Seijin), Gomora (ゴモラ Gomora), and Alien Mephilas (メフィラス星人 Mefirasu Seijin). Red King was so named (despite not being red) because back when the show was still called Redman, this monster was supposed to be the final enemy, the king of all the monsters Redman fought. In Ultraman, Red Kings are nothing more than animalistic, berserker beasts but they still left a big enough impact to become exceedingly popular. The first Red King was merely the alpha beast of Tatara Island who killed the friendly monster Pigmon. The second Red King Ultraman fought however proved to be a trickier opponent due to it having swallowed a hydrogen bomb.

Alien Baltans though… well let’s look at the three TV shows that I consider to be the Big 3 of 1960s SciFi Television: Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Ultraman. Star Trek has the Klingons: originally conceived as an allegory of the Soviet Union opposite the United Federation of Planets that has since been developed into a distinctive warrior race defined by their sense of honor. Doctor Who has the Daleks: a race of mutated aliens encased within robotic shells and void of all emotions save their pure and utter hatred of anything that is not Dalek—“Exterminate!” And finally, Ultraman has the Baltans. Baltans are a race of insectoid humanoids whose home planet was destroyed by reckless scientific experimentation. They now seek to conquer the Earth with their population of millions. They are also fatally allergic to Specium, the base of Ultraman’s beam attacks.

And then there’s Gomora. Despite being nothing more than a prehistoric creature, Gomora’s incredible strength proved to actually surpass that of Ultraman’s and he became the first monster to actually win a fight against Ultraman, though Ultraman quickly won the rematch. He was featured in the only two-parter episode in the series (ep. 26 and 27) and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Gomora was created to be a sort of counterpart to Toho’s Godzilla. Even the episode he appeared in is called "The Prince of Monsters".

Finally, there is Alien Mephilas, one of the most highly intelligent antagonists Ultraman has ever fought. Mephilas sought to conquer the Earth by appointing a young boy as the representative of the planet and attempting to tempt him into handing the Earth to him. When that plan fails, Mephilas engages in direct combat with Ultraman himself and surprisingly turns out to be Ultraman absolute equal, being able to counter every one of Ultraman’s physical and energy attacks. He is also one of the very few monsters to survive his battle with Ultraman as he realizes that he can’t win and thus accepts his loss and leaves the planet while also declaring to Ultraman that one day he will return and they would have their rematch. It is for this reason that almost every single time there is a spin-off or side story of the Ultra series, Mephilas inevitably appears as Ultraman’s main rival.

Zetton: final enemy of the series and the only monster with a decisive victory against Ultraman.
Zetton: final enemy of the series and the only monster with a decisive victory against Ultraman. | Source
Zoffy arrives to pick Ultraman up.
Zoffy arrives to pick Ultraman up. | Source

Ultraman would go on fighting many, many monsters until finally, the invasion of the Alien Zetton (ゼットン星人 Zetton Seijin). The Science Patrol would go on to thwart the Alien Zettons’ plans but with its dying breath, the last Alien Zetton unleashes their final weapon, the exceedingly powerful monster known as Zetton. Zetton proved to be so powerful that not even Ultraman could match against it. Zetton even destroys Ultraman’s Color Timer, depriving him of his means of measuring his energy reserves. As a result, Ultraman over exerts himself and is very nearly killed. The Science Patrol manages to destroy Zetton but with Ultraman near death’s door, he is suddenly saved by his superior in the Space Garrison, Zoffy. Ultraman pleads with Zoffy to save Hayata’s life in addition to his own and Zoffy does so by separating the two and then taking Ultraman back to the Land of Light where he could recover properly. Thus the Ultraman TV series comes to an end.

Cast of Characters

- Captain Toshio “Cap” Muramatsu (ムラマツ・トシオ(村松 利夫) Muramatsu Toshio): The Science Special Search Party’s leader. Actor: Akiji Kobayashi.

