July 10 is “Ultraman Day”, and 50 years ago today, Ultraman made his first appearance on Japanese television… though it was not the first episode of Ultraman, that hit a week later. No, the first appearance was a live stage show, directed by none other than Akio Jissoji (it was sort of a disaster and he hated it, but c’est la vie):
In the time since, this Ultra-Q spin-off has become a massive, sprawling pop-culture juggarnaut with more spinoffs than one can reasonably count, though I presume the Guinness organization is sort of keeping track. It’s also had plenty of big-name directorial talent and inspired a lot of subsequent Japanese media, which we’ve talked about previously. We could go on about the various other facets of the series, be it the writers, the merchandise lines, the most iconic kaiju, or even series-by-series guides. There have been several excellent Ultraman manga (shameless plug for next weekend’s manga panel at G-Fest!), and we’ll touch on some of the franchise’s prose novels in an upcoming article.
So, what do we have to post on the 50th itself? Well….this is embarrassing, I don’t really have anything prepared. Here, have some fan art:
Fortunately, NHK was a little more on the ball than we were, and polled viewers for their top 10 favorite episodes to show a mini marathon, so we can talk about the results. Heisei Ultra fans: sorry, there’s not much for you here, but check out the Showa-era stuff; it’s cool! For the episodes available streaming, we’re including a link.
- Ultra Q 15 “Kanegon’s Cocoon” – This money-munching morality tale is probably the most iconic, if uncharacteristically lighthearted, of the original Ultra Q episodes. Kanegon even got his own spin-off show in later years!
- Ultraman 2 “Defeat the Invaders” – The introduction of everyone’s favorite space ninjas, the cackling crayfish-like Baltans are the best-known of all Ultraman’s nemeses.
- Ultraman 8 “The Lawless Monster Zone” – for monster-on-monster combat, this episode can’t be topped, with Redking brutalizing his way through 3 other kaiju before Ultraman puts an end to it.
- Ultraman 35 “The Monster Graveyeard” – this episode gets pretty emotional with the skeletal monster Seabozu just wanting to go back home and Hayata showing regret for killing so many beasties. The neat conceit that the monster’s afterlife is just a physical place in space allows many vanquished monsters to be revived for future battles, which really pays off two episode later.
- Ultraman 37 “The Little Hero” – Geronimon’s plan to revive every previous monster in the franchise was an ambition never realized (the Ultra Galaxy movie is about as close as we’re ever getting to that), since one of the first three brought back was the friendly tattletale Pigmon. Poor Pigmon….
- Ultraseven 43 “Nightmare on Planet 4” – oh, god, this episode is a trip.
- Return of Ultraman 37 “Ultraman Dies at Sunset” – Ah, the start of the “it sucks to be a friend/lover of Ultraman” trend that permeates the Showa period; two main cast members get fridged pretty hard in this one.
- Return of Ultraman 38 “When the Ultra Star Shines” – The first major crossover in the franchise sees Hayata and Dan returning (briefly) to resolve the Black King/Nackle two-parter.
- Ultraman Ace 52 “Tomorrow’s Ace to You” – it’s weird that this is the only Ultraman Ace episode on the list. I mean, I guess Jumbo King sets the precedent for fusion monsters, and this is the series finale, but I thought there were stronger episodes earlier on. Then again, Yuko was written out of the show for being unpopular, so there’s no accounting for taste.
- Ultraman Taro 53 “Farewell Taro! The Ultra Mother” – another episode that’s iconic for being a series finale, but not necessarily the strongest in the series imho. The Valky alien is neat (actually a rejected design for Ultraman Leo), but the shark-whale kaiju is sort of meh. Still, Kotaro’s split with Taro and departure for another life are pretty memorable.
And the winners were:
- Ultraman 39 “Farewell, Ultraman!” – of course this one would make the list! One of the two best finales in the entire franchise, Ultraman actually dies at the hands of the genuinely unnerving “space dinosaur” Zetton, and we find out that there are other, more powerful Ultras out there with the appearance of Zoffy!
- Ultraseven 26 “Super Weapon R-1” – this episode was banned after the Fukushima disaster, wasn’t it? I guess they changed their minds. Anyway, this one doesn’t immediately leap out of the pack as Ultraseven episodes go (mostly because Ultraseven is excellent), but it is a solid story with a good moral (don’t go around blowing up planets without checking if they’re populated first) and the monster Gyeron is a moderate powerhouse. It’s a little conventional, but that ain’t a bad thing.
