The Mike Toole Show

by Mike Toole,

Shortly after my picks for the top 5 anime of 2015 were published, the feedback started rolling in. I expected to be cross-examined for leaving out fan favorites and the deeply questionable practice of not picking One-Punch Man as #1, but one question did stand out: a few folks asked, why no Japan Animator Expo? The rolling series of shorts, underwritten by telecom giant Dwango and coordinated by Studio Khara, had been steadily furnishing global animation fandom with awesome short films for over a year. Surely, at least some of these films were worthy of consideration?

It wasn't that I'd forgotten Japan Animator Expo—in fact, I helped crowdfund one of its segments, Masashi Kawamura and Moyoco Anno's Diary of Ochibi, and one of my best memories of 2015 is my visit to AnimeNext, which involved watching Trigger's Sex&VIOLENCE with MACHSPEED in a big room with some of the cartoon's principal creators. The thing is, while I eagerly devour these segments when they arrive, they don't quite leave the same impact as a long-form, serialized TV series. In particular, while I like Japan Animator Expo a lot, its shorts' various styles and themes aren't particularly cohesive—it doesn't feel like a true anthology, like a Robot Carnival or Neo Tokyo. I do feel the need, this time, to bring up my favorite segment so far: Akitoshi Yokoyama's The Ultraman.

Interestingly, The Ultraman isn't the first time Japan Animator Expo has tackled a tokusatsu live-action adaptation. Studio Trigger's Akira Amemiya had previously animated a wonderfully breathless, flashy version of Gridman, the 90s show that we remember as Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad. I remember when Amemiya's Gridman was announced, some fans expressed surprise and disappointment—why would the red-hot Studio Trigger brush aside something ostensibly more creative and outrageous to tackle Gridman, of all things? But to me, the intersection of animation and tokusatsu under the auspices of Khara and Hideaki Anno, an unabashed Ultra-fan, made perfect sense. The shorts had already both directly and indirectly referenced fare like Evangelion and Gundam, after all, and animated adaptations of tokusatsu series was nothing new, either.

I wrote about a number of anime adaptations of tokusatsu shows a couple of years back. In that piece, I described Tsuburaya Productions and Sunrise's The Ultraman (hey, that's a familiar title…), known in the west at times as Ultraman II and The Adventures of Ultraman, as “dreary.” That wasn't a particularly fair take on the series, so let's have a closer look. The Ultraman actually has a really interesting place in the decades-long pantheon of silver-and-red heroes who've come to defend the earth from the distant planet land of Nebula M78, 1600 light years from our solar system (hey, that's practically next door!). At the time of The Ultraman's production, Ultraman was an established global hit—the super-cool 1966 original and its cavalcade of sequels and spinoffs, from Ultra Seven to The Return of Ultraman (not to be confused with the 1983 fan film Return of Ultraman, starring Hideaki Anno himself as the hero!) to Ultramen Ace, Taro, and Leo, had kept kids and SFX junkies around the world captivated with their struggles against rubbery invading aliens.

One really interesting aspect of The Ultraman is that it's not a spinoff or side-project, but rather an established part of the “main” Showa-era Ultraman canon. Sunrise's animation (and a frankly ugly take on Ultraman's bug-eyed alien look in the title hero, known as Ultraman Jonias, in my opinion) was a different look to previous productions, but not so different that it wasn't included in the franchise's main narrative. This incarnation's Science Defense Guard battled against the Heller Army, a relentlessly invading squad of monsters led by Heller himself, a smirking, brooding dictator in the mold of Space Battleship Yamato's Dessler. This is no coincidence—The Ultraman being an animated series rather than another live-action joint is the result of a couple of factors, one of them being the Yamato-mania that had been sweeping Japan for years leading up to The Ultraman's production. The series even hit up Dessler actor Masatō Ibu to voice Ultraman himself, who speaks urgently to Guardsman Choichiro Hikaru before, like many Ultramen before him, merging with the human to facilitate combat on Earth. Another wrinkle: this particular Ultraman wasn't from M78, but from Planet U40—the same place that the nefarious Heller hailed from.

