Kyodai Hero: An Ultraman Guide for New Viewers
We’ll continue the exploration of the monsters (in my prior article on Daikaiju Eiga), heroes, and robots that make up the cult classics referenced in many anime and tokusatsu series by diving into the kyodai hero genre.
Kyodai (giant) Hero genre is the natural evolution of the idea: Who fights the giant monsters? In other words, who/what is fighting the Kaiju? The answer, a giant space alien may seem unlikely, but it is a remarkably enduring concept. Unlike the sporadically released Toho filmography, the Kyodai hero TV series of the 1960’s have been released in complete form over the last decade and many of the titles are still in print. In the case of Ultraman and its sequels, the most famous Kyodai hero series, the first three entries made by Tsuburaya productions (founded by Godzilla special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya) are all available for streaming. These options make viewing these series easy. These shows are collectively known as “The Ultra Series” or “Ultraman Series” in Japan, and I will refer to them by the first title for clarity.
The structure of the Kyodai hero series is episodic, with each episode largely functioning as its own story. They can be viewed out of order without any major interruptions to the plot. Therefore the list that follows is more of a recommendation of episodes that are either very famous in Japan or that heavily influence various movies, television, or anime programs. One could make a case that this is true of every episode, but these recommendations continue to influence the Ultraman universe and many other genres.
The best series to start with for an introduction to the genre is Ultra Q. This series does not feature a giant hero, but is included here for reference for the first Kyodai Hero series, Ultraman. Most of these shows have a memorable monsters which were reused in future programs.
Ultra Q features a pilot and a reporter investigating bizarre events. X-files fans might see a comparison, but as far as I know that series did not have giant monsters. The first episode, “Defeat Gomez!,” features the monster Gomes fighting against the avian Litra. This episode is similar to Godzilla vs. Mothra and should hopefully sate a viewer’s appetite for exciting monster action.One piece of trivia for this episode is the use of a Godzilla suit for the base of the monster Gomez. Other Ultra Q episodes are important because of connections to suits and plots in later series. The first episodes we’ll look at are “Garadama” and “Garamon Strikes back.” These episodes feature the titular alien monster invading earth. However in these episodes unlike the Daikaiju Eiga movies Garamon was “recast” as the small, friendly monster Pigumon in Ultraman. The Ultra Q episodes had many other comedic moments such as “Kanegon’s Cocoon” which features one of the most popular comical monsters in this series. The money eating Monster Kanegon (from the Japanese word for money, “kane”) has been used as a mascot for merchandise by Tsuburaya productions for years. Another example of a comedic episode is “The Underground Super Express Goes West” which features a stowaway child, a runaway train, and the artificial lifeform M1. This madcap comedy episode’s wonderfully anarchic themes should definitely appeal to the child audience it was intended for, but may not appeal to anime nerds and hipsters. It is definitely a example of an episode where it is important to embrace one’s inner child. Part of what makes the Ultra Series unique as a format is it could switch from comedy to drama to action from episode to episode. Another feature of the Ultra Series that has shown up in countless other successors and imitators is horror. Although this is a family show and some of the horror is toned down, these stories are still creepy. The first is “Challenge from the Year 2020” which features the alternate dimensional being Kemul (kemurujin). The dark lighting and sparse area create a sense of tension and suspense that adds to the monster action. Finally the “Undersea Humanoid Ragon” episode features a regional take on The Creature From The Black Lagoon. This episode features more moody lighting and a small town atmosphere which makes the shocking ending even more intense.
The transition from Ultra Q to Ultraman is dramatic partially because of the switch to color and partially because of the new concept. In this series is the basic premise is an alien possessing a member of an advanced scientific team to stop problems from hostile monsters and aliens. The first episode is “Ultra Operation Number 1” and while this episode may not be the most engaging in the series it is important to watch for the first Ultraman origin story and giant monster battle. The rest of the recommended episodes are classic stories in this style of program. These episodes are recommended as pairs because of the same monster antagonist in each episode. The first of these episodes is “Defeat the Invaders” which is followed by “The Science Patrol to Outer Space.” These episodes feature the alien race, the Baltans (Barutan seijin) who have served as recurring antagonists for many sequel shows that followed. They can be described as crustaceans with illusion powers. Other episodes include “The Lawless Monster Zone” and “Mysterious Comet Tsuifon.” These episodes feature one of Ultraman’s strongest foes–Redking, a monster who relies almost chiefly on physical strength. Although other weapons have been added to Redking’s arsenal over time the classic “physical side” of the monster remains. As a bonus, although these could be considered minor spoilers these episodes feature battles with two or three monsters making it a “monster mash” in the Toho Godzilla tradition. The next pair of episodes are “Monster Majesty” parts 1 and 2. These feature Ultraman against one of his most fearsome opponents – Gomora, a large dinosaur with carnivorous teeth, claws and a whip tail. Although this monster features no beam or projectile weapons. Gomora gives Ultraman trouble for more than one episode and is the only monster to do so for this series. The final pair of episodes bring some variety to the series. In the first, “5 Seconds before the Big Explosion,” is a time bomb episode with a monster who will seem familiar to Ultra Q viewers. The second “The Terrifying Cosmic Rays” showcases a surrealistic plot with a monster concept that seems similar in style to Neon Genesis Evangelion. As a final example “The Mysterious Dinosaur Base” is as close as fans can get to Ultraman vs. Godzilla.
