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This Week in Anime
Does The Ultraman Hold Up In Anime Form?

by Jean-Karlo Lemus & Monique Thomas,

Ultraman's legacy in Japanese popular culture runs deep and wide. Despite its enduring influence, however, the acclaimed tokusatsu series remains relatively obscure overseas even among diehard anime fans. With the 1979 The Ultraman anime installment finally streaming in the U.S., it's time to tackle the kaiju in the room. How well does this series hold up in anime form?

This series is streaming on TokuShoutsu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet


Hey, everyone, welcome to another This Week in Anime! I'm Nicky and to start us off, I've got a little riddle. Hey, Jean-Karlo, Can you tell me which Japanese Superhero is bigger than Superman?

Haha, that's an easy one! 'Cuz when "Super"'s not enough, there's always Ultraman!
Thank you for that classic line, Eric Stuart!
Ding-ding! That's right! And he's a pretty big guy too, if anything. Sometimes you don't need too many crazy superpowers as much as just being big enough to suplex your kaiju enemies.

Today, we're talking about the 1979 The Ultraman anime series. It's the eighth installment of the biggest tokusatsu franchise around, and also its first animated venture.
While Ultraman isn't as recognizable among overseas audiences as Super Sentai/Power Rangers or Kamen Rider, he's an icon of Japanese tokusatsu (special effects). The 1979 The Ultraman animated series being streamed on TokuShoutsu is definitely a treat: Tsuburaya teamed up with Sunrise (the Gundam people) to produce an animated series.

Because the title is kinda confusing, it should be noted that this Ultraman isn't the original Ultraman from the 1966 live-action series. The Ultraman's Ultraman was later been dubbed Ultraman Joneus, and while his universe is a different one from the live-action series it is still in continuity with the live-action show.

I, like many anime fans, actually have little to no direct experience with Ultraman. My biggest exposure might actually just be the student fan film Return of Ultraman produced by future Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideaki Anno where he casts himself as Ultraman wearing a track-suit.
This is what peak performance looks like.

And as a reminder: Ultraman is insanely influential in media. The concept of "space police officer shares their body with an earthling who got caught up in their work" has been used and parodied in countless anime in the decades since like Birdy the Mighty, UFO Princess Valkyrie and Waiting in the Summer. Also, Anno didn't just direct Shin Godzilla, he is also concurrently working on Shin Ultraman and Shin Kamen Rider films.
And I'm greatly looking forward for both of them! But before we talk about the future, let's flash back to the past.
The Earth Self-Defense Force, witnessing bizarre phenomena like alien letters appearing in the sky, establishes the Emergency Science and Defense Squad. Commander Akiyama forms a crack team of engineers, medical experts, and some sloppy dude named Marumi to head the team while also comandeering the use of the Super Maddock, the most-advanced space ship on Earth.

While the Captain has assembled his crew, the young Hikari makes his trip back down to earth after spending a whole year living peacefully on space station EGG3. But on his way back he's consumed by a mysterious light and confronted by the alien-being himself, Ultraman. Ultraman says the mysterious lights were the people trying to warn the people of Earth of incoming danger. Ultraman wants to help but he cannot sustain a form on earth without help, and chooses Hikari as his earthly vessel.

Ultraman, although a being from space, kinda has a lot more similarities to a godly encounter than one of extraterrestrial or supernatural nature. What with all the psychedelia and rays of light everywhere.
Well, the M78 Nebula said to be the home of all Ultras is known as "The Land of Light," so this is par for the course for an Ultra's appearance. At least Hikari didn't get his body blown up in a fight between an Ultra or a monster!
Whether he's a God, a ghost, or an alien doesn't really matter as much as Ultraman kicks serious monster butt! But, unfortunately, he's also got a serious time limit, serious enough to emphasize practically every episode. He might have a worse battery life than my Nintendo 3DS!
If you've ever wondered why your Pokémon kept making that horrendous sound when their HP is low: you can thank the adults of Game Freak for being traumatized by the beeping of Ultraman's Color Timer. Yes, all of them have one.