The other reason The Ultraman was animated is a bit simpler: Tsuburaya Productions had an existing business relationship with Nippon Sunrise, a relatively new and upcoming studio that were also just commencing work on something called Mobile Suit Gundam when The Ultraman went into production. See, a few years earlier, one of the many Tsuburaya family members, Akira, hit on a nifty idea—why not combine the company's famous monster and miniature model special effects with state-of-the-art animation? The product of this idea was a trio of TV shows fondly referred to by Japanese fans as Tsuburaya's “Dinosaur Trilogy,” starting with Dinosaur Expedition Born Free in 1976. Yes, actually, the company called their show “Born Free,” just like that old British movie with the lion cubs. Born Free, which was dubbed, in edited digest form, under the title Return of the Dinosaurs, isn't good, exactly, but it's damned entertaining. My favorite detail is the fact that the dinosaurs are brought back to life by a passing comet called アービー, which I have no choice but to render in Roman letters as “Arby.”Now I want a sandwich and some curly fries!

Born Free was followed by the similarly nutso, dinosaur-riffic Aizenborg (Eisenborg?), which bad anime connoisseurs will remember under the title Attack of the Super Monsters. The third and final dinosaur trilogy chapter, Dinosaur Corps Koseidon, was a pure live-action series, but the relationship with Sunrise was established, and so they were the studio of choice for The Ultraman, under the auspices of Tatsunoko's hitmaker director Hisayuki Toriumi. I've only managed to see the portions of The Ultraman dubbed in English, which includes the first four episodes (puzzlingly titled Ultraman II) dubbed by the loveable gang of misfits at Intersound, the same people who eventually did the voices for Robotech. In a stroke of real genius, Tom Wyner plays both the narrator and Ultraman himself, and makes no attempt to distinguish the alien's voice, so it sounds like the narrator is giving instructions for transforming into Ultraman to our hero, Scott Harris. The other The Ultraman dub is The Adventures of Ultraman, a movie edit of the show's finale. This is very much worth seeking out, because not only does it feature a multitude of Ultraman's attacks that were previously revealed only gradually through the course of the series, it's got some great, dynamic action animation courtesy of Ichiro Itano, and the big finish was ghost-storyboarded by a couple of gadflies named Yoshiyuki Tomino and Ryosuke Takahashi.

Another interesting The Ultraman factoid: it was the final Showa-era Ultraman TV series. The Showa era didn't make way for the Heisei era until 1989, so that was one hell of a gap! The gap was filled with several Ultraman movies, not to mention Ultraman USA, the movie-length pilot co-produced by Tsuburaya and Hanna Barbera. (I've written about that one before.) Ultraman would also get more animation in the 80s thanks to Ultraman Kids, which is exactly what you think it is: a goofy cartoon where little-kid versions of Ultraman and his pals get into adventures. What, you think American cartoons' long string of dumb, lazy “classic heroes as KIDS!” Saturday morning cartoons like Flintstones Kids and Pink Panther and Sons was a local phenomenon only? Think again!

When Ultraman returned to the small screen, it was in the 90s, and the characters, now members of the Universal Multipurpose Agency, were speaking English! 1990's Ultraman: Towards the Future, a co-production with Australia's South Australia Film Corporation, was a big push to globalize the Ultraman brand. It got a TV broadcast here in the US, not to mention a big lineup of toys and tie-in products. (You can still find the Halloween costume pattern from McCall's!) The show actually had a great orchestral score and solid monster battles, and any mention of it still causes me and my friend Neil to breathlessly recite the narrator's urgent litany, “Because of earth's polluted atmosphere, Ultraman can only retain his gigantic form for three minutes. Time… is running out!” in a badly-mimicked Aussie accent.

That stab at a truly international Ultraman would be repeated soon after, with 1992's Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero, which was produced in the US. Remember watching it on TV? You probably shouldn't, because it never aired in the US! The episodes are easy to find on You Tube, and pretty hard to sit through, so it's probably for the best that it never made it too far outside of Japan, where it aired under the title Ultraman Powered.

