The tokusatsu fandom is a fun bunch, but it can sometimes be a bit unforgiving when things don’t quite look or sound right to our eyes. If it doesn’t shout its name, wear a big, plastic device that people somehow believe is just a watch despite it looking nothing like one, and demonstrate a convenient array of sweet martial arts moves, it’s not always going to register with some of us in the English-speaking fan community. So many were introduced to this subgenre through the likes of Saban’s Power Rangers, and their many follow-ups, all of which adhered to a pretty strict formula of roll calls, teamwork, and big cheesy slogans. Maybe this contributes to the reluctance some have expressed over the years to jump into the wildly-successful, long-running Ultraman franchise.
Let’s face it. For some, if the classic toku shows are the Avengers, Ultraman is the Hawkeye of the group. While Super Sentai and Kamen Rider are jumping around, taking out bad guys left and right, Ultraman is the dude you forgot was there and maybe just kind of ignore until he does something awesome right in front of your face, whether you like it or not. Of course, it’s hard to be noticed when you’re the only girl that wasn’t invited to the prom, being from a completely different production company than those other titles. So, when it seems like every hero you’ve ever heard of, and seven more you never knew about, are all standing together on the tall ridge with the sunshine and the explosions and the loud proclamations about protecting the future or whatever, Ultraman is floating around somewhere by himself, triple-checking every inbox to see if his invite got deleted by accident.
Well, what then does an Ultraman do in his free time, when much fewer in our little fan niche seem to be paying attention? Let’s find out, in this handy primer.
Ultraman’s story goes way back to the 60s, when the first of his ilk stomped across the TV screen as one of the godfathers of Japan’s legendary transforming heroes. After the sci-fi monster series Ultra Q paved the way, Ultraman was the first of dozens of sequels and offshoots, featuring a giant hero in red facing huge Godzilla-like monsters to save the world. Unlike the more familiar formula that accompanied Rangers and Riders, much of the Ultra story is left without a central villain. There’s no Rita Repulsa claiming she’ll snatch victory from our heroes next time, after she gets over her latest headache and unleashes yet another monster that will surely win in the end. Most Ultra bad guys appear somewhat at random, and are an eclectic mix of aliens, robots, mutants, and more, all with different origin stories thrown at you, in a world that is apparently just full of things waiting to try and kill you at the earliest chance.
Like Kamen Rider, Ultraman is typically a more solitary hero, but unlike your average Rider, he also comes with a gaggle of human allies in futuristic garb, with high-tech gadgets and weapons at their disposal. The Science Patrol, and their numerous offshoot organizations with unceasingly hilarious-sounding acronym names, are there to investigate the mounting abundance of weirdness your average Ultra must face. Basically, it’s the X-Files, if Scully and Mulder ever actually found stuff. You don’t have to “want to believe” when there’s a literal 50-story house cat staring through your window with hunger in its eyes. You make an emergency call to GUYS SPACY, or GUTS, or ZAP! These are the brave men and women you rely on to build a kitty litter box large enough to distract the feral beast so one of their own can secretly run off, super-size to giant form, and challenge that ferocious feline one-on-one.
Of course, like with any decades-old franchise, the formula gets shaken up quite a bit. One oft-repeated complaint I hear from tokusatsu fans unaccustomed to Ultraman is that it doesn’t seem terribly exciting. Too much talky sci-fi, not enough martial arts mayhem. Well, if you’re looking in a particular direction, that’s a fair point. The franchise can be pretty plot-driven, focused on the investigators unraveling ancient mysteries and deciding how to handle the latest crisis from wherever it may have come that week. The classic Ultraman, and the 90s series Ultraman Tiga were big on that. While the characters have some importance, it’s really about the monster of the week, and the various moral dilemmas its appearance brings out. There’s very little human-scale action, and most of what you do get is quick moments where someone pulls out a blaster and exchanges laser-shots before the big city-clobbering kaiju rumble. The traditional style of these fights shies away from standardized martial arts, perhaps in part because Ultraman is meant to be seen as alien and thus kind of unusual. Combine that with the fact that he’s often grappling with animalistic creatures rather than the typical humanoid baddies of other franchises, it’s no wonder the battles sometimes feel different. Slower. Less technical with choreography, at times.
But then, you have those titles that break this mold somewhat, like with Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legends. This verbosely-named movie was like a lightning-rod for a lot of new fans. Directed by Ranger and Rider action guru, Koichi Sakamoto, this absurdly spectacle-oriented flick was just what some needed to wake them up to the possibilities of the franchise. Bursting at the seams with wild, highly-choreographed battles, both in and out of costume, the effects-heavy film took the battle to the distant Ultraman homeworld to explore their alien culture for the first time with such detail, and summoned up the largest gathering of heroes from this franchise that there had ever been up to that point. It also introduced the charming, irreverent Ultraman Zero, who did a hell of a lot to make an impression without ever changing his frozen, metallic facial expression; to become a modern favorite, despite not ever getting a permanent human identity. A thing that, by nature of the unusual backstory of classic Ultraman, is not actually guaranteed (though often provided anyway).
