Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ultraman Appreciation

A Guide to the World’s Biggest Hero

In 1966, a new kind of super-hero appeared on television screens across Japan known as Ultraman. Much more than a simple Japanese version of Superman, Ultraman was a being from the galaxy M78 who came to Earth in order to protect humanity from the assaults of rampaging daikaiju, evil aliens, and other malevolent threats. Over the years, the Ultraman franchise has blossomed into not just a record-holding series of spinoffs, but a phenomenon that held Japan, nearly all of Asia and even other countries in the protective silver gloved-grasp of the Giant of Light and his many relatives.
Unfortunately, since the late 60's, Ultraman has yet to gain a giant foothold in one key location: the United States. While the original series, as well as its sequel, Ultra7, were broadcast on US television, Ultraman has had very little luck with American audiences since then, as nearly every attempt to being him to our shores fails to a surprising degree. Why is this? Could it be the SPFX are too jaded for American children (despite the same principles used in the still-popular Power Rangers), or could the awful dubbing and editing be giving baby-boomers headaches?
Regardless, I decided to make this little journal entry to catch some of my devWatchers up on the goings-on of this super-hero...I mean, if he’s been around for 40 years, he must be doing SOMETHING right.

“Who IS Ultraman?”
Ultraman was a creation by Eiji Tsuburaya’s SPFX company in 1966 during the Daikaiju craze. Characters like Godzilla and Gamera were at the height of their popularity, and since Tsuburaya himself brought many of these beasts to life, why not make a TV show out of the concept?
Ultraman was, at the basic level, portrayed by an actor in a latex suit, and wrestled likewise rubber-suited monsters each week. The show, something of a sequel to UltraQ, a Twlight Zone-esque series, was a smash hit, and spawned more than 15 sequel series, at least a dozen movies, cartoons, direct-to-video specials, live stage shows, and an endless string of merchandising.

“What is an Ultra-Warrior?”
An Ultra-Warrior is any manner of “Ultra” being in an Ultraman series. Ultraman himself was just one of many “Ultra Warriors” throughout the galaxy, and he himself is usually referred to by fans as “Ultraman the First.” Each Ultra after has an official name attached to him (or her) to distinguish between them, besides their appearances. Each individual Ultra-Warrior is unique, from their appearances to their basic fighting styles and abilities, and even their personalities.
An Ultra is not, in fact, a flesh-and-blood being, but rather a combination of metallic substances and mechanics as well as “The Light.” All Ultras are powered by this energy, which is debatable as to exactly what it is...it seems to be both a combination of ultraviolet radiation as well as an empathetic connection with humanity, particularly an Ultra’s “Deunamist” (more on that later). Regardless, Ultras, when wounded, literally bleed light, so it’s obvious as an Ultra’s lifeblood. The physical aspect of an Ultra (as recently revealed in Ultraman Tiga) has been revealed to be minerals and various metals created by the Ultra’s “true forms,” which instead of creating a mechanical being, rather simply provides a solid foundation for the Ultras to interact on a more physical level with the rest of the Universe.

So, where did the Ultras come from? What exactly happened to them? There are various stories and theories according to different series, but the origin that is considered most “cannon” is that of the original “Showa series,” but through much research, I’ve made something of an “all inclusive origin” (if you prefer to keep universes separate, then no biggie) -

Time before time, legend before legend, before good and evil, and before recorded history, there was darkness, and there was light. Light and Dark warred with each other for centuries, one sometimes defeating the other, but the other always returning to challenge the former victor. As the Universe developed, so did Dark and Light...
30 Million Years ago, Earth was home to a surprisingly advanced civilization of homo sapiens. However, a war soon raged between the humans and a race of savage beings called the Kileil, and before both sides could destroy each other, THEY appeared...the Giants of Light. Nobody knows where exactly they came from, though they may have been beings created at the beginning of time itself...regardless, they arrived on Earth and fashioned for themselves bodies of the rock and soil of the planet itself. Together, they stopped the war, and the Kileil were banished to the shadows of the Earth. The humans and Ultras then began to live together in peace, the Ultras forming an empathetic bond with the humans, and the humans learning new and wonderous technologies from the Ultras.
However, one fateful day, the darkness came once more. Armies of horrible monsters, created by the power of the darkness, swarmed over Earth. The Ultras fought and fought, defending both the humans and the new City of Ultra, until when it seemed like victory was at hand, the humans fell to the power of a monster with the ability to create indifference and carelessness in a human spirit...thus, the Ultras lost their touch with humanity. Many of the Ultras wanted to rule over Earth, since they believed that humanity was unfit to care for the world. It resulted in a civil war amongst the Ultras...but the final blow came from a new kind of Ultra Warrior....the Dark Ultras.
However, the Ultras eventually left Earth, having defeated the darkness, but no longer wanted by an uncaring humankind. The darkness remained, however, so the Ultras would one day return...

