following article appeared in G-Fan
#77, edited and produced by J.D. Lees (Daikaiju
Enterprises Ltd, 2006). Many thanks to J.D. Lees
for providing the opportunity and Brett Homenick
for suggesting it in the first place. |
Giant Against Giants:
Ultraman for the New Millennium
29 of the recent Ultraman Max TV series asks
the pertinent question "Why Do Monsters Keep Appearing?"
That monsters will appear is always taken for granted.
One by one (or even in groups) they stomp into view:
gigantic mutant reptiles of all kinds, sky-filling venomous
blobs, huge deformed snails that shoot laser beams from
their eye-stalks, multi-headed insectivorous freaks,
gargantuan bovine thingamajigs, vast eye-monsters on
thin wobbly legs (with cat-tails and a malicious meow,
would you believe?), elephantine chimaeras, malformed
mega-scorpions with death rays in their stingers --
the parade of monstrous absurdities is endless.
But why do they keep appearing?
Over the total span of the Ultra series and movies,
various approaches to answering this question have been
offered. Some are much what we'd expect, harkening back
to themes common from other daikaiju eiga, such as nuclear
mutation, environmental pollution and alien invasion.
After reaching an advanced level of development (so
one argument goes), humanity must face trial by monsters,
where the monsters are metaphors for the problems caused
by technology and an expanding population. Other answers
are much more self-referential and even more metaphysical;
an example of this from Ultraman Max neatly
illustrates why this rather simple-seeming revisionist
version of the hero is so interesting.
29 of the series begins with a TV panel discussion between
three prominent (fictional) experts on the topic of
why monsters keep appearing. Dr Yoshinaga, a scientist
attached to DASH (the human combative taskforce assigned
to deal with kaiju when they appear), offers Japan's
unique geographical instability as a possibility. A
sceptic scoffs at this and rather enigmatically takes
what appears to be an existentialist view: the monsters
simply exist and that's all there is to it. The third
panellist -- a scifi author named Sahashi -- points
to the fact that kaiju have been imagined since ancient
times and have become a core component of the Japanese
psyche. This idea is expanded upon later in the episode
when he explains that kaiju appear because humans want
them to. They are an image of great power and have fired
the imaginations of so many people since childhood (where
personal power is at a low point) that monsters have
been manifested via the gestalt human imagination into
(the show's) reality. Very postmodern.
cue, in the
midst of the discussion, a kaiju turns up and begins
trashing the city, DASH takes to the air and the usual
mayhem results. Suddenly, the episode takes a detour
in black-and-white flashback to the making of a TV show
several decades before. This TV show is called Ultra
Q. It transpires that the author Sahashi and a
bartender, Nanamaru, whom main characters Mizuki and
Kaito meet just as the monster attacks, were involved
in the making of Ultra Q -- and they recognise
the kaiju. Its name is Ox Ghost Galenka and while they
were filming back in their younger days Sahashi and
Nanamaru had had to fight it off. Galenka had been smaller
then; now it is huge.
Max is summoned to wrestle with the monster and is being
beaten until the bartender tells him that the monster's
weakness lies in its tusk (as he had learned in the
past by breaking one of them himself). Ultraman Max
shatters the remaining tusk, but does not destroy the
kaiju. Instead, when the monster begins to cry, Ultraman
carries it off to a remote region where it can live
in peace apart from humanity.
the end of the episode the narrator repeats the question:
"Why do monsters keep appearing?" and answers
-- as the personnel from the early days of Ultra
Q and current members of DASH come together to
greet each other -- "There may not be only one
is of course self-evident, as the episode has illustrated.
