Why Hasn't Ultraman Been Given The Hollywood Treatment?
by Justin Sevakis,
Tokusatsu fan that I am, I've kept up-to-date with the original Ultraman series, particularly after my mother mentioned it as a series she and other children enjoyed back in the day. In the past few years, we've seen big budget Hollywood adaptions of Japanese works--but interesting to me, these would include anglicized versions of Japanese works (a Speed Racer movie vs. a "Mach Go-Go-Go" movie, Power Rangers instead of "Zyuranger"). I know an Ultraman series was filmed in the U.S. (Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero), but never broadcast locally. Being that this is the age of nostalgia (for better or worse), why hasn't Ultraman made a Speed Racer- or Voltron-esque comeback?
Under normal circumstances, "why hasn't this happened" questions are impossible to answer definitively. However, in going through the weird, rocky history of Ultraman outside of Japan, it is abundantly clear why no major Hollywood studio has been sniffing around the property.
First, a little background: Ultraman only really ever made a small mark in the United States. There have been several attempts to adapt existing Ultraman shows for American audiences: the original 1966 Ultraman series and 1967's Ultra Seven series were dubbed and shown on American television in the mid 70s; these were minor hits, but not really the mainstream catapult of some other kids' shows of the era. Still, they remained in America's pop culture subconscious to the point where BCI Eclipse put out DVD versions decades later. (But more on that below.)
The 1979 TV anime The Ultraman was recut into two separate direct-to-video/cable feature films that were sold to English territories in the early 80s. The 13-episode Australian co-production Ultraman Great was sold to some US TV stations in the early 90s; and finally 4Kids' adapted Ultraman Tiga for its FoxBox programming lineup in 2002. I can't find much information on the former series at all (I was watching kids' TV at the time and have zero memory of this) -- I'm guessing it was just syndicated to a few local markets instead of actually given a real national broadcast. The FoxBox airing was one of the minor shows of the 4Kids block (which later became 4Kids TV), and was quickly retired to make room for other shows. The point is, while the franchise has minor cult appeal in the States, it's probably just short of being a household name, and probably not a familiar enough brand for major studios to really lust after the property like they would, say, Tetris. (sigh)
At any rate, the issue is somewhat moot, because the property is still the subject of an ongoing legal war between Tsuburaya Productions, the show's original creator (now owned by ad agency and entertainment conglomerate TYO Inc.) and a Thai company called Chaiyo Productions (and now UM Corporation). The story goes that the two companies had collaborated on two movies in the 70s, and Chaiyo's president, a man named Sompote Saengduenchai, claims that in 1976, Noboru Tsuburaya (son of founder Eiji Tsuburaya) signed over the rights to everything Ultraman related outside of Japan in exchange for a loan. (Noboru Tsuburaya died in 1995.)
Saengduenchai did indeed have a name-stamped document proving this, although it's extremely vague. Tsuburaya Productions claims that it's a forgery, and points out that the document gets a number of names wrong, including the names of series as well as Tsuburaya's corporate name. The ensuing legal battle waged for 8 years across courts in both countries. The ultimate decision in 2004 officially gave Chaiyo the rights to the first six shows from the Ultra Series (Ultra Q through 1973's Ultraman Taro) outside of Japan, as well as Jumborg Ace. But the ruling was unclear: Chaiyo (and their local press) claimed that they now had worldwide-except-Japan rights for everything Ultraman-related; Tsuburaya's interpretation was that Chaiyo only had broadcast rights for these seven shows in Thailand and Merchandising rights worldwide.
During the dispute, Chaiyo came up with a few new Ultraman franchises (in the form of stage shows and new merchandise), and had a TV show in development in China. Tsuburaya sued again, and another years-long international court battle ensued. Saengduenchai claims to be the co-creator of the show (a claim that Thailand's supreme court dismissed in 2008, smacking down Chaiyo's ability to produce new Ultraman content), and while both sides have won court cases and lost court cases, it's not at all clear where things currently lie. Several articles I found chronicalling the whole thing seem to contradict each other and sometimes themselves, and I just can't make any sense of them. Regardless, both companies are still acting like they own the rights to the franchise outright, which is completely untenable to any large corporation wanting to engage in a big worldwide project.
Tsuburaya has continued to produce new Ultra Series shows, with several recent ones having ended up on Crunchyroll. (That Tsuburaya can produce and sell new Ultraman stuff in Japan does not appear to be in dispute.) Chaiyo has continued to license broadcast and home video rights to the pre-1974 series, and transferred ownership to a new American company, UM Corporation, in 2007. Finally, UM Corporation launched a fresh lawsuit against Tsuburaya last year for putting the classic shows on YouTube worldwide. And so the war rages on.
What a mess. No Hollywood studio or financier would ever touch this legal hot potato. It's practically inviting a legal nightmare upon yourself! The two companies would never work together on anything, and you would surely be sued by whichever company you ended up not buying the rights from. At best, you'd have produced a film that you'd be unable to release in Japan, the one country where Ultraman is a guaranteed hit! Nonetheless, as late as 2013 Sompote Saengduenchai, now in his mid-70s, was telling enthusiast press websites that a feature film was, in fact, in the works, and that they were hoping for Will Smith to star in the project. At the time, Saengduenchai estimated a 2016 release for the film. I'm pretty sure we can ignore all of that.
As an aside, those BCI Eclipse DVDs that came out in the mid-2000s had gaps in the English audio track, where the TV broadcast versions of the dub were cut. It is thought that Tsuburaya apparently does have uncut English dub masters, but they would never hand them over, because BCI licensed the series from Chaiyo. The subsequent release by another publisher wasn't able to get the uncut dub materials either.
This legal war shows no signs of stopping. If the rights to Ultraman outside of Japan ever get resolved maybe something like a Hollywood adaptation will happen, but as of now... no freaking way.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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