Ultraseven despite being only a year after the first two series feels like a huge step forward. The production is cleaner, the colors brighter, and the stories are more varied. I still prefer Ultraman for the raw energy and creativity of the series, but many people like this series better. The best place to start watching episodes from this series may be the first episode, “the Invisible Challenger.” Like the first Ultraman episode this episode is more of a showcase of the characters and the powers of Ultraseven along a conventional story. In that sense it succeeds. An episode to follow up this one is “Underground Go!Go!Go!,” which partially reveals Ultraseven’s origin on earth. Both these episodes conclude with Ultraseven fighting aliens in human size, a first for the series. The next episodes are all two parters so they may be more interesting to modern viewers who want a more complex story. They are also darker for this time period. The first is “Westward Ultra Garrison” parts one and two featuring Ultraseven and the organization his human identity belongs to, the Ultra Garrison, as they deal with foreign intrigue amid their fight against aliens. This episode features the giant gold robot King Joe, a fan favorite. The next two episodes, “the Seven Assassination Plan” showcase aliens plotting the demise of the main character and almost succeeding. The aliens, Guts (Guts seijin) have been nemeses to both Ultraseven and the rest of the characters of the Ultraman universe as a whole. Finally “the Greatest Battle in History” is a grand finale for the series, with high stakes, and dramatic losses. Although the main giant monster, Pandon, poses a serious threat to Ultraseven it is the large scale alien invasion that almost spells the end for our hero. Although in these shows it is usually assumed the good guys win, in this case it seems almost too close to call.
The rest of the Ultra Series, released in the US are on Crunchyroll. The first available for release in the states is Ultraman Leo. Although, some of these episodes have a limited story arc they do not take up the whole series. In this case it may be best to see the first four episodes as they introduce the character and his relationship with the captain Dan Moroboshi, the human identity of Ultraseven, played by the original actor, Koji Moritsugu. This creates a teacher student interaction as Dan trains Ultraman Leo in martial arts and Ultraman Leo learns what it means to be a hero.
Ultraman 80 the following series and the first live action Ultra series after a five-year hiatus is a curious example. The show has high glossy 80’s production values, but starts out with the hero working as a teacher while saving the world part-time. In this case, I recommend the first twelve episodes to understand the different tone and types of stories the series brings. The rest of the episodes are well made but similar to previous series. At this point the Ultra Series went into hiatus for 15 years. Although there were intermittent series the next full Japanese Ultra Series did not emerge until 1996. The revival Show Ultraman Tiga was licensed by Funimation but has been out of print for years. If that series is ever licensed by Crunchyroll it would be recommended. However, the best new show to watch for the 90’s is Ultraman Gaia. This series was mostly written by Chiaki Konaka, who wrote Serial Experiments Lain, Big-O, and Digimon Tamers along with many other shows. Unlike most the Ultra series this one is extremely story focused and it is more rewarding to watch the whole series. However, this may be too long for modern viewers who only see series with a maximum of 26 episodes. Another series that will hopefully appeal to older viewers is Ultraman Nexus because that was the intended purpose of the series. Ultraman Nexus was conceived as a darker more serialized show aimed at children and adults (Johnson). This turns a lot of conventions of Ultraman on its head and will hopefully appeal to older more serious American anime fans who want a good story and exciting action. Finally, after seeing the first three shows as a whole or seeing many of these series, Ultraman Max should be the final series to see for an introduction to this franchise. Ultraman Max was an anniversary show which featured the return of mostly older monsters and aliens from the first three series of the ‘60s. This series featured guest directors like the famous Takashi Miike and offered a great deal of variety and innovation in addition to the homages. There are several more series of Ultraman available on Crunchyroll in addition to the new Show Ultraman Orb, but this should give viewers a head start.
Johnson, Bob. “Ultraman Max: A Return to Basics.” Shusuke Kaneko Information Website. http://www.shusuke-kaneko.com/eng/behind-ultraman.html accessed 21 Aug. 2016.