Ultra-Inspired: Japan’s major entertainment franchises take cues from M78

“What do you mean, they probably got the idea from Ultraman?”

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard this phrase from some bemused otaku. We might’ve been discussing the time limits in Tiger & Bunny or Garo, the giant hero wrestling in Devil Lady or Attack on Titan, the monster design in Symphogear, the ending of Akibaranger 2.

Their skepticism is understandable, since the Ultraman brand has been rather mismanaged in the US: Ultraseven aired really early in the morning, the American show was so lousy it didn’t even air here, 4Kids’ dub of Tiga was a tragedy, and then the whole Chaiyo thing happened. As a result, the franchise represents a weak bridge between two tokusatsu fandoms: the kaiju fans think of Ultraman as a second-stringer to Godzilla and Gamera, while I’ve heard many folks in the Super Hero Time crowd refer to it as “that fourth or fifth most popular franchise” after Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, Garo, and maybe Metal Heroes (a certain fansub group will never live down their “Ultraman is for babies” comment).

This is lunacy, because in Japan, Ultraman is a bigger deal than all of those things. The dedicated theme park has shut down, but there are still numerous stage shows, museum displays, Kaiju Sakaba (a chain of pubs dedicated to various Ultra monsters), and an entire neighborhood festooned with Ultraman decorations in Soshigaya, not to mention advertising campaigns tying into everything from overseas vacations to instant ramen.

The impact that the franchise had on popular culture is immeasurable, but nevertheless I thought it might be fun to do a recap of some of the popular fiction that people often don’t recognize takes direct inspiration from Eiji Tsuburaya’s most successful creation.

This being Maser Patrol, naturally we’re going to start with kaiju. The 1966-1967 “kaiju boom”, the period of peak production for Japanese monster movies, was a direct result of the popularity of the first three Ultra shows, leading other companies to attempt to ride the wave with projects like Giant Robo, Ambassador Magma, Red Shadow, The X from Outer Space, Gappa the Triphibian Monster, The Magic Serpent, and yes, even Gamera. Sure, monsters had been doing successfully for Toho before that, and there had been previous television attempts (e.g. Marine Kong in 1960the suppressed Agon in 1964), but it was the knowledge that Tsuburaya himself was basically producing a weekly monster movie for television that really opened the flood gates. Of course, this repeated in 1971, when Toei needed a show to compete with Return of Ultraman and thus created Kamen Rider, leading to the “henshin boom” and subsequent derivative work ranging from Ecogainder to Madoka Magica.

But all that wouldn’t have occurred without the help of Ultra’s older brother, the Toho science fiction universe colloquially known as “The Godzilla Series”. There’s a lot of crossover between the franchises, since Tsuburaya worked on both concurrently, and a lot of fans make a big deal about the monsters Gomess and Jirass both being made from Godzilla suits. This type of recycling happened a lot, though:

  • The Manda puppet was used for a dragon in Ultra Q.
  • Todora was just the Magma costume from Gorath.
  • Sudar was Toho’s favorite random giant octopus prop
  • The King Kong costume had a stint as the monster Goro.
  • The Baragon suit was used as the base for Pagos, Neronga, Magular, and Gabora (that’s a part of why it wasn’t ready for the Paris destruction sequence in Destroy All Monsters and had to be swapped for Gorosaurus).
  • A Rodan prop that was refitted as Littra and Largeus later made its way back to Toho and because Godzilla’s iconic foe, the Letchi Island giant condor.

And don’t even get started on the sound effect recycling. In addition to Tsuburaya himself, the Ultra franchise would get many monster designers, directors (including Ishiro Honda!), and actors (both in and out of monster costume) from the Toho talent pool. But what did the Godzilla series ever get from Ultraman in return? Well, the obvious answer is inspiration for a plethora of giant heroes:

Toho kyodai heroes

Then there’s crossovers, like the many Ultra Kaiju who wound up in Mattel’s Godzilla’s Gang toy line, not to mention a cornucopia of dodgier bootleg products. Godzilla also crossed paths with Ultraman on a TV quiz show and in the Battle Soccer video game.

godzilla gang flyer Battle_Soccer

But Godzilla borrows some other elements as well. Many of the monster designs are similar, though within the scope of coincidence:

  • Draco and Gigan

draco gigan

  • The “sludge monster” Zazahn and “smog monster” Hedorah

zazahn hedorah

  • Astron and the Heisei Godzilla (or Junior)

astron neo godzilla junior

  • Ultraman’s chimera monsters, such as Jumbo King and Tyrant, paving the way for the likes of King Godzilla and Bagan.