I understand why a few NGE episodes had the EVAs on chargers now. Ultraman practically needs one. But, this doesn't stop him from doing his best and getting his job done in the nick of time!
Right away, the advantage of The Ultraman being an animated adaptation is apparent. Live-action Ultraman was able to wow audiences with memorable monster designs, engaging wrestling action, and effective (but affordable!) special effects, but those suits were expensive to produce. Here, no such limitation exists, so Ultraman Joneus is able to fight a quartet of ice-breathing kaiju right off the bat!
You can also do some weirder stuff like have a weird living tornado or have every member of the cry fly a super cool jet all without endangering a real stunt-actor.
That last part is important! Not unlike The Thunderbirds, a lot of Ultraman's appeal was seeing tiny model ships firing squibs at each other. In fact, Hikari normally doesn't transform into Ultraman until he's sure the problem couldn't be solved without him, and there are plenty of times where the day is saved because someone kept a bazooka handy!

For a monster-of-the-week show, there's actually quite a lot of focus on the crew, I might add. It feels more emblematic of like Star Trek original flavor than like most anime produced now.
Marumi, for example, is the comic relief character and you'd be forgiven for thinking his only contribution is being "the fat guy." But he's a vital member of the team: sure, he was obsessed with giving fellow-crewman Mutsumi a pendant for her birthday, but it turned out that pendant had a flare that made it possible for Ultraman to rescue them both from a sentient monster-fueled tornado.

I actually was surprised how much focus the show had on Marumi. He's actually more closer to a flawed everyman-type compared to Hikari, who is too young and pure for that. I particularly liked the third episode where he has to convince a kid that a baby monster isn't a suitable pet or how he doesn't hesitate to risk himself in the second episode to try and save the station from the tornado. Even if he was shitty and tried to sabotage Hikari so he could get a better chance of winning Mutsumi's affection in the same episode.
Eiji Tsuburaya had a strong philosophy when it came to designing monsters for the Ultra series, preferring to avoid outright-grotesqueries and instead focus on monsters reflecting the nature of people around them. Wanigodon is a weird giant crocodile whose split parts can be reborn as a tiny version of itself that within days can grow into another massive kaiju. Marumi painfully impresses upon a kid—the main demographic of this show—that even the best of intentions don't make you a suitable caretaker for a wild animal.

It shows a lot of maturity of his character too. He's pretty much the real hero of that episode after being able to figure out the monster's true weakness. I'm not a big fan of how he treats his female coworker Mutsumi, but I don't think the show really condones all of that. I was surprised to see her introduced as someone with value to the team who wanted to be treated equally as a coworker, even if it's heavy-handed by today's standards.

The philosophy of the show is a very idealistic one where men and women alike work together to build a better society on the back of technology. The original Science Patrol wasn't strictly a military organization, and the Defense Squad is no different. Episode 4 is a great example: a bizarre sentient cloud has been hovering over Japan, and nobody knows how to handle it. The Defense Squad prioritizes keeping civilians away from it while they figure out how to neutralize it.

They do still use a lot of big guns, but their first and foremost mission seems to be simply protecting people.
But they also take the time to spare some mercy for the kaiju; after the red cloud is painfully condensed into Red Smogy via contact with rainwater, the Defense Squad breathes easy when Ultraman both reverts Smogy back into a cloud and whisks it into the vacuum of space where it won't have to fear contact with water.

There's an understanding that many kaiju are just phenomena or creatures that are blameless for following their instincts, which could cause harm to humans entirely by accident. While the Defense Squad won't hesitate to kill rogue or violent kaiju, they are sympathetic to the plight of lifeforms that are just too disruptive to the ecosystem.
There's another episode where they show sympathy for the monsters because it's trying to protect it's babies. Lots of kaiju stuff stems from this theme of man vs nature, but this kind of neutral or even sometimes sympathetic outlook makes sense. The kaiju may feel like an invasive threat but they still seem to stem from the earth itself and are therefore an extension of it.

Also, anyone who knows me knows that I can't resist the power of "Wow, cool monster!" the monsters here are very dopey but I still enjoy looking at them.
The Toughguibabies (yes, that's their name) are adorable and seemingly only exist to waddle up to the nearest source of foliage and gnaw on it like hamsters with the most bugged-out expression possible and I just about died every time they flashed on screen eating their weight in trees while a massive kaiju battle waged on in the background.

Also, because babies are innocent, Ultraman Joneus shrinks them with a power he's apparently got so that Dr Nishiki can take the Toughguibabies back to Africa where he can safely study them. But the shrink ray only works on good monsters, so Joneus can't use it on others.
Their parents are also like neat herbivore dinosaurs that also have quills like a porcupine. And different designs for the male and female! Quality monster thoughts. I think despite it's age and being heavily rotoscoped, the animation on Ultraman himself is also quite good. There's very little stock footage and lots of emphasis on his musculature as he flips around or picking up and tossing his monster rivals.

