I think all of us have superheroes on the mind lately. Not only have they been a huge boom in film and television as of late, we’ve now reached Avengers: Endgame which has redefined the film storytelling format, and masterfully crafted an immersive universe for fans to invest in – but I’m going to save my thoughts on that once I (and others) have seen the movie.
… so today we’re talking about Ultraman – more specifically the Netflix series.
In this post, I’m going to offer a brief overview of the Ultraman premise, history, and philosophy of the series.
With the property heading to America, I figured it’s only fitting to see just how (and whether) there’s a way to update and retain the series philosophy for this current generation.
WHAT IS ULTRAMAN?
It may seem unrelated to the opening, but like the MCU, Ultraman is a true Japanese Media Mix of engagement – with everything from manga, to toys, to
For a bit of backstory, the year is 1966 and Kaiju movies (big monster movies) are everywhere in Japan. Before Ultraman debuted, Tsuburaya Productions created Ultra Q – a Tokusatsu sci-fi monster series similar to the incredibly popular Godzilla.
The monsters were certainly cool, but it wasn’t until the introduction of their titular character Ultraman that they became a cultural phenomenon – going on to influence and inspire similar series in Japan like Super Sentai and Kamen Rider in later years.
As a premise, the series followed the SSSP (Science Special Search Party) –a secret organisation tasked with defending the world from alien threats and monster attacks. The Ultraman in question was Shin Hayata – an SSSP officer fused with an ultra-alien warrior.
With his newfound power, he could transform into a superhero, grow in size, shoot a laser from his hand called the “Spectrum Ray” and defeat the monster of the day. It was the same brilliant syndicated formula that would see itself replicated in other Japanese Tokusatsu series.
For a full history, I highly urge newcomers to read Den of the Geek’s articles on the subject – you don’t need to have this info to enjoy the Netflix series, but context can be helpful.
AN ULTRA LEGACY
Ultraman differs from your typical western hero in a number of ways. For a start, the first series ends with Ultraman losing his powers after saving the day from a monster called Zetton. Hayata and the alien separated, and their powers seemingly gone.
When we think about our typical America hero, they will more often than not continue on. I mean, we’ve had the same Superman and Batman for 80+ years still fighting the same villains!
In one year, Ultraman established a legacy, and tremendous scope to world-build. Ultraseven acted as a continuation to the story, with new Ultramen, new redesigned costumes, and the ability to stay fresh and world-build.
But it didn’t just stop there. Before long, series were being rebooted, manga series added later plot points, and the character continued to thrive in popularity.
What started off as a supposedly simple story, transformed into an enormous multi-verse with different teams, histories, and power sets. The original “Nebula M78 Universe” became one of nearly thirty universes of the franchise!
On the one hand, it’s great to have such a successful Media Mix at one’s disposal. But on the other … adaptation and marketing it to newcomers (particularly Western newcomers) is a real daunting task given its decades-long history.
THE WEST – THE TRUE ALIEN WORLD
What’s most bizarre to me is how little Ultraman has travelled outside of Japan. Godzilla’s recognisable worldwide, Super Sentai successfully became Power Rangers, and there was even that huge push for Cool Japan in the early 2000s with companies desperately trying to emulate the successes of Pokémon.
It just seems odd that Ultraman – one of the most successful Japanese properties, never really saw the light of day outside of its own territory.
Even with my knowledge of Japanese pop culture, growing up in the west you might, might be familiar with the name but are otherwise reliant on “pop culture osmosis”.
There was a Simpsons couch gag featuring Ultraman – but I think that’s honestly the most global recognition he’s gotten.
THE GLOBAL MARVEL METHOD
I think there’s something to look to in terms of the “Global Marvel Method”. When looking at the MCU there’s a lot of history, and a lot to adapt for global audiences.
It’s even weirder as I don’t think there’s anything unadaptable about the character. Based on the episodes of the original 1960s I’ve seen, there’s nothing unadaptable about the premise. The biggest issue is that it’s dated compared to our current technology at our disposal.
Marvel Studios knew what they were doing by giving us a proper movie introduction to their characters for audiences everywhere to get familiar with them.
Even the star-spangled “Captain America” – a one-time War Propaganda superhero, has somehow reached international acclaim in foreign markets.
Their success comes from adapting key elements from their decades-long comic history, instead of cramming absolutely everything into a story at once.
You do not need to know Marvel comics to appreciate the movies – in any market. And if you are a comic book fan, you can simply contextualise the movies as part of a greater Marvel multiverse as Universe 199999. Something that Ultraman used for their many iterations and multiverses.
That said, Japan does have their more … culturally specific adaptation in the form of Marvel Disk Wars. A show where Japanese kids can summon Marvel superheroes through … battle disks.