tyrant ultramanking godzilla manga

  • One could even make a case for some of the kaijin:

kemur running m11 running

One thing that’s definitely not a coincidence, though, is Leogon, the monster from Return of Ultraman episode 34. This monster was created by an obsessive-yet-good-natured scientist splicing plant and animal DNA, before it escaped to grow huge in a lake. Did I mention that the episode was written by Shinichiro Kobayashi? He’d go on to write Godzilla vs. Biollante 18 years later, which would eventually become the most popular of all Godzilla flicks (according to recent polls, anyway).

leogon biollante

Wrapping up Godzilla talk, the BS Digital Q reporters in Giant Monsters All-Out Attack were a shout-out to Ultra Q. Director Shusuke Kaneko was a huge fan of the show (he’d eventually get to direct for Ultra Q Dark Fantasy), which is also why he had an expy of the mammoth flower Juran in Gamera 2.

mamoth flowers

Ultra Q also seems to have started a bit of a trend of gratuitous Q’s rounding out titles (though perhaps credit can also go to Jiro Kuwata’s 1961 manga Garoro Q). There’s Detective Academy Q, Persona Q, Evangelion Q (oh, we’ll get back to Evangelion!), Ultra Danchi Q (guarantee no coincidence there), All-round Appraiser Q, and of course, Twilight Q (after Ultra Q and The Twilight Zone). Indeed, even Mamoru Oshii was influenced by the early works of Tsuburaya productions, which also explains the plethora of gags based around Ultra-stuff in Urusei Yatsura and Patlabor (the second Patlabor OVA has an entire Ultraseven/Ultraman parody episode). Even one of his more serious works, the Kerberos Panzer Cops manga, was serialized alongside Yasuyuki Ohno’s Ultraman Baradhi in Amazing Comics magazine, and later in Shonen Ace, whose mascot is modeled (you guessed it) after Ultraman Ace.

Many of Oshii’s collaborators (Kenji Kawai, Takanori Tsujimoto, Kiyotaka Taguchi) already work on Ultraman, so it’d be interesting to see what he’d do if he got to direct an episode (the most likely answer is infuriate a lot of people).

yuji kaida patlabor

While on the subject of anime, how about Pokemon? The franchise is among a few arguable contenders for the title of “most popular in the world”, and definitely an outlier in terms of being wildly successful as a cartoon, but also as a CCG and as a video game. So, what inspired creator Satoshi Tajiri to come up with a premise of collectable battle monsters? Well, bug collecting was certainly an aspect, but Tajiri’s also gone on record saying that the idea came from Ultraseven. See, in the show, Dan has a box full of capsules; when he can’t transform into Seven to fight the baddie of the week, he throws one of them out, and it turns into one of the three (later four) monsters that he’s captured and trained to do his bidding. Sound familiar?

capsule pokemon

Of course, the Ultra-franchise took this concept back with a vengeance in 2007 with Ultra Galaxy: Mega Monster Battle, which plays like a fusion (polymerization?) of the hit monster battle series of the day: the catch-&-duel monster mechanics of Pokemon, the card-reading devices of Yugioh, and the monster transformations of Digimon. One has to wonder: did Tsuburaya at least partially decide to make Gomora their new hero monster (instead of say, Redking or Zetton) because of his resemblance to Digimon’s Greymon?

greymon gomora

Speaking of capsules and the most popular anime shows in the history of the world, Dan’s box of capsules likely also inspired the Capsule Corp’s technology in Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball series. These capsule can store anything from portable homes to flying cars.

capsules u7 db

The capsules aren’t the only element of Ultraseven that Toriyama decided to swipe, however. The protagonist’s girlfriend Chichi so happens to have Seven’s power set:

chichi 7

Chichi isn’t alone in using the eye slugger attack: other characters to wield it include The Rug Cop, Bebop from Ninja Turtles, Braking from Carranger, (arguably) Sailor Moon’s tiara, and Kirby’s cutter form. Speaking of Kirby, when Ultraman Tiga was localized by 4Kids in the early 2000s, there was speculation that the company only picked up the license as an explanation for the Ultraman parody episode of Kirby: Right Back at Ya, airing on the same programming block. However, they also had another show on the network that was considerably more related: Ultimate MUSCLE, aka Kinnikuman 2nd Generation. The original Kinnikuman never materialized stateside outside of the MUSCLE (“Millions of UnSeen Creatures Lurking Everywhere”) toy-line, so a lot of people don’t recognize that it started as much more of a superhero farce before cementing as the super-powered wrestling series that it’s most famous for. Kinnikuman would even grow like Ultraman in the early parts, complete with the raised-fist transformation pose, and there were a couple scenes with cameos of the Ultras, as much as they could get around the copyright. While the shout-outs decreased over time, they persisted throughout the series; that’s why Ultimate MUSCLE’s protagonist is named Mantaro, actually, after Ultraman Taro.

