When my family was in Japan in the '80s, there wasn't a new Ultraman on the air. But Ultraman is such a giant figure in pop-culture that the franchise's presence could still be felt -- in commercials, in toy stores, in variety shows. The shows are always being rerun. He's Japan's biggest superhero, there's no escaping him.
While I was a Sentai Kid, I also watched Metal Heroes and what I could of Kamen Rider Black. I had some episodes and merch of funky shows like Morimori Bokkun (aka "the fat robot guy"), Hadogumi (aka "the gold mask guy") and Maringumi (not important enough to get a nickname, but it was obvious he was Gold Guy's successor). But despite not seeing a show, I still had some Ultraman stuff -- soft vinyls of the Ultra Brothers, an Ultraman 80 book. I remember him in commercials, and not even in just commercials related to plugging his own merchandise or toku, but ramen. One commercial which stuck out was for the Ultraman video game, which showed fight scene clips from the original series.
I knew who Ultraman was, but I didn't know what he was about. That Ultraman 80 book, these fight scene clips, I had created a kind of scenario in my head of what it could all be about. I pictured some big, epic space adventure show. So imagine my surprise when I finally do check out an Ultraman and find that it's really locked down in what it wants to do and is so Earthbound. There's really yet to be an Ultraman show which matches what I had pictured in my head, which is something that prevented me from getting into the franchise. More on that in a second...
I think the first full episodes I ever saw ended up being some Ultrase7en on TNT. Despite its age, I remember thinking it seemed cool, but I was more fascinated by the idea of one of these Japanese hero shows being right there on an ordinary American channel. When I got full blown back into toku in the late '90s is when I made a real effort to always catch the show on TNT, which by then had been relegated to being a late night time slot filler. But it was always fun to stay up late watching MonsterVision and then wait around for some Ultrase7en. (I type it that way because people like to distinguish the dub by calling it Ultra 7, and it cracks me up to mock David Fincher's overrated Se7en by merging it with a '60s superhero show he'd no doubt look down on.)
I've always hated dubs and think they're goofy -- words never matching a mouth, half-interested voice-over performers sleepwalking through their job, often laying on thick, racist accents. But the Cinar dub always seemed decent to me -- they had performers who matched the characters well. I enjoyed the show a lot and attribute it to one of the reasons I'm still fond of Ultraseven and consider it my favorite of the franchise.
After that, I'd dabble in shows. I'd take a liking to some, like Tiga, and I'd enjoy what I'd see of other Showa Ultras like Ace and Leo. I'd like some of the movies, but for the most part I couldn't get into the franchise as much as I could Super Sentai or Kamen Rider. I'd blame the lighter tone, the format. The tone I'd always dismiss as being overly cheerful and goody-goody when I'm such a grumpy bastard. The format, I always felt like there was a disconnect between the giant battles and the rest of the show. The way they approached depicting the Ultraman...
With Sentai or Rider, it's a character donning armor or mutating into their battle form. The good shows went to great lengths in order to get you to believe the actor -- the same character -- was the one in suit. It was a bit of an obstacle for me to get to the point of buying into the Ultraman way of things, where the Ultra is merged with the host and the Ultra is the one that takes over during battle. Because the Ultra shows tended to use martial-artists or athletic guys first to play the Ultraman, there's rarely an attempt at turning it into a performance, making you see the host character within. (Even when the host WAS the Ultra in disguise and not just the human he happened upon and joined with; there's no real match between Koji Moritsugu's Dan and Koji Uenishi's Seven, for example, despite being one and the same.)
The Ultra suit actors care more about how cool they look, how they present themselves and how they fight. It's typically another voice-actor voicing the Ultra and not the guy who plays the host. This goes into how the shows want to present the Ultra -- the Ultra takes over, he's his own character, an entity of few words who's supposed to be a bit mysterious, a bit god-like. It's an approach you just have to go with, but when you've spent so much time with Super Sentai and Kamen Rider is just such a different approach and something you have to overcome. (Heck, I reached a point where I felt like there are some Ultraman shows where the Ultra seems so much cooler than the show's star that I'll be like "He shouldn't even have a host. Leave him be the Intergalactic Man of Mystery he is.")