Yet while there are answers offered within the context
of the show's central narrative, there is another answer
suggested by assorted direct references to the history
of Ultraman itself. The show mentioned in the story,
Ultra Q, was the real-world precursor to the
first Ultraman series in 1967, and the three main stars
of that show play prominent roles in this episode of
the new Ultraman incarnation -- Hiroko Sakurai as Dr
Yoshinaga (who also played Fuji in the 1967 original
Ultraman), Kenji Sahara as the author Sahashi and Yasuhiko
Saijo as Nanamaru.
implication of this tribute to Ultraman's origins is
obvious. The monsters keep appearing, it suggests, because
that's what Ultraman is about: a big costumed hero from
space, in league with a bunch of human defenders, fighting
big multi-formed monsters from under the Earth, from
outer space, from other dimensions -- or at any rate
from somewhere. This show is a variant of daikaiju eiga,
or giant monster sub-genre of Japanese fantasy cinema,
and without the monsters (or, more correctly, kaiju)
there is no Ultraman. So of course the monsters must
appear. They don't have a choice.
more than that, the monsters are what viewers want,
and they've wanted them with undying (if occasionally
fluctuating) enthusiasm for 40 years. What better time
to dramatically illustrate this fact than during the
40th anniversary celebrations of Japan's most popular
self-referential quality suggests a sort of adult sensibility
at odds with the show's main demographic -- children.
But that's one of the appeals of Ultraman.
As with shows such as the long-running British scifi/fantasy
Dr Who, Ultraman appeals to children
on a base level while maintaining enough story appeal
and variable sophistication of concept to keep adults
interested as well. As a generalisation, it seems to
me that the Japanese are rather good at this; they've
certainly mastered it in their anime. They expertly
tap the child in the adult and are able to exploit that
inner child's hunger for the incredible. This means
the show rarely plumbs the very darkest depths of human
nature (though it touches on it at times) and through
most of its history has moderated violence with cartoon-like
absurdity, yet nevertheless it succeeds in creating
a metaphorical structure that is unique, energetic and
thoroughly entertaining to all ages.
the millennium, there have been four main incarnations
of Ultraman (as well as supporting variants),
plus another currently airing on Japanese TV: Ultraman
Cosmos, Ultraman the Next, Ultraman
Nexus, Ultraman Max, with the newbie Ultraman
times, these millennial Ultramen have been extraordinarily
experimental, though wide-ranging variations of tone
are characteristic of the show generally. Some have
taken an adult X-Files SF-horror approach (for
example, Ultraseven: Evolution), some have
stressed human drama, some (such as Ultraman Zearth)
have emphasised slapstick comedy, while others have
offered Ultraman and his race a greater role. Nevertheless,
knowing how far they can push the formula is a skill
the creators have struggled with on and off. For, along
with continual kaiju, the giant hero himself, spaceships,
ray-guns, city-destruction and intergalactic wrestling
matches, formulaic plotting is an over-riding feature
of the show.
some folk criticise the Ultraman series for being repetitive
– the same old thing week after week, series after
series. And indeed to some degree they're right. But
for the show's legions of fans, Ultraman is
not so much repetitive as ritualistic. There's a big
difference. Repetition merely recreates the same structures
through lack of imagination on the part of creators,
with little essential variation and no real commitment.
Ritual follows archetypal base patterns in order to
express meaning -- and to encourage meditation on that
meaning -- through the performance of certain symbolic
actions. It embraces the audience, makes them feel comfortable,
while offering a foundation upon which the creative
imagination of its creators can build a rich, entertaining
structure of variations on the theme.
is a transcendental quality about ritual. All sub-genres
of the arts have this ritualistic aspect; it provides
a sort of template so that creator and audience don't
have to rebuild their relationship from scratch every
time, but can forge ahead with new variations from a
position of familiarity. Even when the rug is pulled
out from under them, the audience still has a general
idea where they can plant their feet to regain balance,
if need be.
we look at the essence of what makes Ultraman, we can
see what variations are set in place to give it its
continuity. The basic elements of the concept are these:
is tokusatsu, or a SFX-driven show.
features giant monsters that turn up to attack humanity
and its cities on a regular basis. The forms of these
monsters are thoroughly fantastical, with little attempt
made to justify them in naturalistic terms.
The main focus for the protagonists is an Earth Defence
Force, which utilises advanced technology and other
scientific expertise to combat not only the giant
monsters but also any other invading alien menace.
The Defence Force is variously made up of men and
women who fall into certain categories: the brave
and good-natured hero (usually a pilot), the sensible
(and senior) leader/captain, a competent and heroic
vice captain, another pilot or two (often a good-humoured
rival to the hero and a superb fighter), a nerdy technical
expert (and comic relief), female clerical assistant/computer
operator (who may play a combative role if necessary),
and a young boy hanger-on. Variations on these stereotypes
are usual. Sometimes a government official will have
a recurring part to play.