kinniku ultraman

Now, there are several properties out there that are transparent Ultraman parodies, so I think I don’t have to explain the influence of Ultra-stuff on Attack of the Friday Monsters, Big Man Japan, UG Ultimate Girls, MM9, Den Ace, Mikarun X, etc. However, there are other series where such things may not occur to the viewer, and they don’t all have “In the Two-Fisted Tradition of Ultraman!” right on the DVD cover like Detonator Orgun does.

  • Remember how we mentioned Patlabor earlier? Well, it’s up for debate whether that or Birdy the Mighty is the most popular franchise to come out of mangaka Masami Yuuki. In the Birdy series, Birdy is an alien spacecop who comes to Earth in pursuit of a monster, but in the process accidentally winds up killing a human named Tsutomu. To make amends, Birdy gives up her body to resurrect Tsutomu, but in cases of other aliens threatening the Earth, Birdy takes over and transforms back into the powerful alien form. I’ve had the debate with people a few times, and the only folks who insist that the plot is totally different from Ultraman are the ones who haven’t seen Ultraman.
    As a fun side note, the combat sequences in Birdy the Mighty (I’m assuming the Yoshiaki Kawajiri OVA) inspired Zack Snyder’s city destroying scenes in Man of Steel… ironic since the “you didn’t protect a damn thing” meme from Ultraman Mebius was heavily applied to that movie.

  • Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles manga is nominally based on the 1950 novel Needle by Hal Clement, but it has some 1966 Ultraman-ish touches as well, such as the hero alien accidentally killing a hapless human before taking her as a host, traveling through space in glowing orbs, and the general monstrousness of the enemy alien as it absorbs more and more people. Really, it reminds me more of the creature from 2004’s Ultraman: The Next than it does the original novel.

seven billion vs one

  • Nobunagun is one of the recent anime shows loaded with classic SF callbacks, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day to Gamera 2. It’s only fitting, then, that the organization formed to fight kaiju of the week (using power granted them by an alien, might I add!) dresses like the Science Patrol from the original Ultraman. The gags get more esoteric from there, though: at one point someone mentions that there’s going to be a hurricane, and the protagonist thinks he’s talking about a monster jellyfish.

sssp nobunagun

  • Speaking of recent postmodern superhero anime, we’ve got to bring up two of the greats: Samurai Flamenco and Concrete Revolutio both function as brilliant mishmashes of Showa-era science fiction, and of course that means both spend significant story arcs in Ultraman territory. Samumenco’s a little weaker on direct callbacks, so I won’t go too into it, but Concrete Revolutio features a side character, Grosse Augen, who’s pretty much exactly like Ultraman at first (with a little of the original Bemler and Melos mixed in)…. Though what if Hayata had to fuse with Baltan to keep fighting monsters after his alien alter-ego returned to M78?

samflam moon grosse augen

The last example that I’m absolutely obliged to mention is Neon Genesis Evangelion. You might want to use the restroom before starting this one, because we’re going to be here a while.

evangelion wallpaper tokusatsu

We should probably preface this discussion with the fact that Hideaki Anno is a devout Ultraman fanatic. His filmmaking career began in college with a series of increasingly elaborate Ultraman fanfilms, which eventually got multiple official releases through Tsuburaya. Interviews with the man and personal accounts like Kazuhiko Shimamoto’s Blue Blazes and Moyocco Anno’s Insufficient Direction depict him as an obsessive aficionado of everything that Eiji Tsuburaya ever worked on.

anno return of ultramanreturn of ultraman anno 2

Much like Star Wars and Kill Bill, most folks don’t realize that Anno’s Evangelion franchise is a well-done pop culture mash-up. Over the course of the show there’s stuff pulled from Childhood’s End, Space Runaway Ideon, Devilman, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Nausicaä, Blood Type Blue, Shadow Town, and much more. However, more than anything else are Anno’s two favorites: Gerry Anderson’s UFO and the Ultraman franchise.

We should also mention that Evangelion was itself prolifically influential and monumentally popular, and usually be this point in the explanation someone will be looking at me with suspicion or outright contempt. Don’t worry, I’ll try not to impugn your favorite anime (too much); it’s not a rip-off, but there’s certainly some aspects above mere coincidence.

