Anpanman’s quasi-cannibalistic ‘Donburi Trio': under those lids lurk brains made of tasty fish’n rice just waiting to be served up…

At the advanced age of four my son has shifted his viewing loyalties from hydrophobic, bread-based not-so-superhero Anpanman to the rather more impressive 1960s legend… Ultraman.

It’s quite a switch. Gone are the cartoon images of cakey heroes, bacterial baddies, and one-off characters derived from Japanese vegetables and rice dishes. In their place, a humanoid space hero bestrides the wastelands and expanding urban sprawl of post-war Japan (lovingly rendered in state-of-the-art cardboard and plywood).

True to Japan’s fondness for towering semi-aquatic monsters rampaging across fragile landscapes, Ultraman offers a new kaijuu (monster) each week: they turn up wreaking indiscriminate fiery or gooey havoc, and occasionally – in the more ambitious episodes – launching some terrifying plan to zap, mutate, or enslave the human race.

And just when it’s all looking pretty bleak, when the orange jumpsuited human protection force discover their futuristic lasers barely tickle the crab-clawed invader, Ultraman comes swooping down from the upper atmosphere. Hurray!

And don’t worry: he’s not the tediously Japanified Superman you might expect. Where Superman shows us the confidence and anxieties of Christian America – his power, his uneasy mix of the human and the superhuman, his struggles with conscience and romantic attraction – Ultraman is… well, a guy in a zip-up rubber suit, who wrestles outsized crustaceans. To an excellent soundtrack:

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Later series of Ultraman followed the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation down the nauseating, pop psychology route of ‘the-real-enemy-is-your-unacknowledged-guilt’, etc. But the brilliant first two series basically involve a good guy punching, chopping, kicking, throwing, and ray-gunning the living daylights out of a bad guy.

Because that’s what the audience wants – as demonstrated time and again by the one-child focus group that I’ve been working with on this: whenever the plot gets too involved my son starts wandering around the room in search of alternative entertainment, until Ultraman finally checks in and the dust-up gets underway. The entirety of series two, starring ‘Ultra Seven’ and backed by another great theme song (‘Seven, seven, seven!’), basically boils down to this:

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The most obvious difference with Superman is that Ultraman relies a great deal on co-operation with others: the enterprising Tsuburaya Productions cooked up an entire ‘Ultra family’ – complete with a richly Oedipal ‘Ultra Mother’ – who zoom in from Hikari no Kuni (the Land of Light) to help one another when things get sticky. Good for Japan’s communitarian ethic, and very good for Tsuburaya’s bank balance, as financially exhausted parents looking forward to life after Anpanman merchandise find themselves having to keep sharp-eyed offspring away from row upon row of Ultraman figurines.

Ultra Mother, in her safe-for-younger-viewers incarnation. Elsewhere she falls victim to the Japanese pop culture rule that every fictional character has computer-generated pornography and/or cosplay potential…

But more intriguing than the co-operation theme is the sheer lack of interaction between Ultraman and the humans he protects.

The original Ultraman had only one word in his vocabulary – more of a noise in fact, a kind of intergalactic ‘ha!’ that accompanied his arrival for battle, his use of some particularly exciting move or other, and then his departure.

He never stays to chat once the kaijuu has been taken care of: in fact, a little red light on his chest starts bleeping, meaning he has to return home double-quick before his energy runs out.

For viewers brought up on Superman or Batman, loquacious by comparison, this seems strange. What’s going on?

I like to think it’s because where much of western philosophy is tied up with the idea of the divine – or divinities – ‘going native’ by taking human form, Japanese philosophy thinks about the transcendent as something always remote, always Other, beyond our comprehension.

But possibly it’s just lazy character development.

Whatever the reason, Ultraman is an iconic figure now in Japan. His special laser-from-forehead fighting move once wound up in a gory tea advert…

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And the theme tunes have become the focus of the sort of joyous community celebrations in concert halls that I’ll leave you with here – complete with schoolchildren doing the fighting poses…

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One comment

  • Yoshi Inoue
    April 3, 2013 - 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Nothing is impossible for Ultraman… check this out, believe it or not, this is official (Tsuburaya Productions): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEBu4i8U6fI

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