This year has been tough to take, and I for one need an escape every so often. And I’ve found myself really attracted to Japanese superhero series. I’ve already written about how much I enjoy the original Kamen Rider and its 2000 reboot Kamen Rider Kuuga, but while those shows are fun and engaging, the series that has me completely hooked is Ultraman. The nearly 55-year-old series offers a perfect mix of action, spectacle, humor, and heart. It’s also got hundred and hundreds of episodes, which can feel pretty daunting.
Luckily right now is the absolute perfect time to get into Ultraman as a North American. The series is getting a massive physical media and streaming push, and no less than Marvel Comics just launched a 5-issue miniseries that is shaping up to be pretty special. But there are 32 seasons of TV in the official canon, not counting spinoffs and non-canon entries, not to mention dozens of movies. That can overwhelm anyone. So as someone who’s spent a very long time this year watching many seasons in the Ultra universe, I know it’s probably easier to dive in if you have some basic knowledge.
We can’t talk about Ultraman without talking about Godzilla. The special effects master behind the groundbreaking suitmation and model work in Toho’s Godzilla series is Eiji Tsuburaya. After making several films for the studio, he founded his own company, Tsuburaya Productions, which sought to bring the same level of special effects majesty to the small screen. In 1966, the Tokyo Broadcasting System premiered Ultra Q, a black-and-white kind of X-Files with giant monsters. I wrote about series extensively here.
Ultra Q was an immediate ratings hit and TBS asked Tsuburaya for a second series right away. This new series would be a bit different; in color, more adventure than mystery, and would feature a giant hero character to fight the giant monsters. So, with only one week gap after the final Ultra Q episode, Ultraman debuted and was an even bigger hit.
In the first episode we meet the Science Special Search Party, or SSSP, a highly-funded government organization which both investigates and fights off alien and biological threats. Early in the first episode, a rookie member of the team, Shin Hayata, collides his plane with a red celestial orb, while the blue orb it chases crashes to Earth.
On the precipice between life and death, the entity inside the red orb intercedes to save Hayata’s life. He is Ultraman, an intergalactic warrior from Nebula M78, aka the Land of Light. Ultraman bonds his own life force to Hayata and offers his help; whenever needed, Hayata can use a Beta Capsule (which is just a transformation doohickey) and summon/become Ultraman. 40-feet-tall and possessing of fighting skills and special laser moves, Ultraman is the last resort when a giant monster is too much for the SSSP to handle alone.
The Further Ultras
Ultraman was incredibly successful, and in 1967 Tsuburaya Productions returned with Ultraseven. It was very similar to Ultraman but refined the premise to a degree. The tone and storytelling in Ultraseven was more grown-up; the comedy aspects of Ultraman were mostly removed; and the monster battles featured more blood and gore. And in order to streamline things, Ultraseven wasn’t an alien bonding with a human. Instead, he’s an alien taking human form. Dan Moroboshi, Ultraseven’s alter ego, worked for that show’s high-tech security agency, UG, the Ultra Guard.
Up to this point, aside from the idea of giant monsters and a giant, red-hued superhero fighting them, there was no connection between the Ultra series. This changed in 1971 when The Return of Ultraman debuted. It went back to the same set-up as Ultraman—an Ultra bonded to a human—but it was canonically established that this Ultraman was separate. He’d eventually get the name Ultraman Jack, and the original Ultraman and Ultraseven appeared in the series for a guest team-up.
Each new series starred a new central Ultra hero, but they also established more of the Ultras’ continuity. That method remains true to this day with crossovers and guest appearances aplenty.
Okay, so now that we’ve got the story basics out of the way, it’s time to decide where you start watching. Luckily, any season of Ultraman for the most part is a totally standalone affair. There’s always a new human protagonist, a new Ultra to bond with them, a new organization of monster fighters, and a lot of monsters. Each season is its own continuity within the same canon; the Ultras can travel between universes but only rarely do the human characters reappear disconnected from said Ultras.
The show more or less has three separate eras to choose from: the Showa, Heisei, and New Generation eras. The Showa era is any series between 1966 and 1981, which includes eight live-action series and one anime; the Heisei era begins in 1996’s Ultraman Tiga and goes through Neo Ultra Q in 2013. The Heisei era also includes a series of films introducing and starring Ultraman Zero, beginning in 2009, who to date has never had his own series but remains intensely popular and shows up frequently in subsequent seasons. The New Generation era begins with Ultraman Ginga in 2014 and goes through Ultraman Taiga in 2019. The current season, Ultraman Z, is the first season in the Reiwa Era.
So far, Mill Creek Entertainment has put out five seasons of Showa-era Ultra and five seasons (plus spin-off movies and miniseries) from the New Generation era. So it’s pretty easy to jump in anywhere in the Blu-rays. If you like the old Godzilla movies, the Showa era is for you; if you like J-drama and more CGI effects, the New Generation is your ticket. Just know that, even though they’re standalone, the New Generation era is highly referential and reverential to the older series. You don’t need to know them, just that you’ll see plenty of Showa and Heisei Ultras popping up.
The Ultra series scratches the itch of things like Doctor Who and the Marvel movies in a way I never fully expected. It’s all about heroism, friendship, loss, and yes, also big giant monsters and stuff. It’s really easy to watch any of the shows I’ve watched so far (six seasons and several movies) and there are a lot of episodes so you can just throw them on and you’re good for a day.
Current streaming options on TokuSHOUTsu are just 1974’s Ultraman Leo, but beginning in November, the streaming platform will host over 1100 episodes of the series and over 20 films. AND, the new Marvel Comics miniseries which just started has its own version of events in the series, putting Shin Hayata and the SSSP in modern day, with references to Ultraseven and Ultra Q in the first issue.
It’s kind of the perfect time to get into Ultraman if you’re of a mind to do so. Don’t be put off by the fact that there are subtitles; this is some of the most fun you can have watching TV. In a year bereft of big blockbuster entertainment, this supplies all the thrills you’ll need.
Featured Image: Tsuburaya Productions