Let’s explain a little more. Many elements of Evangelion are direct nods, such as NERV, the shadowy government group (pretty much a copy of UFO‘s SHADO) tasked with battling kaiju of the week. They use the same ringtone as the SSSP (you might also recognize it as that King Ghidorah noise), and also drive the same type of cars as the Monster Attack Team:

mat car evangelion

Ever wonder what the deal was with all of the silhouettes in Evengelion’s opening credit sequence? Well, that’s an Ultraman tradition. An aspect that fewer folks seem to pick up on is the character names: in the show’s universe traditional Japanese names, like Shinji, Rei, Gendoh, etc., are all rendered in katakana, the writing system used for foreign names and loan words, instead of in kanji. That can seem very strange and perplexing, until you remember that Shin Hayata, Dan Moroboshi, and the whole rest of the casts of both Ultraman and Ultraseven did the same thing, setting a precedent for series to follow.

eva ultra credits

The climax of the second Evangelion movie is quite a powerful sequence, of Shinji diving through a void to rescue Rei. It’s also a shot-for-shot recreation of the ending of Ultraman Nexus.

nexus eva 222

At their core, I believe that both series are about heroes fighting monsters, so let’s talk about that element next. The mechanics of this appear quite opposing at first, as giant, piloted robots are a different thing than giant people, but the lean Evangelion models are shaped much better for agile combat than their Shogun Warrior predecessors. The result, as Evangelion manga editor Carl Horn has noted, is that the Eva Units’ grappling is quite reminiscent of that in the Ultra series. Other similarities include both Eva 01 and Ultraman having a nominal height of 40 meters, a battery device with a time limit to beat the monsters by, and soft fleshy bits encased in metallic armor. One could also argue that the appearance of the inferior knock-off robot Jet Alone was a direct commentary on how Jet Jaguar (who you may recall was first called “Red Alone”) was a mechanical knock-off of Ultraman.

ultra eva anatomy

While the Angels of Evangelion are wildly less conventional than the enemy kaiju of Ultraman, there are also times that they do align. For example, when I first saw Zeruel, the final monster in the former show, I was instantly reminded of Zetton, the final monster of the latter, and lots of other otaku have pointed out their similar aesthetics as well.

zeruel zetton

Naturally, merchandising means you can get moe girl versions of either:

zeruel zetton girls

It also appears that the four Adams that triggered 2nd Impact were the first four Ultra Brothers. They must’ve been having a bad day or something.

four ultra brothers evangelion

At this point, the pseudointellectuals out there will be screaming “but Eva is about so much deeper than all those pop culture media that it’s referencing; it’s full of religious symbolism!” For those raised in a Christian reference frame, where we’re taught that every Biblical allusion in literature is loaded with lofty thematic baggage, it’s difficult to get past the names of many entities in the franchise: e.g. Lilith, Longinus, Melchior, plus nods to Kabbalist and Babylonian beliefs. And then there’s all of the crucifixions:

evangelion crucifiction

However, the Christian religiosity of Evangelion is about as thematically relevant as the Egyptian religious symbolism in Yu-Gi-Oh: it’s set dressing, purposely chosen because it’s alien, complicated, and spooky to general Japanese audiences. While Anno has said that one of the stated goals of the series was to examine philosophy and religion through these call-outs, I’ve got to wonder…. Ultraman has fought monsters with names like Gomorrah, Mephilas (from Mephistopheles), Barabbas, Judah, Devilon, and in later shows Sodom, Zagi (from Giza), Mephisto, Faust, Ishmael, and Belial (not to mention all of the various “Devils” in Triple Fighter). There was a planet called Golgotha, an ancient middle-eastern Ultraman named Noah, and though some have said that the pose Ultraman does to unleash his specium beam is meant to look Buddhist, I’ve heard just as many say it’s evocative of a cross. Speaking of which, the Ultra franchise has its own predilection for crucifixions as well:

ultra crucifiction

Is Ultraman actually intended as a commentary on western religion? I doubt that was the primary mission statement, though one could certainly write a paper reading it that way, examining the numerous deaths and resurrections of benevolent beings from the sky, their man-&-god alien duality, Tsuburaya’s late-life conversions to Catholicism, and the fact that the Ultras’ godliness was enough to actually get one of the books banned in Malaysia. However, I have utmost conviction that the Gainax crew were aware of, and influenced by, the various Ultra-series’ flirtations with religious iconography. On the other hand, there’s lots of Eastern religious iconography as well…. So… yeah. Did I mention that Evangelion also ran in Shonen Ace?