And then there's the feeling that the attack teams didn't hold up their end -- I always felt that it made so much of the episode seem like a waste, you're spending time with these characters who are just killing time to end up taking the backseat for the Ultra in the last minute of the episode. ("You have to wait until the end of the episode for superhero action!?" was another reaction of mine which prevented me from getting into the franchise. If Super Sentai were just five unpowered schmoes who were running around until the last minute of the episode in order to call the mecha, I wouldn't like that franchise as much, let me tell you.) It's another frustrating nitpick you have to let go of if you want to buy into this franchise -- you can't help but go "Wow! So much damage could have been prevented if the Ultra showed up sooner rather than letting the puny humans attempt to save the town, when they were obviously outmatched." But the point IS that the Ultra is meant to be a last resort, that the intent is to let the humans accomplish all they can before stepping in. And also because of his time limit, he can't just always be hanging around. (Although the time limit is there for the writer's convenience; they don't always adhere to the rules.) So you just have to buy into the idea that the teams are doing their best...even when they seem lazy and incompetent and totally dependent on the Ultra, like ZAT. (For the record, I like Taro and ZAT, but...I wouldn't want to ever depend on ZAT.)
Now further add to all of THAT the way I feel like giant battles are made in a way that feels so disconnected from the rest of the show. You have the rest of the show taking place on ground, in the real world, but all of the big, fancy toku action is cordoned off on a soundstage, with a lot of miniatures conveying the action and damage done. With something like Sentai or Rider, the heroes get to share the screen and interact with other people, or there will be ground fights with villains or monsters interacting with citizens to help sell the illusion. Most of the time, the Ultra is isolated with just a giant monster and the miniature ships, and it's a style and conceit you have to totally buy into. That was an obstacle (and misconception) of mine, not really feeling like the human characters played much part in the bigger action, and it would sometimes feel to me like the gigantic Ultra action was like cutting to a different show. I'm not a mecha fan, but at least in Sentai you're getting the shots of the team in the cockpit. They're there in the battle, a part of it, they see the battle to its conclusion, they're finishing the fight with a creature that gave them trouble on the ground, too. (To be honest, as a mecha hater, I tend to just view the monster's death-by-cannon its actual defeat, with the mecha a pointless exercise in commerce.) In Ultraman, the science team's mech tends to get shot down immediately, and then they're on the ground, fellow spectators alongside us to the Ultraman battle. I just didn't see the point to this set up, especially when the franchise can be so rigid and stuck in its way. (It's only in the lesser shows that the attack teams seem lesser or like an afterthought...)
And that's not even getting into the fact, coming from being a Sentai and Rider fan, that I'm used to regular villains with agendas, and with Ultra's mostly one-shot villains and individual storylines, THAT can also take some getting used to.
Is this what Ultraman was all about? Although I've come to really like the original series over time, when I first saw it in full, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by it. Not only in comparison to Ultraseven, but because it didn't live up to that pretend show I built up in my head as a kid. (I really have to wonder if I did manage to see some Ultraman reruns as a kid, or even just a retrospective, because I really doubt I could have built so much up based off a freakin' commercial and book. I love the imagery and iconography of the original series, that has to come from seeing more of the show than I'm aware of.) The show uses strong space-age imagery, where's the scale, where's the alienness and galactic backdrop it should have? There's some poster art for Ultraman Powered that I love -- that piece by Noriyoshi Ohrai -- which is Ultraman standing, looking to the cosmos as all of his famous kaijuu opponents fill the galaxy and futuristic jets zoom past him. That piece comes close to capturing the image, the feel I had as a kid when I wondered what Ultraman was about.
And, again, factor into this my love for Super Sentai and Kamen Rider. (I'll throw you in, too, Metal Heroes. I loved Spielban as a kid.) Those were what I wanted out of superhero entertainment in tokusatsu. I'm a big, big fan of the Japan Action Club, who work primarily on Toei shows, who are dedicated ACTORS in addition to stunt performers. I liked the Toei method and style of doing things. I considered myself loyal to Toei and felt like getting into the rival franchise by the rival studio would be like betraying Toei and the Japan Action Club I held in such high regard. Silly? Maybe. I don't know. People get nuttier about sports team loyalty or choosing a side between Marvel and DC. Joke is, Toei betrayed ME by starting to make a bunch of unbearably terrible shows. Even the JAC (sorry, JAE) has gone down in quality -- the shows don't make it about action or suit-acting anymore, they're just good for standing around in CGI, goofing off and fiddling with Bandai's latest ugly contraption.