Years later came Ultraman Ginga S, a follow-up to the far less exciting Ultraman Ginga but with such a pronounced difference, one could be forgiven for never bothering with its predecessor. The equivalent of a Dragonball Z fan who barely acknowledges anything that happened in the original Dragonball. The “good part” for some is in what happens after that. Ginga S also sports that Sakamoto action, with a ton of human-scale combat. Even the transformed monster brawls were given a shot in the arm. A more fast-paced approach to what some would expect when enormous bodies roam across vast cityscapes. The difference between Ginga S and its previous incarnation seems like night and day. Neither series is particularly expensive-looking, but the latter does have some adrenaline running through its veins, and is an exciting adventure that puts its best foot forward. Right into the faces of the robot foot soldiers the heroes face. Not to fault the more modest, simple stories of Ginga proper, which has its fans. But those that do choose to jump into Ginga S can be secure that most of what is necessary to learn ahead of time is simply that Ginga is a superhero and his human avatar has been away from the few allies he’ll reunite with since his last adventure.
Those seeking a lengthier, more traditional series, but not one from way back in the 60s, may check out Ultraman Max. In the early 2000s, this series saw Max come up against all manner of extraterrestrial, technological, and supernatural villainy, in a long series of standalone episodes the viewer could jump into with almost no explanation and follow quite easily. With a likable, though not always terribly complicated, bunch of human (and android) soldiers protecting a future Earth from varied threats, this one reminds of Star Trek and Doctor Who, except with King Kong‘s less popular cousins coincidentally thrown into just about every wacky exploit.
Fans looking for the same classic style but with a more character-driven edge may lean toward Ultraman Mebius. Though many Ultra shows may take only a cursory glance at previous incarnations from the franchise, Mebius lovingly references past events, characters, and ideas, in a cohesive universe that never seems too daunting or confusing to newcomers just looking for something different to watch. It’s about the new characters, and an extended sequence of arcs that stretch across multiple episodes which all build on each other, developing the heroes in fresh and interesting ways. Secondary hero Ultraman Hikari‘s journey is an especially cool highlight. Your average binge-watcher will find this one a breeze to marathon.
Beyond the more experimental, sometimes adult-leaning titles like Ultraseven X, Ultraman: The Next, and Ultraman Nexus, you have the most recent crop of shows. These are typically shorter affairs than the gargantuan competition putting out series with several dozen episodes and seemingly a new movie every other month. Somewhere in the 25-episode range, these are more concentrated tales of Ultras in their own separate universes where their heroes may be among the only ones known to the masses. The fun thing is that Ultraman has established a fairly consistent multiverse concept, which means that, while each modern show is mostly in its own playing field, there’s still plenty of crossover potential, and nobody needs to conveniently forget that stuff happened in a past series (which Sentai and Rider are sometimes guilty of, for better or worse).
This also means that famous monsters fans have grown to love over the years can return to the screen in new stories without explanation. One simply assumes that the new version is an alternate-universe take on previous ones. It’s also frankly cheaper on the production and easier to conserve resources if you’re not constantly making brand new adversaries to rise up and promptly die in the span of every 20-minute installment. And, real talk, all those modern form-changes Ultra-guys have nowadays don’t grow on trees. If they’re not fighting new monsters, they’re like Ultraman Victory (the heroic rival of Ginga S), literally taking bits and pieces of classic monsters and adding them to his own arsenal as weapons. Or Ultraman X, who takes those beloved baddies and turns them into Battlizer-like armors with dazzling effects tossed into every battle. And then there’s Ultraman Orb who, instead of cannibalizing old villain parts, prefers to swap out powers from his own Ultra brethren. A bit like Pirate Sentai Gokaiger or Kamen Rider Decade if, instead of merely assuming the familiar guise of past heroes, they would take two different costumes and do a DBZ fusion, slapping them together to create a new combo platter of superpowers.
Most recently, Ultraman Geed has taken center stage, with the curious premise that the young son of a well-known villain must rise up against him. It’s not a sure bet whether the final analysis of this series will find that Geed has stuck the landing or dropped with a thud, but you can’t fault them for lack of interesting ideas. Though, uh, yeah, maybe one too many “let’s take an old thing and make it my cool new upgrade” stories? One can hope that the next incarnation (because of course there’ll be many more) will shed this concept for something new. In the meantime, I’ll be feasting on a rewatch of the great Ultraman Orb: The Origin Saga, a rare prequel that actually outstrips the original on which it’s based. An epic space adventure with an ongoing plot and great character stuff.
Whether it’s the old school endeavors of the original Ultra Brothers and their diverse stories of science and myths come to life, the action-oriented madness of the Koichi Era run amok, or the extended dramatic stylings of the tales between them, there’s a little something in Ultraman for everyone.
Note: That crack about Hawkeye was made purely in jest, so if you intend to come for my Powerless Prince, be warned. I will fight you.