Of course, we could go on. We could go back to Dragonball for Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, or mention how Nobuhiro Watsuki credited Ultraman for the premise of Busou Renkin. We could speculate about the successful reboot of Ultraman Tiga leading to the reboot of Kamen Rider Kuuga, or Ultraman Mebius starting a fad of returns to classic continuites (e.g. Gundam Unicorn, Digimon Xross Wars/Tri, Super Hero Taisen). We could bring up where the Specium Beam fits in the evolution of flashy finishing moves, discuss King Joe’s influence on combining robots, or talk about the tons of other kyodai heroes like Iron King, Spectreman, Inframan, Marika Seven, Negiman, Kiriwo Terrible, et al. Heck, even certain American comics/cartoon properties such as Ben 10, Hero Zero, and Kaijumax also owe some inspiration to Ultraman:

american ultra-ish

We could go on, but frankly the influence of the Ultra franchise on Japanese genre fiction is so widespread that it’s immeasurable. The goal of this article was to bring up some of the most popular works, directly inspired by, yet infrequently mentioned in conjunction with, Ultra Q/-man/-seven/Galaxy titles, and hopefully it’s been at least a little elucidating. So, the next time you’re watching Ultraman and someone asks if it’s “some sort of proto-Power Rangers”, let them know that it is, as well as an ancestor of many more of the most beloved Japanese media franchises.

While Tsuburaya Pro isn’t the game-changing studio that they were in the 1960s and 70s, they’re continuing to innovate for the medium, and one has to wonder how many more young creators they may inspire over another fifty years. Who knows… maybe there could even be some in Hollywood.

ultra burtondel toro baltanjames gunn ultramanwill smith ultraman

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11 Responses to Ultra-Inspired: Japan’s major entertainment franchises take cues from M78

  1. Henning says:

    A very well written article! As a longterm fan of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy, it is always amazing to read such pieces. Good Job as always!

  2. jarkes says:

    If I’m not mistaken, the original Ultraman was actually the second installment of the “Ultra Series,” the first being some anthology series that I can’t remember the name of. Is this correct?

    • kevnder says:

      That’s correct! The first series was Ultra Q, a hero-less monster of the week program, which turns fifty years old as of today. After 26 episodes of Ultra Q, Ultraman started, followed the next year by Ultraseven, and the rest is history. You can check out all three of those shows free at Shout Factory’s website.

  3. MaryRN51 says:

    Very interesting, but it misses the fact that the original Ultraman series was, indeed, widely aired in the US in syndication during the early 1970s, with a fairly faithful dub. (Featuring the same cast that dubbed Speed Racer, no less!) Even though this is a relatively minor point (no one under age 50 or so is going to remember seeing it that way), it’s still a fairly important one. Most of those older US fans also aren’t aware of the sequel series and movies and success the franchise went on to have.

    • kevnder says:

      Yep, it’s sort of akin to if Star Trek had only aired the original series, but not the spin-offs and decades of reruns.
      A handful of younger people in the US also got introduced through Ultraman Towards the Future in the 1990s, though the show was pretty short and only aired sporadically.

  4. Drum-bunker-dragon says:

    “One has to wonder: did Tsuburaya at least partially decide to make Gomora their new hero monster (instead of say, Redking or Zetton) because of his resemblance to Digimon’s Greymon?”

    It’s the other way around!! Greymon is actually a direct homage to Gomora. Since Gomora existed since 1966, And Greymon existed since the 1990’s. And Tsuburaya loves that.

    • kevnder says:

      True, but both Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle and Ultraman X have put Gomora front and center as the main hero monster and protagonist’s friend, a role it never really had before. That’s what I was trying to say as Digimon influence, it seems like it goes both ways.

  5. Urtoraman Egsuu says:

    Grown Ups in Spandex were the ones who said ‘Ultraman is for babies’ but I forgive them becuase they sub a lot of 80’s sentai. And GUIS subbed a bunch of Ultraman,like the Zero movie.

  6. Sentaison says:

    Fantastic article! As one of those “over 50’s” who fondly remembers racing home after school as a kid to watch Ultraman, and then taped every episode of Ultraseven on TNT in the 90’s, I’ve been very aware of the cultural effect of Ultraman on Japan. You’ve pointed out a couple of things for me to look up now, starting with Birdy the Mighty. Two episodes in and I’m hooked. Nobunagun is next out to try. Thanks!

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