- Daisuke Arashi (アラシ・ダイスケ(嵐 大助) Arashi Daisuke): The Science Special Search Party's rotund tough-guy marksman. Actor: Sandayū Dokumamushi

- Mitsuhiro Ide (イデ・ミツヒロ(井出 光弘) Ide Mitsuhiro): The Science Special Search Party's somewhat comical inventor. Although there are times that he feels that Ultraman's intervention makes his role useless, his inventions have occasionally been critical in saving the day. Actor: Masanari Nihei

- Akiko Fuji (フジ・アキコ(富士 明子) Fuji Akiko): The Science Special Search Party's radio/communications operator. In most adventures, Fuji proves to be the most level-headed and capable member after Hayata. Actress: Hiroko Sakurai

- Isamu Hoshino (ホシノ・イサム(星野 勇) Hoshino Isamu): A little boy who is friends with the local kids. He tends to visit the Science Special Search Party's headquarters to hang out with the full-fledged members. He often gets into trouble, and sometimes Ultraman has to save him. Later on, his courage during one of the Science Special Search Party's missions allows him to be issued a Science Special Search Party uniform and to go on some of their other missions. Actor: Akihide Tsuzawa

- Shin Hayata (ハヤタ・シン(早田 進) Hayata Shin): The Science Special Search Party's brave, no-nonsense deputy captain. His life changed irreversibly when Ultraman accidentally crashed into his "Delta VTOL" with his Travel Sphere and killed him, destroying both ships. To make amends, Ultraman merges his own life force into that of the Earthman before the brain functions of the latter are irreversibly terminated, and thus revives him. He then gives Hayata an object called the beta capsule, a microphone shaped cylinder device with which he can transform into Ultraman by depressing a red push-button switch on its side with his thumb to activate it. Actor: Susumu Kurobe; Ultraman himself was played by Bin "Satoshi" Furuya.

Ultraman Japanese title card
Ultraman Japanese title card | Source
Title card for American dub.
Title card for American dub. | Source

Production

The man who portrayed the various monsters in the series was none other than Haruo Nakajima, the very same man who played Godzilla in the original 1954 film and its various sequels throughout the Showa era. The actor within the Ultraman suit was also a Toho actor, Satoshi “Bin” Furuya. He was sought out for the role due to his tall height and his ideal proportions. Nakajima had a background in martial arts and outdoor sports. He figured that it would be best that Ultraman, an alien, didn’t use any earth-bound martial arts techniques. Thus he and Furuya worked on giving Ultraman a fighting style based mostly on grappling, Greco-Roman wrestling, with the occasional Japanese martial arts mixed in. This fighting style continued to be developed throughout the series.

Just like with Ultra Q, Tsuburaya often negotiated with Toho for use of their old costumes to save on budget. To further save on budget, these costumes were often altered and spray painted on set with Nakajima within the suits. This is why the monsters in the show are often lumbering and staggering around—Nakajima had to deal with spray paint fumes. The most blatant example of this is the monster featured in the tenth episode, Jirass. Jirass is rather obviously Godzilla with a frill and a green and yellow coat of spray paint. To be exact, Jirass was the 1964 Godzilla suit with the 1965 Godzilla head, with the frill added to attach the two versions of the suit. Not only that, but Jirass’s roar is a modified version of Godzilla’s signature roar and his Electric Heat Ray looks identical to Godzilla’s atomic breath. Even the name “Jirass” is derived from “Gojira” with the “Go” removed and “ss” added to the end.

Ultraman vs. "not-Godzilla"... I mean Jirass

Costumes from Ultra Q were recycled as well. For example, Alien Baltan’s costume was a modified Cicada People costume, Alien Zetton’s costume was derived from the head of the Kemur man costume, Pigmon’s costume was straight up a Garamon costume, Chandora used the Peguila costume, etc. All of this was especially true of the early days of the show when there was less of a budget to deal with.

Altogether, there were thirty-nine episodes of Ultraman produced.

Ultraman’s theme song, simply titled "Ultraman no Uta" (ウルトラマンの歌 Urutoraman no Uta, "The Song of Ultraman") has become practically synonymous with the series. Its lyrics were written by Kyōichi Azuma while the music was composed by Kunio Miyauchi. For the show, the song is performed by the Misuzu Children’s Choral Group.

The opening theme

Legacy

Ultraman revolutionized the way science fiction and special effects were portrayed on Japanese TV as well as in the rest of the world. Ultraman was in essence the very first show of what would, in a few short years become a new subgenre within Japanese SciFi television: the tokusatsu subgenre. It was the show that led to the establishment of the Ultra series, a series that is still going strong to this day. In 1967, Ultraman was followed up by Ultra Seven, a show considered by many to be arguably the greatest within the Ultra series.

Get the series on Amazon

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       S.H.R. 2 years ago

      Awesome!

      I enjoyed it a lot!