And then, a few years ago, I was rewatching Flashman and preparing to blog about it. I noted down similarities and homages I thought it obviously made to the Ultra franchise, because it was a heavily sci-fi toku series that happened to air on the anniversary of the first Ultraman's show, the show which made all of this possible. I had already taken note of the Ultraseven inspirations in Changeman, when I covered that show for its 30th anniversary. And I sort of had the thought, "These are my two top favorite toku shows and they're taking inspiration from Ultraman, paying homage and tribute. There's no divide here, but a respect and love for Ultra. Some old Ultra staff members, like Shouhei Toujou, started working on Toei's shows in the '80s. How can I love these two shows so much and basically be prejudiced against the Ultra franchise?"
And that was the big thing that led me to have an insanely massive Ultra marathon. It started out small, but I ended up diving deep, man. I rewatched some favorites (like TOS, Tiga, and Nexus) finished shows I never completed (like 80 or the overly long Cosmos), watched a couple I had never seen (like Max) or given a fair chance (like Dyna). I watched or rewatched just about mostly everything up until Mebius, which I wanted to be the big cap-off of this marathon. (Honestly, I haven't liked much of the Ultra shows post-Mebius that I've sampled. Maybe I'll try them again at some point, but for this big dive of a marathon, I needed that finish line.)
I wanted to keep an open mind. I wanted to let go of hang-ups and misconceptions. I wanted a new area of tokusatsu to explore -- to be honest, I felt a little O.D.'d and exhausted by just Sentai and Rider, and I've watched pretty much every non-franchise toku I'm interested in. At the time, things were very stressful in my personal life, to say the least, and I think that played a part in why I felt so much more receptive to the franchise during that marathon. It felt different enough to me to fill that requirement, but there's also just that joyful, fun, heartfelt, warm and earnest feel the shows often have. The Ultras are transportive, which I think is important, but they also have a certain pace that I found myself appreciating and enjoying more than I ever had, and it helped me relax and get wrapped up in the shows and get my mind off of things and I just ended up having a lot of fun watching them. That goody-goody, wholesome tone I always mocked? It kinda helped me out at the time. I found a new appreciation and respect for the franchise. Part of the appeal and charm of the franchise, what makes them have that emotional quality and lived-in feel and comfortable pace is that a lot of the shows are made with such care and love. Ultraman's a pop-culture giant and Tsuburaya's always tried to cultivate more passion for it; it's a big family endeavor and there are things that they want to keep preserved about it. It wants to appeal to anyone who's ever liked an Ultraman show before, be welcoming and familiar to fans old and new, and does it all in a really uncynical way. (Well, that's the way it seems at least up through Mebius. It seems it's gotten as hollow, corporate, toyetic and assembly-line as the other toku franchises now.)
And shortly after all of this happened, Tsuburaya finally got things straightened out and have made big advancements in releasing Ultraman in America. It felt like it was a good time to get into Ultra as Tsuburaya began to make progress getting the big guy out overseas. And I was actually excited about a lot of the Blu-ray releases -- if they had started coming out even just five or so years ago, I don't think I would have bought many of them or even cared, and would have been grumbling that more Sentai needs released or something.
So after all of my complaining and mocking of Ultraman...I consider myself a fan now, and, yeah, I feel kind of guilty doing so. I like every show up through Mebius except for Return of Ultraman and Max. (I can pretty much guarantee that if you saw me Tweet anything negative about the franchise -- like "It's boring!" or "I need to stop giving Ultraman a chance" -- that I was attempting to finish Return of Ultraman. And that was at a time before my Ultra-Awakening. I've since re-watched it and still don't like it, so...)
Even when I wasn't big on the franchise, I still liked Ultraseven, so while I probably made some hyperbolic slams against it in favor of Super Sentai or Kamen Rider, I don't feel like I ever want on "Doug Walker-esque rants" about it. Being compared to that guy is probably the meanest thing someone has said about me on the internet. And I've received death threats!