The Defence Force headquarters is a high-tech base
with a central control room full of viewing screens
and computers, and a large, complex hanger bay from
which the aircraft take off.
Of course, there is also the central superhero, one
of a race of space giants from Nebula M-78, who bonds
with a human host (usually the pilot protagonist of
the Earth Defence Force) and manifests once it becomes
clear that the Earth Defence Force can't handle the
problem on their own. The human host must raise aloft
some sort of talismanic device and call the name of
the hero to bring him forth.
Ultraman inevitably fights -- World-Wide Wrestling
style -- with the monster, until finally utilising
his ability to focus and manifest a light beam or
energy stream through hand movements. Generally he
can only spend a limited time on Earth (3 minutes)
before a crystal on his chest starts to change colour
and blink, indicating that he has to wrap things up
with haste or be exiled from the Earth forever. This
gives the show an inbuilt urgency.
Each Ultraman has one or more alternative aspects
or modes -- different sets of abilities that can be
accessed depending on the need. These are represented
by changes to his "uniform" (colour and
helmet shape), so that he becomes, in effect, a different
Ultraman destroys the monster, often with the help
of the Earth Defence Force. Ultraman and the Defence
Force enter into a mutually supportive relationship
to achieve their self-sacrificial ends.
The overriding message is one of optimism about mankind's
future and a plea for humanity to recognise its responsibility
in forging that future.
elements appear in some form or other in every Ultraman
series and every movie, though it is the often minimal
variations to the formula that give each incarnation
its distinctive quality. Over time, a degree of continuity
has developed between series, but more typically each
series represents an alternative reality and starts
again from scratch, often referring to legends of the
"ancient giant" who had appeared to help mankind
in the past. I suspect that attempts to find a coherent
chronological progression in the series as a whole are,
however, doomed to failure.
new Millennium has brought with it a particularly self-conscious
determination to experiment with Ultraman and
evaluate the franchise -- at a practical level, driven
by network dissatisfaction and perceived audience indifference.
Tsuburaya Productions conceived a show called Ultraman
Neos in the mid-1990s, intended to be an Ultraman
for the new millennium, but it was not taken up as it
was felt that there was little to differentiate it from
the shows that came before. Elements of it fed into
Ultraman Tiga, which was a somewhat different
take and proved a great success, spawning several other
Ultra shows and ultimately the extremely successful
Ultraman Cosmos. Ultraman Neos/Seven21 did
eventually see the light of day when it was resurrected
in a direct-to-video format on 22 November 2000 on the
tail of Cosmos' success. In a way, then, Neos is the
first Millennial Ultraman. It is fair to say that attitudes
toward the Ultraman concept as typified in the history
of this show have led, post-2000, to a number of very
distinctive Ultra shows and movies.
Shows (and Associated Movies)
Ultraman Cosmos (Urutoraman Kosumosu -- series aired
between 7 July 2001 and 20 July 2002: 65 episodes)
Ultraman Cosmos: First Contact (prequel feature
film, released 20 July 2001)
Ultraman Cosmos 2: the Blue Planet (feature
Ultraman Cosmos vs Ultraman Justice: the Final
Battle (feature film, 2003)
Ultraman Nexus (series aired between 2 October 2004
to 25 June 2005: 37 episodes)
Ultraman: The Next (Urutoraman -- theatrical
film, released 18 December 2004)
Ultraman Max (series aired between 7 July 2005 and
25 March 2006: 39 episodes plus one special)
Ultraman Mebius (Urutoraman Mebiusu -- series aired
from 8 April 2006 and still running as of this writing).
Cosmos, the Pacifist
is said that the central conceit of Ultraman Cosmos
came from concerns over the effect of TV violence on
children. There is an inherent violence in the Ultraman
formula, even though it has been continually moderated
by the cartoon-like absurdities of the presentation.
