Ultraman, one of Japan’s oldest and certainly biggest heroes, just celebrated the series’ 55th anniversary this year. The character made his television debut on July 10th 1966, which henceforth became known as “Ultraman Day”. This year’s Ultraman Day was more jam-packed than ever, with all kinds of festivities for fans in Japan and abroad to enjoy; featuring talk shows and interviews with past and present Ultraman actors from currently airing Ultraman Trigger‘s Raiga Terasaka to the original Ultraman himself, Susumu Kurobe.
It seems that the character, created by tokusatsu godfather Eiji Tsuburaya and helmed by the company he founded (Tsuburaya Productions) is now bigger than ever and ready to take the global stage. But things weren’t always this way, and the franchise has had its ups and downs over the years. So how exactly did the Ultra series overcome the troubles it faced? How is it doing today, and what does the future hold for Ultraman as a whole?
The Trials of Ultraman
The hero has been known to fight giant monsters of all kinds, but for the past few decades, Ultraman has secretly been embroiled in fighting a more insidious kind of enemy: copyright violation. In 1973, Thai filmmaker Sompote Saengduenchai and Chaiyo Productions collaborated with Tsuburaya Productions to create films featuring Ultraman characters in Thai, which led to the creation of two movies, The 6 Ultra Brothers vs. The Monster Army (1974) as well as Jumborg Ace & Giant (1974). These co-productions featured characters from the Ultra series as well as Jumborg Ace (1973), also another Tsuburaya creation.
The troubles began when in 1996, Sompote claimed that he had struck a deal with the then recently-deceased Noboru Tsuburaya, former president of Tsuburaya Productions and son of Eiji Tsuburaya, that grants him and Chaiyo the right to Ultraman outside of Japan. What followed was decades of legal battles and challenges in Japan and overseas, spanning multiple countries from Thailand to China to the United States, with Tsuburaya having to fight court appeals and knock-offs such as Project Ultraman (2007), Chaiyo’s attempt at creating a Thai series that was ultimately cancelled. To say that the whole affair is messy and complicated would be an understatement, with the companies that claim to hold the rights licensing the character to others with horrendous results, such as the unauthorized appearance of Ultraman in the CG animated movie Dragon Force: So Long Ultraman (2017) by China-based BlueArc Studios.
In recent years, though the results seem to have swung more and more in Tsuburaya’s favour, with legal victories in the U.S. notably in 2018, 2019, and a final court judgment in 2020. In Thailand, the Thai supreme court rejected an appeal by Sompote, which asserts Tsuburaya Productions as the legal owner of the copyright. Meanwhile, Tsuburaya filed a lawsuit in Shanghai against BlueArc after the movie was screened there, which it then won. These victories and more has helped to clear a path for the franchise to make its global push.
The Return of Ultraman
Back home in Japan, Ultraman has been slowly solidifying its continued presence ever since the start of the new millennium. The series had taken a 15-year hiatus ever since Ultraman 80 (1980) and returned in full-length series form with Ultraman Tiga (1996), to great success. While this led to more TV shows and the de facto return of the series, with a television presence each year up until the mid-2000s, the late 2000s and early 2010s marked a somewhat transitional period as the franchise moved from time slot to time slot and sought to establish new ways to bring Ultraman to the fans. Ultraman Mebius (2006), for example, moved to an evening time slot from the previous year’s Ultraman Max (2005), which aired on Saturday morning. Mebius would be the last Ultraman show aimed at children to air on TV for a while, as it was followed by the more adult-oriented Ultraseven X (2007) that aired in the early mornings. Notably, these subsequent series also ran with a shorter episode count compared to early 2000’s series such as Tiga, which ran for 52 episodes.
In the following year, Ultraman would make a splash not on TV, but instead on the silver screen with the crossover movie Great Decisive Battle! The Super 8 Ultra Brothers (2008) reunited characters and returning actors from both the Showa and Heisei periods of Ultraman shows, becoming the highest-grossing movie in the franchise to date by making over $8,000,000 during its run. Meanwhile, Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle (2007) marked the first entry of the franchise that ran as pay-per-view and returned with a new season in 2008 with the same model. The “Mega Monster Battle” series puts the giant monsters on the centre stage and culminated in a movie titled Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legends – The Movie (2009) that introduced new character Ultraman Zero, son of fan-favourite Ultraseven from Ultraseven (1967), who is voiced by anime voice actor Mamoru Miyano. Though uniquely never receiving his own TV show, the character proved popular enough to star in a sequel movie (2010’s Ultraman Zero The Movie: Super Deciding Fight! The Belial Galactic Empire), as well as appearing in subsequent Ultraman films and various spin-offs.
It could be noted that Zero’s introduction marks a watershed moment for the franchise; unlike the 8 Ultra Brothers movie that could be considered more of a celebration of the franchise’s history up to that moment, this marks the Ultraman series recognizing and utilizing the strength of its legacy as well as everything it has built so far to create something new that connects multiple generations of fans. Indeed, just as Ultraseven and Zero represented a continued lineage of Ultra heroes, it would be more than likely for young fans introduced to the franchise through Zero to have parents or even grandparents that were fans of Ultraseven themselves. The character of Zero himself would even later then go on to act as a mentor to a new generation of heroes in 2020’s Ultraman Z.
Exemplifying this newfound sense of legacy, 2011 introduced Ultraman Retsuden, a clip show featuring episodes from past Ultra series be it from the Showa or Heisei period, hosted by Ultraman Zero himself. The show was important in finding a stable time slot for Ultraman on the airwaves, and with its follow-up New Ultraman Retsuden (2013), it also premiered a new Ultraman TV show for its programming block, namely Ultraman Ginga (2013). It marked the start of the so-called “New Generation Heroes” of Ultraman characters that continues to debut new shows featuring a new hero each year to this day, the newest being Ultraman Trigger (2021), the “new generation Tiga” coming in just in time for Ultraman Tiga‘s 25th anniversary.
With its focus on establishing that legacy (many of the New Generation shows feature past characters and monsters, even incorporating them into the hero’s transformation gimmicks) but also maintaining a forward-thinking mindset on how to interact with a new generation of fans such as by utilizing anime voice actors (Ultraman Ginga also featured prominent seiyuu Nakamura Sugita as the titular Ginga’s voice actor) and distributing shows globally through the internet, it now seems that the franchise has finally found it’s recipe for success.
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