The 90s also gave us more Ultraman animation, in the form of SD sitcom Ultraman Graffiti. Ultraman Graffiti was a super-deformed gag cartoon, part of a boomlet of similar productions like SD Gundam and Super Deformed Double Feature. In this incarnation, Ultraman is a harried family man who works at a car dealership. His boss is the lobster-like Baltanian, one of the classic Ultraman bad guys. He's irritated by the antics of absent-minded company president Ultra Seven, and envious of his more successful older brother, Ultraman Zoffy. Essentially, this 60-minute featurette is completely incomprehensible if you're not familiar with Ultraman lore, but pretty damned funny if you are.

Another Ultraman OVA was 1996's Ultraman: Cho-toshi Gekiden, or Ultraman: Super Fighter Legend. It is literally a toy commercial. Super Fighter Legend launched as a toy line, manga, and Gameboy game in 1993—the main hook was the ability to get together with your schoolyard pals and do battle with pocket-sized figures—think Battle Beasts or M.U.S.C.L.E. and you've got the right idea. The cartoon itself isn't bad, just a bit bland. After this, we got 1997's Ultra-Nyan, which… wait a second, “nyan” as in “meow?” You couldn't possibly mean that they

Yep, they went there, alright, turning a single bad pun into two separate cartoon features that ran before Ultraman movies in the late 90s. These things are actually pretty nicely put together by Triangle Staff and director Hiroko Tokita—instead of getting time-limited power from crystals, Ultra-nyan's power comes from being petted, and he gets in trouble when the bad guys yank his tail. Yes, I watched the whole thing. Nope, no regrets. Tokita would go on to direct another gag comedy short, M78 Theatre: Love & Peace, and that just about brings us up to the present day, in terms of Ultraman anime. It's interesting how so much of it is little kids' fare, gag cartoons, or some combination thereof, in light of how serious and far-flung the tokusatsu stuff is.

In that sense, the Animator Expo The Ultraman is all the more impressive for its depiction of the heroes. Here, director Yokoyama and his animation director, Hisashi Mori, manage to capture the cheesiness of the original's trick photography and stock sound effects—but then they elide these elements into a setting that showcases the Ultraman universe really impressively, with great action animation and a story that made me seek out more information about the characters and background immediately. The villainous Jackal defeats and kills all Ultramen (not a huge problem, as any Ultra-fan will tell you that Ultramen are routinely killed and resurrected later) and calls out Zoffy, the serious, studious big-brother figure to all the old Ultra-heroes, for a final battle. The result is a short that manages to capture the magic of the Showa-era shows and blow it up to massive proportions. It's something I've watched over and over, one of my favorite pieces of animation of 2015.

On a related note, The Ultraman isn't even the only Ultraman we're getting in the west. Viz has snapped up Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi's ULTRAMAN manga, which is a very solid piece of seinen action comics, and have already started releasing it in English. My favorite part of this comic sequel to the original 1966 Ultraman is the way that it hooks both end of the audience—it's a true sequel, with original Ultraman Hayata drawn back into an alien invasion plot. He's become an old man, but don't fret—he had a son pretty late on, and young Shinjiro seems to exhibit the same “Ultraman Factor” that his dad had when he merged with Ultraman back in the sixties. The manga doesn't depend on knowledge of the original, but if you know and enjoy Ultraman lore, it's a big bonus.

These days, Ultraman is part of the furniture in Japan—publicity stunt scenes like the above are commonplace, and the character is beloved by both young and old fans. The character and series has had far-reaching and obvious influence over anime, coloring classics like Evangelion and The Big O. But Ultraman's continuing survival was actually kind of a close thing—originally, ailing patriarch and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya had intended Ultra Seven to be the only “ultra” spinoff, but after his death his son Hajime brought the company back to their big hit. Can you imagine a world without Ultraman? I can't.

For now, the Japan Animator Expo stands tall, a showcase for great animation from Japan. Right now, both Gridman and The Ultraman are free to view on the Japan Animator Expo site. (Don't wait—apparently, they're being yanked back behind the curtain at the end of January 2016!) Have a gander, and if you're new to Ultraman or an old fan, share your impressions in the comments! And hey, what does that “Shoe watch!” battle cry that Ultraman uses mean, anyway…?

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