Before the Death of Superman, There Was Ultraman

If you’ve looked at Google today, you’ve probably noticed that today marks the 114th birthday of Eiji Tsuburaya, Japanese special effects legend and creator of Ultraman. I think it’s worth stepping back to appreciate it, even if you’re not necessarily a fan of Ultraman.

I come from the era of Saturday morning cartoons as an institution. Every weekend, I would wake up to the earliest cartoons around, but this was before I became an anime fan, and would only later find out that many of my favorite series were indeed from Japan. Among these works was Ultraman: Towards the Future, an Australian-Japanese co-production that introduced many kids to the idea of the warrior from space who could grow to titanic proportions to fend off alien invaders.

Out of the many episodes I watched of Ultraman: Towards the Future, what has stuck with me most all these years is the finale, when Ultraman is battling his final adversary, Kilazee. Children’s entertainment at this time in the US rarely ever concluded. Episodes were meant to be shown out of order, and in many ways having a series feel “eternal” was and often is still preferred, so having Ultraman vanquish his last opponent gave a sense of completion.

That series was created in 1990, and by the end it left an impression on me. That said, the impact of its finale has nothing on the climax from original Ultraman in terms of long-term effects on the collective imagination.

[Spoiler Warning] In the final episode of Ultraman from 1967, after months of their hero being cheered on by the children of Japan, after successfully vanquishing invader after invader, Ultraman is utterly defeated. His opponent, Zetton, now one of the most famous monsters in Japanese culture, was literally designed to counter every strength and exploit every weakness that Ultraman had, and in the end Ultraman is simply overwhelmed. Zetton is only eliminated once the humans, who had been protected by Ultraman the entire time, decide to return the favor, developing a weapon that can defeat the dangerous creature once and for all.

Using “only” rubber suits, clever special effects, and a willingness to challenge a young audience, Tsuburaya and his production studio created one of the defining moments in Japanese entertainment. Three decades before Superman would fall at the hands of Doomsday, Ultraman taught children what it felt like to see their hero fall. That’s Ultraman. If you’re an anime fan, then you likely know about Neon Genesis Evangelion, itself one of the most influential Japanese television series ever. It takes from series such as Devilman and Space Runaway Ideon, but Ultraman’s DNA can also be seen in Evangelion. The EVA mecha themselves look more organic than mechanical, just like Ultraman. Their 5-minute battery life resembles Ultraman’s 3-minute time limit (his “Color Timer”). Overall, the tragedy of Ultraman isn’t that far from the trauma of Evangelion. Perhaps most importantly, however, Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion is well-known as a fan of Ultraman and other similar tokusatsu series. According to his wife in her autobiographical manga Insufficient Direction, Anno will go as far as just throwing out Ultraman poses in everyday life. His studio, Khara, is perhaps a reference to Ultraman’s Color Timer.

While to many American and New York anime fans Ultraman isn’t that big of a deal compared to, say, Power Rangers or Godzilla, I hope I’ve helped you to appreciate Ultraman at least a bit more. I wonder if we’ll see at Waku Waku +NYC any New York cosplayers who want to dress as one of Japan’s greatest fictional heroes. -Carl – ­Waku Waku +NYC is a Brooklyn anime convention coming this August 29-30 that will have anime, manga, Japanese food, Lolita fashion, kawaii fashion, video games, and more. Check out the Facebook and the official site for more information!

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