- Return of Ultraman 34 “The Life That Can’t be Forgiven” – as I said before, this one is basically a proto-Godzilla vs Biollante by the same author. The ending is a bit of a downer, as most of the episodes that got elected were.
- Ultraseven 42 “Ambassador of the Nonmalt” – okay, this episode has world building with a LOT of interesting potential, and it’s been pretty much ignored by subsequent series. There’s another sentient, technologically advanced, space-faring race of hominids native to the earth, they were forced to live in the ocean by humans’ ancestors, and… they just never get mentioned again. I mean, the various underground people also get ignored more than they ought to, but they do show up every once in a while at least.
- Ultraman Leo 40 “MAC Annihilated! Those UFOs are Alive!” – Ultraman Leo started off fairly dark, then course corrected to be light and goofy for about 25 or so episodes, and one has to wonder: did they do that just to gut-punch us with the most brutal episode in the entire franchise even harder? My theory was that they only had the cast signed for 39 episodes, and needed to phase out some actors, but this episode goes overboard with wholesale slaughter of the entire defense team (save the main character), the love interest, and even the token children aren’t safe. All you do is watch and exclaim “holy crap” to yourself over and over as the series transitions into an arc that’s pretty much hell for all of the surviving characters.
- Ultraman Taro 34 “The Last Day of the 6 Ultra Brothers” – I always thought the thematics of this episode were interesting in relationship to the previous one; the prior is all about being self-sufficient and not relying on others, while this one is about not being arrogant and valuing teamwork. It’s easy to see why this one got picked: the heroes of all of the previous shows come together, with the original human actors all on-screen at the same time as well, a feat that has never been reproduced. The villain in this one is Temperor, for those keeping track at home.
- Ultraman 23 “My Home is Earth” – The story of a human astronaut mutated into a giant monster is a classic Ultraman tragedy and certainly one of the essential episodes. Also, since Jamilla’s grave at the end says the year is 1993, it throws a royal curve-ball into the continuity of later series (guess they just forgot).
- Ultraseven 8 “The Cursed Town” – Absolutely an episode I would show to anyone. From the frenetic camerawork during the brainwashed rampages at the beginning, to the surreal scene of Dan and the Metron alien sitting in an apartment discussing invasion plans over tea, to the gorgeous sunset battle at the end, this one is a winner. Plus, let’s face it, “the aliens are poisoning our cigarettes” is a storyline that we’re probably never going to see done again.
- Return of Ultraman 33 “The Monster Tamer and the Boy” – another tragic one, reminding us not to judge people (or aliens) based on their appearances, with a secondary environmental message. On top of the monster Muruchi being released when the alien Mates was murdered by an angry, paranoid mob, Mates’ son came back for revenge in one of the Ultraman Mebius episodes.
- Ultraseven 49 “The Greatest Invasion in History (Part 2)” – no surprise here either. I’ve seen the scene where Dan reveals his secret identity to Anne parodied in numerous shows since, and it’s one of the iconic moments that sticks out in the entirety of Japanese television history. I mean, on top of that, there’s also the whole desperate struggle to save the planet, while Seven’s dying because he refuses to abandon Earth during this invasion. Interesting camera work and classical music really amps up the tension for what’s commonly recognized as the best finale in the series. Pandon is a neat monster, to boot.
Anyway, on to other news of the week, for a super quick recap:
- Ultraman Orb is on Crunchyroll! They kept us in suspense until a couple of hours before the Japanese airing, the jerks. (*that’s sarcasm, by the way*) Anyway, it seems pretty wacky/goofy based on the first episode, and most of the fandom is already drawing comparisons to Doctor Who. Thunderbolt Fantasy is up now, too.
- A look at Godzilla on Crayon Shin chan, July 22:
- Batman Unlimited has a super robot movie coming out. I’d rather see this in the theater than the lackluster-looking Killing Joke adapation.
- Tsuburaya is looking for TV pitches under their new Tetsuo Kinjo Award program. It looks like the top prize is a million yen, so here’s hoping they get some cool new creative talent out of it.
That’s a wrap for news this week; not as much as normally, but we do have another update hitting in a bit. As usual, leave a comment if we forgot something, and hope to see folks at G-Fest!