It’s a culturally-specific adaptation that plays off what succeeds in their market: Kids. Monsters. Summoning Heroes. Collectables … it’s basically a cross between Marvel, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Pokémon that could only exist in Japan. It’s weird yes, but a good culturally-specific oddity … I like to think that America could try a similar cultural adaptation with Ultraman. Maybe?
But it may be worth it for animé Deadpool who even references Japanese Spider-Man’s fighting cry … it’s worth it just for that.
So, if that can work, maybe having an Ultraman USA might not be the worst idea out there – but it would be best to set it in the same universe as the original and establish that this is just a corner of the same world.
Given the history of poor Japanese to American remakes we’ve had, expanding the universe could be a better fix than just a straight-up remake (lest we forget Death Note, DragonBall Evolution, and Ghost in the Shell.)
NETFLIX: THE END OF SYNDICATION
With all that context, the big question: Does the Netflix series work?
Moving past the syndicated monster-of-the-week fights and into the realms of binge-watching, Ultraman was an interesting choice for Netflix – and the first time I can think of when the series tried to break out of Japan.
The characters from the original series and Ultraseven return, as we follow the son of the original Ultraman – Shinjiro Hayata – and his struggles in becoming the latest in the Ultraman legacy.
As a series, it works. Old and new aliens of the series threaten the earth and only the Ultramen can stop them. But unlike the original Ultraman (the “Giant of Light”) Shinjiro is more westernised in his Superhero outings – flying, super strength, lasers, cool suit … standard western superhero stuff.
I thought this was an interesting change, as it did feel that this series tried to bridge the Japanese and Western superhero genres. Even the high-school attending Shinjiro felt reminiscent of the classic Spider-Man story structures – with similar philosophies of power and responsibility reminiscent in both.
ADAPTING A JAPANESE 1960s PHILOSOPHY
There is now a greater push to move Ultraman outside of Japan. Not only was the Netflix series heavily promoted in Western markets, but SyFy is also taking the character in another original series.
Even having the animation as a hybrid of CGI and anime seemed designed to be more palatable to Westerners who are now less accustomed to 2D hand-drawn styles in mainstream entertainment.
But for an Ultraman property, this works very well for what it’s trying to be. You don’t need to be familiar with the original series to enjoy it, and the characters are well defined in this current iteration.
Of course, it helps to be familiar with the familiar series, but it’s not needed. The philosophy of the SSSP is the important thing – keeping the earth and its people safe whatever way possible (best exemplified through Ultraseven’s actions in the Netflix series). It’s concurrent with their approach in the 1960s.
Another key issue is that anyone can be Ultraman. This is something Shinjiro has to come to terms with, as Ultraseven addresses this point directly – anyone can have power, but it’s how you use it, and what you do with it that is most important.
I actually believe this is a good approach to adapting the source material – especially when looking at Western audiences. In a world where anyone can get powers, there’s greater scope at exploring other possibilities, and giving this alien power to those outside of Japan.
The original series was created in the 1966 when Japan was really starting to explore its newfound outward-looking role on the world stage. The Olympics had come to Tokyo in 1964, and the country was experiencing technological and economic innovations on a massive scale.
In this age of the “economic miracle”, it makes sense to have a character like Ultraman represent the Japanese mentality – an ordinary man being gifted with power, venturing beyond what’s familiar, defending the Earth from alien threats, and giving his home a new sense of perspective in a changing universe.
The question then is how to take that philosophy and adapt it for Western audiences in an age where countries like America and Britain risk turning their backs on globalisation entirely?
Maybe an international Ultraman team? Or giving someone that alien power, and their struggling both with hiding their abilities whilst defending the Earth? – Kinda X-Men-esque mind you …
It’s tricky – it’s both needing to update and adapt a philosophy which at times can seem incompatible.
There is real potential there, but the challenge comes in creating something new, whilst retaining everything that made the Japanese series so good.
Picture it as less of a lame Western remake, and more of a … global adaptation.
AUTHENTICITY – THE FUTURE OF ULTRAMAN
Authenticity is such a big issue for current audiences that it needs to be talked about, and it’s something that the Netflix series successfully avoided.
Being a Japanese production, with Japanese language, subtitles, and background, this was never really an issue. Sure, it may have been promoted to Westerners, but it’s still at heart Japanese.
Aesthetically, they kept everything very … Ultraman.
As someone who did see a few of those 1960s episodes, I’ve got to hand it to the production team for deciding to keep the “human-in-rubber suit” designs for their aliens – even in CGI.
It’s a weird point, I know. Of course, with CGI there are things you can do that you couldn’t do with a rubber suit and a 1960s budget. But these choices just made everything feel like more of the same universe – good for brand synergy and shows respect to the Tokusatsu effects of the 1960s.
But for Western adaptations, I think there needs to be real respect paid to the original series and Japanese legacy. The Netflix series did a fantastic job at introducing the characters, history, and world in an easy-to-digest season.
The question now is how to continue building the franchise for the West, whilst respecting all that came before it?