Tsuburaya Productions decided to take a different tack
with this show, and in Ultraman Cosmos they
attempted to create a kinder, gentler Ultraman and to
thus re-define in some sense the idea of strength. Not
a bad aim to have, it seems to me, and a reasonably
and his human host (Musashi, played by Takayasu Sugiura)
care about the monsters, which are seen as occupying
a legitimate place in the scheme of things. The world
is theirs as much as humanity's, and the struggle for
the humans therefore becomes one of finding a way of
avoiding the inevitable destruction the kaiju cause
without actually killing or badly injuring them. This
is not easy, as it both creates a degree of internal
conflict and puts the Earth Defence Force -- in this
case known as EYES -- at odds with members of the country's
more traditional military forces. (EYES is apparently
an Anglicised version of the Japanese term JI AIZU,
which is a combination of two words meaning "love".)
In the course of its lengthy run, the show managed to
examine the many implications of this theme, including
the ethical dilemma inherent in self-defence, that is,
how do you resist violence without resorting to violence,
and in what circumstances is it simply unavoidable?
some ways the show recognises the difficulty of maintaining
a workable level of narrative conflict under these strictures,
especially over the long haul. So the creators introduce
a series-spanning plot arch; the Earth comes under attack
from an alien viral invader, known as Chaoshead, which
can infect Earth-matter, especially the monsters, changing
them into powerful, irrational menaces that are no longer
susceptible to kindness. The infected kaiju actually
morph into fiercer-looking, more dangerous versions
of themselves -- mutant super-monsters of ordinary mutant
monsters! This allows both DASH and Ultraman Cosmos
to engage in some iconic fighting with the infected
kaiju, usually until Ultraman weakens them sufficiently
that he can use his special energy-draining or calming
beams against them.
innovation that allows for narrative conflict is the
fact that Ultraman Cosmos has several modes. His primary
or base mode is called his Luna mode, a pacifist mode
reflected in his appearance by a crescent-shape on his
helmet and intended to indicate his nature: "like
the tender light of the moon, a blue giant of gentleness".
He does not injure or destroy the kaiju but attempts
to corral them and keep them away from built-up areas.
In this mode, Cosmos uses his various calming weapons
and defensive capabilities.
should the need arise thanks to Chaoshead aggression
or sheer unforgivable intractability on the part of
the kaiju, he converts to Corona mode, which is a super-combative
mode that includes access to more destructive beam weapons.
Nevertheless, this mode is only a last resort and injury
thus caused to the kaiju is to be regretted.
final mode called Eclipse mode is revealed midway through
the series. In this mode, which represents courage,
Cosmos has access to some very deadly weaponry and it
is these he must bring to bear when he finds himself
unable to drive the Chaoshead virus from his opponent
and is left with no alternative.
from the pacifist agenda that underlies this particular
series, Ultraman Cosmos remains a fairly orthodox
version of the Ultraman paradigm. The Chaoshead plot
develops toward the end and provides an overarching
theme, but otherwise each episode has its own unity
(with occasional ongoing episodes that provide a midway
cliffhanger). Each episode generally brings its own
plot and monster, albeit with a focus on the central
pacifist dilemma. EYES is made up of standard types,
the actors playing them giving the characters considerable
individual appeal. Though some fans bemoan the "bleeding-heart"
softening of Ultraman caused by the emphasis on the
need to find peaceful solutions, the show proved to
be very popular and its stars became celebrities (to
the extent that the young male lead Takayasu Sugiura
became involved in a national controversy that nearly
destroyed the show midstream, when he was accused of
bullying -- falsely, it was later revealed). Overall,
despite inevitable low points, the show's much-improved
production values (including some decent use of CGI)
and appealing cast make it an entertaining series; and
with its overarching themes it achieves a unity that
some earlier shows did not have. It was, however, aimed
squarely at a young audience, though as always it has
sufficient sophistication and adult appeal to cross
age boundaries, at least to some degree.
theatrical films appeared in association with this incarnation
of Ultraman. The first, Ultraman Cosmos: First Contact,
is a prequel in which the very young Musashi meets Ultraman
Cosmos under dire circumstances that are eventually
resolved by communal singing! The bond that grows between
them carries over into the show itself, which is set
some years later. The second film, Ultraman Cosmos:
The Blue Planet, explores ideas of human evolution
and responsibility in an effective and visually impressive
way, and is perhaps the most impressive of the three.