260,000 years ago, in the Nebula of M78, a small planet with an advanced civilization not unlike Earth’s former inhabitants, floated about in relative peace around a mighty sun. One day, fate took a bizarre turn, and the sun began to fad and grow dim, whether by machinations of a dark force or otherwise. Fortunately, a being called the Ultra Elder created a mysterious power source called the “Plasma Spark” on the small planet to keep it alive.
Fate has a way of making things interesting, of course...the Plasma Spark emitted a strange energy called the “Differator Ray,” and the first to be exposed to it were two caretakers of the Plasma Spark, a man and a woman, and the energy began to change them...
Over 200,000 years, the people of the small world evolved beyond the need for flesh and blood bodies, and became strangely similar to the Giants of Light that once roamed the universe...could the Ultra Elder be....?
30,000 years ago, a mighty beast called “Emperor” appeared and attacked what had become legendary as “The Land of Light.” The invasion was fended off by the Ultras, and the Ultra Elder decreed that the warriors use their newfound powers to create the Space Garrison, an intergalactic police force dedicated to protecting worlds from the ravages of creatures spawned by the darkness that created Emperor.
Over the millenia, the Ultras spread their influence, forming more “homeworlds” for new generations of Ultra beings (such as L-77, Z-95, U-40 and TOY-1).

As the Ultra series grew in size and depth, it became the first franchise in Japan to have fan-based magazines and trivia (and I’m not just saying that...). Fan trivia is always fun, and here are some of the bigger aspects of the Ultra-universe to familiarize oneself with:

“Deunamists” -
The vast majority of Ultras are incapable of existing in Earth’s current atmospheric condition for more than a few minutes. This has been attributed to pollution, air density, molecular differences, the ozone layer, and the like, but regardless, an Ultra’s energy will begin to deplete rapidly while fighting on Earth. Thus, the Ultras require a human host while protecting the planet. These human hosts are called “Deunamists,” (as recently coined in the series Ultraman Nexus) and are chosen for a number of reasons: sometimes it’s out of obligation, such as Ultraman the First’s ship colliding with Science Patrol operative Hayata’s jet. Other times, a human of exceptional courage, determination and kindness, who happens to be at the “right” place at the “right” time (such as a monster attack) will be chosen by an Ultra to be a human host (such as Ultraman Max). Other times, a human’s very DNA and/or physical makeup determine his (or her) right to inherit “The Light,” (ala Ultraman Tiga and Nexus).
It’s unclear as to exactly how an Ultra remains unseen by the human eye while with a Deunamist, but it has been recorded that Ultras can speak with their host on a psychic level, but never take control of their host’s body or mind.
Not all Ultras have Deunamists, as some, such as UltraSeven and Ultraman Mebius, can actually change their physical appearence to look and act like humans so that they may directly observe human behavior and interact with other homo sapiens.

“Henshin!” -
Nearly all Ultras have a “Henshin Device,” or transformation item, which, when activated, releases a small amount of “The Light” and activates a molecular transformation in the Deunamist to bring out the Ultra Warrior within. Henshin devices come in many forms and functions, and are activated in different ways as according to the device itself.
Some Henshin devices come in an impressive variety, but most are hand-held items (the Beta Capsule). There have also been small masks (the Ultra-Eye), bracelets (the Mebius Brace), necklaces (the Delta Pendant), curious little trinkets (the Beam Flasher), and even everyday items (Zearth’s electric toothbrush!).
Not all Ultras require transformation items...some, such as The Next, have merged so completely with their host that sheer force of will can transform them.