However, as much as I like monsters I still can't really bring myself to like or understand whatever the fuck THIS thing is??? Seriously, what is THAT?!
So, Pig the Robot is based on Pigmon, a beloved and tragic pygmy kaiju from the original Ultraman series. I think Pig is supposed to be some kind of kid-appeal character like 7-Zark-7? I mean, I definitely shed a few tears when I see the Science Patrol standing above Pigmon's humble grave at the end of The Little Hero, but I can't pretend to find him particularly adorable. Not unless a certain blue-haired god is listening and is priming Tim Curry to sicc a giant cyborg Pigmon on me.
The anime doesn't really offer an explanation for him other than he's a loyal part of the team. He does seem pretty smart and serves the other members well, though. The captain even had him make a birthday cake for Mutsumi's party. However, I think he is both cute and ugly and I am never quite sure what I'm looking at. They seem to flatten his design a lot from his live-action counterpart.
Being 2D instead of 3D will do that to ya, just ask any Vtuber.

There's still a good amount of character development to be had, especially with Pig around. You see a lot of episodes in Ultra where a character is tasked with staking the mission (and their pride) on inventing some kind of solution to a problem. In the final episode we covered for this column, the Super Maddock can't dive deep enough into the ocean to safely pursue the kaiju Firebadon. Tobe, the chief mechanic, finds inspiration from, of all people... Pig.

Tobe is the resident machines man of the group, so he doesn't have many speaking roles but is handy in a pinch. Watching him wallow over how to fix the ship was interesting. Fitting for a long series, it develops the cast early through simple conflicts. And sometimes the solutions are actually pretty clever! We also see quite a bit of crew in-fighting this episode.
I'm still living over his solution: he created a pressurized external hull for the Super Maddock that could launch the Maddock from inside like some kind of giant Happy Meal toy. It's totally bonkers and illogical and exactly the kind of Mickey Mouse engineering that you could only get from the Ultra series. This... is good-good. Goes to show that the show couldn't lose its spirit in adapting to a new format if it tried.
The fight underwater with the fire kaiju is pretty good too. Ultraman puts this thing in a sweet chokehold. There are so many cool little moments. Also, if anything the music is just very funky and makes it easy to get into the groove of things if you let it take you.

Stuff like the stock footage for the Super Maddock's launch sequence still feels like it was shot with actual miniatures. If Tsuburaya were so inclined, they could have mixed the miniature stock footage with superimposed animated characters like what was done with Attack of the Super Monsters. They didn't, but the show doesn't feel worse for it. This feels like it captures the spirit of the live-action Ultraman in ways that a lot of other adaptations for other media don't manage to capture.
Quite a bit of this looks good for its age, surprisingly. The color is still very good and mostly feels intact. Though, it's still quite old. The footage is still heavily artifacted compared to the cleaner restorations we've been going over as of late on TWIA. The plots are also slower compared to now. But there are great little bits of novelty in time pieces like this. Especially if you're already a fan.
As mentioned earlier, the spirit of Ultraman and the Ultra series at large is the hope that the tech of the future can lead to a better world. Not a single Ultra doesn't have the absolute confidence humanity that can overcome its struggles and join the rest of the galaxy in peace and harmony. After all, they keep finding worthy humans to team up with. It's goofy, it all boils down to seeing a guy wrestle someone else in a clumsy suit, but it's all painfully genuine and sincere.

It almost renders the idea of a deconstruction pointless: it's immaterial if you can see the zipper on the suit. We're not here because friendly giant aliens and space ships are logical or realistic. We're here because it'd be nice if they were.
If monsters were real I might actually become that kid who tries to keep one as a pet, so maybe it's a good thing that they aren't! But I enjoy having a silly diversion—anime is built on this concept of silly diversions being an important part of reaching emotional truths, and it's nice to see where part of that influence stems from. Although it's not the first time it's been brought to the U.S., Shout Factory has been doing a great job of trying to make Ultraman and other Toku available as they can, and it's an important time capsule to keep around.
It's kinda stunning how obscure Ultraman is in America given how many times Tsuburaya has localized it. I'm hoping this one is the one.

And if this animated take on a giant superhero from Tsuburaya isn't quite your speed, have I got another show to shill!

The legacy of Ultraman surely is as vast as he is tall. Crossing my fingers for Gridman x Dynazenon soon. See you next time!

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