The third film, Ultraman Cosmos vs Ultraman Justice:
The Final Battle, pits Cosmos against a female
Ultra, who had appeared in the show as an ambiguous
ally/rival and who here interprets some of Cosmos' less
pacifistic behaviours as a violation of his mission
code and seeks to dispense hard justice as a consequence.
This is the most morally complex of the films and, in
a way, a culmination of the theme.
N Project and Ultraman Nexus
so-called Ultra N Project which followed was
a deliberate experiment by Tsuburaya Productions to
re-invent Ultraman, and brought on changes more radical
than the thematic "reconciliation" overlay
of Cosmos, even if they didn't stick.
Project began in 2003 with a successful radio adaptation
of Ultra Q, the original Ultra series. This
led to plans for a new TV series. An Ultra character,
Ultraman Noa, was developed in the first phase of the
project, called Noa: Nostalgia. Noa appeared
in stage shows and was set to have progressed to a planned
TV show, though in the end it never eventuated. Instead
the project moved on to a second phase -- Next: Evolution.
This produced a theatrical film, Ultraman: The Next
(2004), undoubtedly the best incarnation of Ultraman
on the big screen and an excellent daikaiju eiga in
its own right. This one is not classifiable as a children's
film as such, but targets the sort of older general
audience that other daikaiju eiga, such as Godzilla,
Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS (which was roughly
contemporary with it), tend to draw on. It has excellent
SFX and a sophisticated plot, full of well-constructed
ethical dilemmas and thematic complications, as well
as interesting human character interaction. It also
features top-notch daikaiju spectacle. The show's theme
mixes a positive Tsuburaya-esque optimism into the darker
thriller elements and ends on the sort of sentimental
note that Tsuburaya himself was fond of, without becoming
overly saccharine about it.
The Next himself sports a radical design: less superheroically
colourful and more dark and edgy. There is a metallic
quality to his appearance that previous Ultras have
only had in the area of their headgear, and barely then.
The sense of "body armor" is strong and "rubber-suit"
absent. This is a super-cool Ultraman, less comicbook
and more scifi. The design works well within the context
of the narrative (which jettisoned the Earth Defence
Force aspect of the template almost entirely), though
in appearance he seems barely to be Ultraman at all.
more mature nature of the film is reflected in the TV
series that followed as Phase 3 of the Project -- Nexus:
Nexus is a totally unorthodox rendering of Ultraman,
as far from the template as you could get without actually
leaving it behind. Where Ultraman Cosmos clearly targeted
children while keeping an eye on a general audience,
this new series was consciously made for adults. That
objective proved to be a big problem for the show, but
in principle the ambition was an admirable one. It resulted
in a series that is at times breathtakingly good, a
radical reworking of the concept that takes it to places
it has never gone before.
don't plan to say much about the storyline as the show's
various mysteries are so absorbing I wouldn't want to
spoil it for the uninitiated. Who knows? One day, the
show may be released officially in the West with decent
subtitles -- we can only hope. In the meantime, I will
settle for generalities that don't give too much away.
contrast to previous Ultraman TV series, Ultraman
Nexus is dark and gritty – a scifi noir form
of the show, as it were; this one is no bright comicbook
adventure. Much of it is filmed in shadows and at night,
and violence can be sudden and deadly. In this Ultra
incarnation, both monster and human aggression is discomforting
and destructive – and in that context death and
injury can and does come to the general public, the
main characters and even Ultraman himself. We have seen
such extremes in Ultraman before, but in this show there
is rarely any going back. As in real-life, death tends
to be terminal.
addition, the Nexus universe spawns treachery and sinister
conspiracies galore. Assorted government organisations
are involved in monster defence, both official and covert
(there is even a Men-In-Black style unit, the Memory
Police, whose job it is to wipe the memory of any civilians
who catch sight of a Space Beast). What some of these
organisations are up to is what drives much of the plot.
And it would be foolish to assume that normal Ultra
certainties regarding the apparent transparency of comrades
and allies apply. Hardly any of the characters are what
show's central focus is on Night Raider, the combat
division of a secret international defence organisation
(TLC), which is where the main protagonists are located.