"Luminizers" -
As we well know, Ultra Warriors are powered by the Light. However, they have learned to harness this power into attacks called Luminizers (coined in the US dub of Ultraman Tiga). Luminizers shape light in such a way that it can achieve a large number of effects. Sometimes a swipe of the hand can emit a cutting disc of energy, such as the Ultra Slash, other times a force field can be created. The most powerful attack in an Ultra Warrior's arsenal, however, is what could be collectively called an Alpha Stream, which varies from Ultra to Ultra. Ultraman the First utilizes the Specium Beam, while UltraSeven fires the Wide Shot. Ultraman Tiga uses the Zepellion Ray, and Ultraman Max has the Maxium Cannon. Most if not all Alpha Streams are fired by collecting a huge amount of energy, often through the ColorTimer or an Ultra's chest armor, and fired from the hands but creating a T or L shape when crossing them.
There are other abilities for Ultras to make use of, such as Seven's Eye Slugger or Ultraman's Ultra Current, and while the Light is utilized to control these powers, and even warp matter around an Ultra (in case he or she needs to put out a fire or levitate something) these aren't "natural" Light-based abilities and are thus not considered "Luminizers."

“Kaiju and Seijin” -
Ultras are gigantic in their natural fighting forms, and this seems to be a response to the giant beasts that plague the universe. Kaiju are long time foes of Ultra Warriors, and as many of you know, come in all shapes and sizes, from mutant dinosaurs to giant bugs to fire-breathing fish to mad robots run amuck. Monsters like this can be naturally occurring and simply awoken by man’s foolish designs, whereas others are giant mutants that are the result of humanity’s arrogant pollution of this precious planet.
Ultras rarely show compassion towards such mindless destroyers, but sometimes an Ultra will see that a kaiju needs to be put down because it is suffering, or will even remove the creature and find it a new home.
Many a monster is actually the result of a malicious consciousness that seeks to destroy Earth: Some of the first monsters to menace Earth were the giant beasts of darkness called Golzas which fought against the ancient Ultras millions of years ago. The Gudis was a living amalgamation of mutagenic bacilli that began to transform normal animals into ferocious beasts. The Chaos Header sought to turn normally peaceful Earth kaiju into beasts of ravenous destruction. The Entity of Root Destruction sent outer-dimensional monsters to Earth to tear it apart.
Seijin (aliens) are no strangers to the Ultra universe. The Ultras, being aliens themselves, have created alliances and enemies across the galaxy. Earth, however, has been called “the jewel of space,” and is coveted by many a hostile species. The aliens that appear are just as numerous and various as the kaiju that appear on the planet (Earth has been identified as well as having the largest number of different species in the whole galaxy).
One alien species of particular note could be considered the Decepticons to the Ultras’ Autobots, and they are the infamous “Baltan-seijin.” Horrible and malignant, the Baltans have had a long-standing rivalry with the Ultras, as it seems as though their intent is to invade and conquer planet after planet, making them true space-locusts. Baltans, however, seem to be very tiny in their natural forms; they number in the thousands and millions. There are a select few Baltans that are meant for battle, and they are all as gigantic as the Ultras themselves (but are also capable of size-changing ability). Despite being such a massive thorn in the Land of Light’s side, it seems as though, in recent years, the Baltan threat has been largely squelched by the Ultras. Apparently, the Ultras finally wised up and aided the Baltans in finding a new homeworld where they wouldn’t have to plunder other races of their own...of course, there are always exceptions to the rule...

“The Dark Ultras” -
The Ultras are not perfection. Wherever there is light, it will always cast a shadow, and the Dark Ultras ARE that shadow. Dark Ultras come into existence by a number of ways, but largely, it tends to be Ultra Warriors and Deunamists who are tainted by the Dark, and give in to selfishness, greed, hatred, and lust for power. This results in Ultras like Kamilla, Dark Zagi, and Evil Tiga.
Dark Ultras can be every bit as strong, fast and intelligent as Ultras of Light, and are frequently the most deadly enemy an Ultra can face...but usually, the lesson learned is that, while the Dark relies only on itself, the Light takes strength from itself and others as well, thus, the Dark is pushed back into oblivion...of course, it will come back. It always does...


DaiKamonohashi said...

The original Ultraman did well enough in the states to make up childhood memories of LOTS of older adults I've run into over the years. There are quite a few who are all, "Alright! Ultraman!" when they see my shirt. :)

Jacob said...

Those sketches are rather good.

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