Night Raider is an elite corps of fighters and pilots
who must deal not only with giant monsters, but with
the hidden agendas of other secret organisations and
the machinations of various alien powers, whose tentacles
may or may not reach right into TLC itself.
contrast to previous shows the point-of-view character,
Komon Kazuki, is not the human channel (here known as
a Dunamist) for the light-giant Ultraman. That
honour, at least for a significant part of the series,
goes to a freelance photojournalist named Himeya Jun,
whose memories of past tragedies haunt him and drive
him to self-sacrificial extremes. Being Ultraman's alter
ego is no picnic in this series; wounds sustained in
battle by Nexus have consequences for the Dunamist,
for example, and uncertainty abounds. And the influence
works both ways. The Nexus' creators go to some trouble
to establish that the space warrior's fighting style,
abilities and emotional state are tied to the personality
of the Dunamist. There is no easy separation between
human and Ultra. This is a significant complicating
factor and drives much of the narrative.
the show's narrative structure is quite different to
that of the standard Ultraman series. The "monster
of the week" mentality is nowhere in sight as the
series weaves a cryptic course through a labyrinth of
conspiracies, mysteries and personal odysseys, working
its rather intense way toward the inevitable -- and
narratively well-integrated -- apocalyptic climax. In
the course of that journey, the Dunamist role changes
several times, and we learn that not all of the human
hosts are quite human. Some episodes feature neither
kaiju nor Ultraman, who only occasionally gets to wrestle
kaiju in the time-honoured fashion. More often the fights
are fast, brutal and oddly realistic, given the fantastic
the much of the series, the kaiju themselves are relatively
"realistic", too; the usual colourful array
of imaginative absurdities is largely absent. In fact
there are only a few types of kaiju (or Space Beasts)
and they prove harder to exterminate than is typically
the case, turning up again and again according to a
sinister plan that only time and much struggle is able
to unravel. More outlandish types of kaiju do enter
the scene eventually, such as one weird monstrosity
whose form is based on Munch's "The Scream".
But unlike earlier series, such extremes are not frequent
and when they do turn up their underlying symbolism
is fairly strong. Meanwhile the viewer is treated to
personal crises, much soul-searching and angst, Dark
Ultramen, Dark Spaces, spiritual possession, the mysterious
Prometheus Project, cross-temporal battles and final,
hard-earned redemption -- in the form of another Ultraman.
short, Ultraman Nexus is to the original Ultraman what the new Battlestar Galactica is to the
old series: a thorough, darkly sophisticated re-working
of the basic concept, stressing an ongoing storyline,
complex characterisation and mature dramatics.
This less "fun", more serious Ultraman did
not go down well with many fans. Moreover, the network
perversely aired the show at the usual children's timeslot
of 7.30 on Saturday morning, despite its obvious adult
orientation. The kids were understandably confused by
it and its adult audience never connected with it, so
ratings proved poor. It has developed a following on
DVD since, as such left-field endeavours often do; but
none of this encouraged Tsuburaya Productions to go
ahead with a planned feature film version. As an experiment
Ultraman Nexus may have proved a great artistic success,
but it was a conceptual failure nevertheless.
the ratings failure of Ultraman Nexus, Tsuburaya
Productions decided to return Ultraman to its old formula
– and they did so with a vengeance.
new series, Ultraman Max, reinstated the single-episode
structure that is most characteristic of the franchise.
But more to the point, it brought back all those basic
elements that I listed earlier. Once again the kaiju
attacks became a cavalcade of extravagant absurdities
-- a joyful celebration of monstrous diversity and imaginative
indulgence. In fact, the design work is arguably even
more "out there" than in earlier Ultra series,
with monsters that defy logic on almost every level.
the tone of Ultraman Max is light-dramatic,
humorous, even at times slapstick and absurdist; the
technology used by the Earth defence Force is wildly
archetypal, with even the classic female computer-operator
stereotype becoming a sexy and endearing android named
Elly; the characters become less angst-ridden and conflicted
(though some such elements remain) and display the sort
of wholesome good-humour that existed in the early series.
The plots -- mostly confined to a single episode --
are lively and adventurous, with lots of Ultraman vs
kaiju action, a heap of comedy and an open, colourful
atmosphere. No brooding emotional turmoil here.
only does the series re-assert the franchise's essential
elements, Ultraman Max harkens back to the
original 1967 series in ways that make it nostalgically
appealing to those now-grown-up kids who were its earliest
fans. It is, in many ways, a celebration of Ultraman's
beginnings. The opening credit sequence signals this
by visually replicating elements from the first Ultraman's
opening: silhouettes of both Ultraman and the kaiju
against a colourful background.
classic monsters from the debut series, such as Antlar,
Red King, Gomora, Pigmon, Eleking and the infamous Baltans,
are resurrected, benefiting from a bigger budget and
enhanced technical expertise – re-designed for
the new millennium. As in the already-mentioned Episode
29, original actors from Ultraman's past return, some
of them in major ongoing roles: Susumu Kurobe (protagonist
Hayata from the original Ultraman) plays General Kenzo
Tomioka; Hiroko Sakurai (computer-gal Fuji in the original)
plays Professor Yukari Yoshinaga; and Masanara Nihei
(Mitsuhiro Ide, or "Ito") plays Professor
Deta, a lesser but rather iconic role.
attraction of the series is the use of well-known auteur
directors, Shusuke Kaneko (of the Heisei Gamera trilogy
and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters
All Out Attack) and Takashi Miike (controversial
director of the gruelling horror film Audition,
as well as the ghost flick One Missed Call
and Yokai Daisenso or The Great Yokai War).
Whatever you think of their work, these two very individual
directors are a distinct drawcard and bring a unique
sensibility to the Ultraman Max episodes they helm.
In particular, Kaneko's two-part finale benefits from
the director's big-screen experience.
Max features the occasional experimental episode, such
as the uniquely stylised "Butterfly's Dream"
in which the episode's screenwriter dreams that he is
Ultraman in an alternative reality; new monsters take
on a life of their own, and fiction and reality crossover
in bizarre ways. Miike's two episodes – "Who
Am I?" and "Miracle of the Third Planet" – are similarly weird. In the first the world
suffers an attack of amnesia, so that even Ultraman
Max finds himself unable to remember who he is and how
to fight the weird one-eyed cat-monsters that turn up
to plague DASH. Miike's second episode is a very touching
tale, with a hard edge, about a young blind girl whose
musical ambitions are thwarted by a giant monster –
and features one of the strangest and most poignant
endings of the lot, as the girl's flute-playing changes
the kaiju into a vast conglomeration of instruments
producing gentle musical riffs.
up, Ultraman Max is an excellent series that
fully captures the fun aspects of the Ultraman franchise.
It looks good, the monsters are beautifully constructed
to maintain a connection with the past while improving
their appearance technically, the scripts are varied
in approach and tone, and the actors are engaging enough
to make their fairly standardised characters memorable.
There's a perfect balance maintained between sentimentality
and suspense – and almost always the show is thoroughly
Ultraman Max was a great success for the network and
Tsuburaya Productions, and as such has probably sealed
the fate of further attempts at the more challenging
and sophisticated approach taken by Ultraman Nexus.
the time of writing, the series that followed on from
Ultraman Max -- Ultraman Mebius --
is currently airing on Japanese TV and very few episodes
have been available for viewing. What is clear, however,
is that the show has taken much the same route as Ultraman
Max, without the same level of attention given
to celebrating past shows. It does, however, boast a
similar combination of adventure, comedy, light-drama
and kaiju absurdity.
titular Ultra is a "rookie" version of Ultraman
– a mere novice who is sent to Earth by the Ultra
father and mother in the first episode and must learn
the ropes for himself as he goes. One major difference
between this and previous shows is that his human aspect,
Mirai Hibino, is not a "host" as such, but
is actually Ultraman himself in human form. This doesn't
seem to influence the plot much, though it does mean
he more readily becomes a target for the ongoing villain
of the piece – a powerful alien woman with a long,
the final outcome for this particular series, it is
clear that Ultraman remains a viable franchise
that has taken up the challenges of genre repetition
and has managed to survive well into the new Millennium.